Katherine Neukomm Wants You To Get Your Bag
The New York-based lawyer, who was formerly counsel to Vogue and W Magazine, now represents creative talent and fashion businesses. And she's making sure everyone is winning, fair and square.
Katherine Neukomm is a California-bred, New York-based lawyer — one that you definitely would't want to come up against. Sure, she's a soft-spoken, fashion-loving, art-educated glamour girl. But her words are sharp and, to put it simply, her brain works really well. Despite her roots, Katherine doesn't relate to the relaxed nature of Californians. "It's a bit of a mismatch. I am the living embodiment of whatever the opposite of laid back is," she tells me. The lawyer came up at Condé Nast, where she was a legal associate for Vogue and W.
Now, as Manhattan's it-girl lawyer, Katherine owns her eponoymous law practice, KJN. She represents creative talent and small businesses. In this economy, where the individual is often the entity, her craft is more important than ever before. Read on for how she ensures everyone is getting their deserved justice and their bag.
Let’s start from the beginning. What was your first job?
I was a salesperson at Fred Segal, which lived up to its name (and seems to have opened recently on Lafayette Street). I was in the section called FUN which among other things specialized in Juicy Couture, which meant I soon had a drawer in my UCLA dorm room designated for terry and another for velour, which I always think of as an integral part of my college education.
What was your longest job? And tell us, in your words, what your doing now.
I was in-house at Condé Nast for a number of years before launching my law practice, KJN, ESQ. There I was the designated associate for Vogue and W, and later, became general counsel for W when it was sold in 2019. I was that person who had never thrown a copy of Vogue away, so you can imagine what it was like to negotiate contracts on behalf of the magazine and to access the archives in the name of rights research. In a word: formative. When I launched my law practice, I went from representing the publications to representing talent, but the milieu remains the same. I now represent a number of creative talent agencies as well as individual photographers, artists, writers, content creators and strategists, fashion brands and of course, Byline.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I chose mainly based on which profession would allow me to wear the greatest number of blazers. My negotiations always seem to go better in something dark blue and double-breasted.
Was this something you always wanted to do?
Always? I’m not sure. Though I did carry a briefcase to school for most of fourth grade so maybe it was an inevitability. My background is in English literature – I published some poetry in college – and I never saw the law as a departure so much as an addition. In a lot of ways, at least in the sort of law I practice, it still revolves very much around language – close reading, what words mean, how slight changes can have huge (and practical) consequences. That being said, I am grateful to live in an age of multi-hyphenates, and recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to returning more directly to writing, in addition to my law practice. (I am very pleased to announce that I will be writing a column on negotiation for byline, coming soon.)
What you would consider to be your #1 passion?
Fashion, definitely. And by that I also mean decorative arts, the arts, Paris, cardstock of a certain thickness, etcetera. And speaking of Paris, it’s a passion bifurcated much like the couture ateliers, in part atelier flou – ruffles galore! – Simone Rocha, Giambattista Valli, Shushu/Tong – but also very much atelier tailleur, tailoring, stripes, the perfect white button down.
What would you say is the most interesting or rewarding part of what you do?
For me, it’s all about the work. I had a law professor once who said it was an honor to be paid to think. I would add that it’s an honor to represent artists in whose work I believe, to strategize as to the details of a work’s release and also to protect its underlying rights, to provide counsel during the various stages which comprise the artistic process, to advise on both individual projects and an artist’s overall trajectory and call it work. It’s advocacy for what I lionize most. I love clothes, but the best kind of property is intellectual property.
How do you intertwine your formal work with your passions? Is that something that has always come naturally?
This is a great question. I pursued the career path I did precisely so that it would intertwine with my interest in the arts and in fashion. The latter almost always prevails: if I had a chance to attend a session of the Supreme Court or the Chanel couture, there really wouldn’t be much of a decision to be made (hello boucle!). But in truth, each underscores the other, and just as I could never imagine practicing law outside this particular field, neither could I picture my interest in fashion without the BTS vantage point made possible by this work.
What would you tell creatives about why it’s important to have legal representation?
I think there’s a bit of a misapprehension around this so I’m very glad to be talking about it. “Fashion lawyer” is sometimes met with interest but more often it’s the sort of revelation that causes people to back away at parties. I think it can connote a sort of litigious infringement troll or anti-creativity policing troll when in reality that is not at all what I do. There’s really no trolling whatsoever. Very little is antagonistic or even adversarial – it’s largely collaborative, and always with the aim of protecting, enhancing and otherwise bolstering creativity. It’s essentially someone in the artist’s corner, looking out for their interests, with the ability to distill that protection into a legally-binding document.
A lot of that is done through negotiation – well before the first photograph is taken, and certainly before any issues arise. I don’t think you can necessarily learn negotiation from a textbook but there is that example of two people squabbling over the last lemon and when someone finally asks why each is so invested in that particular citrus, it turns out one needs the juice and the other the peel. I always want to be that person asking why. The artist has someone advocating on their behalf who not only understands the subject matter but who can in turn think creatively in terms of possible solutions. And of course, in a collaboration, where the artist benefits, the entire project benefits. It’s 1+1=3. There’s some fashion lawyer math for you.
What’s the craziest project you’ve ever worked on?
Let’s say it started with incensed K-Pop fans and ended – happily, surprisingly – with a collaboration. Much more I can’t say. Confidentiality is of course at the foundation of what I do.
Also, I am crazy excited about a project I launched recently – Signature Line – a line of “ready-to-sign” contracts created specifically for creative projects. These are agreements specific to the industry: fashion photography, motion, styling, production, licensing. But at a budget-friendly price point, far below what it would cost to hire a lawyer to create a bespoke agreement. It’s meant to serve those just starting out or forging their own ways of working creatively. In fashion terms, it’s my diffusion line.
What would you say is the biggest legal term/bullet/clause that most people overlook, that is really important to understand?
Things move so quickly that oftentimes the emphasis is on the deliverables, due date and fee. But there’s currency in so much more than those immediately tangible deal points. What about modification once the work is turned in? What about usage outside of the original project? Shouldn’t the photographer have a say if their work is to be paired with an artist whose work they abhor? What about promotion? Can we ensure that one artist isn’t given more of a boost, monetarily or otherwise, over another in what is ostensibly a group project? All of these can be pre-negotiated. Their potential impact might not be as quantifiable in terms of one’s bank balance but their effects have the potential to be broader-reaching. And as social media continues to transform and various technologies gain traction, the contract terms should be evolving alongside quite closely. I’ve seen fax numbers in contracts, and an outdated template is a missed opportunity to advocate for one’s client. It’s absolutely standard that a social media credit is closely negotiated – whether posts, stories or live – and designating how AI may be used alongside the work, if at all, is of course a timely question. There the emphasis is often on making sure that the artist’s content can’t be used to generate derivative works. Plus, there’s the added benefit that once these terms are negotiated once, you’ve set a standard that – unless under unusual circumstances – should always be maintained because it’s what you always get.
What advice would you give young people to make sure their work is legally protected?
First of all, this is not legal advice. But to this I would say: this is likely not the moment for humility. Imagine the museum retrospective of your work in a half a century, and make decisions from that place. Do you want a series of blank walls at the beginning because you don’t own your early work and were just happy to be included? That being said, the industry is very close-knit and your reputation and ability to work well with others is the through line. Straddling that dichotomy successfully – absolute conviction in your work paired with conscientiousness and even affability – will serve you well. As would finding a lawyer who gets it, and gets you.
Who do you look to (role models, mentors) as you lead a career that very carefully straddles creative and corporate worlds?
Anyone starting for themselves. Anyone thinking for themselves. I also admire those whose intellectual contributions are imbued with elegance. My former boss at Condé is one example of this – once the technical is mastered, what follows makes it memorable. And of course, Jackie O. Not only for her third act as an editor but for the unforgettable maxim “Minimum information given with maximum politeness.” This is the essence of how I run not only my law practice but my day-to-day life: everything is negotiable except good manners. And please, no superfluous details.
What’s your biggest aspiration?
Published work for posterity, a collaboration of my own – not least so that I can negotiate on my own behalf – and quelle surprise! a Parisian pied-à-terre that, with any luck, is in the 7th.