A stitch in time: Attorney heads up firm's fashion, design law team


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Fashion is a $200 billion-plus industry in the United States — and the state of Michigan is finding ways to get a piece of that pie. It’s an exciting time for attorney Deanna Swisher to lead Fosterfashion, Foster Swift’s fashion and design law team.

The specialty is a perfect fit for Swisher, who grew up appreciating the skill and ingenuity involved in transforming fabric into something useful.

“My mother, like her mother, learned to sew out of necessity,” Swisher said. “My grandmother made clothing for her children and made her own dresses. When a dress was worn out, the useable fabric became an apron, when the apron was retired the useable parts were cut into squares for a quilt – not a decorative quilt, but a much needed blanket for one of the three beds that somehow managed to hold a family of eight.”

While she learned these very practical skills from her mother and grandmother, Swisher’s life was much easier.

“Thanks to parents who made my life easy and supported my education, I had the opportunity to appreciate the expressive, artistic side of fashion and how our clothing reflects, and sometimes shapes, our cultural surroundings,” she said. 

“For me, fashion is all of those things — utility, ingenuity, personal expression, and cultural interaction. Fashion law is a wonderful vehicle for taking what I’ve learned through years of litigation — particularly the value of a clearly worded contract, using the law and good strategy to minimize risk and leverage your position, and of course negotiation and team building – to help the people that make fashion possible.”

Fashion law is an unusual niche in the Midwest, but Swisher sees the landscape changing.

“The fashion and garment industry is emerging in states that historically haven’t been ‘home’ to designers, due in large part to the high cost of doing business in New York City and L.A.,” she said.

Swisher grew up in a “DIY” household that didn’t hesitate to design and make things — clothes, elaborate Halloween costumes, things for the home, even building additions to homes.  However, her small hometown of Crawfordsville, Ind., was certainly not a fashion mecca.

When Swisher was college-bound in 1979, she headed to Indiana’s  “teachers’ college,” Ball State University, where fashion was, according to Swisher, of no apparent interest to anyone. Finding the teaching curriculum didn’t interest her, she earned an Honor College Degree, a major in political science, a minor in economics, took advantage of a program for studies in London, and enjoyed classes in sociology and humanities.

“None of which prepared me for any particular job, and like most political science majors, I went to law school, but without any idea what it meant to ‘practice law.’  I didn’t know any practicing attorneys and I’d never been in a courtroom,” she said. “I knew I liked to read, analyze, solve problems, and help people.  Fortunately, practicing law turned out to be a great fit.”

In 2012, Swisher discovered the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University in New York City, when her daughter was considering attending a fashion school.

Inspired by a one-day seminar at Fordham — home to the first fashion law institute in the U.S. – Swisher wondered how she could justify two weeks to attend the Institute’s intensive program.

Then she saw an announcement for The Runway, a fashion incubator preparing to open in the historic Knapp’s Centre, in Lansing, across from her office, and she quickly enrolled at Fordham.

“Although preparing to counsel the fashion designers at The Runway was the justification for my short return to law school, Fosterfashion is serving designers and manufacturers outside of The Runway,” Swisher said.

Foster Swift formed Fosterfashion in late 2013 and a blog under that name was launched in October 2014.

“We’re enjoying the opportunity to share our collective experience in the areas of law that are important to fashion designers, manufacturers, exporters, importers and retailers,” Swisher said.

“We hope our commentary will help participants in the fashion industry identify risks and avoid disputes.”

Swisher said that from time to time, the blog “will share a personal view on the intersection of fashion and culture, in hopes of provoking a laugh, a thoughtful discussion or, ideally, both.”

Fashion isn’t the only “hat” Swisher wears.

She specializes in commercial and employment litigation, and is a member of the Banking, Finance and Real Estate Practice Group.

Named among Best Lawyers in America since 2009 (commercial litigation), many of her commercial cases address banking and real estate topics, and shortly after joining Foster Swift she put her familiarity with agriculture — gained through the farmers in her extended family — to work representing grain elevator co-operatives.

She continues that work as a member of the firm’s Agricultural Law Group.

“Litigation is such a great mix of working with clients and learning about their industry and how their business works, engaging in analysis and research specific to their needs, reducing all of that to writing, and understanding — or attempting to understand — how judges and opposing counsel are thinking and how you can move them, in court or negotiation, in a direction that will benefit your client,” she said. 

Swisher enjoys working in a competitive, intense environment. 

“Commercial litigation is a great fit for someone who loves to learn how things work, and employment litigation is, in contrast, great for anyone who is fascinated by human behavior – the mix is great,” she said.

“However, I’m drawn to very expressive, inventive fashion design that is rarely appropriate for representing clients in court,” Swisher added with a smile. “As the fashion industry emerges in Michigan, I think we’ll all enjoy an opportunity to be more creative when we get dressed in the morning.”

Swisher and her husband, Nick Stonebrook, a police officer for the City of Williamston, live in Okemos.

Their son, Ian Stonebrook, a graduate from Michigan State University’s Broad School of Business, is a senior staff writer for NiceKicks.com in Austin, Texas. 

Their daughter, Devon Stonebrook, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Taubman School of Architecture, also calls Austin home, where she handles custom laser design for MakeATX, and designs and makes her own line of laser-cut acrylic, leather, and wood handbags and wallets.

In her leisure time, Swisher, a self-styled NPR junkie, loves take things apart and remake them; and enjoys working out at the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC).

“It’s my home away from home,” she said. “I love my workout, a warm up run, weight lifting and boxing, and healthy food.”

She has given back to the community by serving as president of the Board of Trustees of Michigan Montessori Internationale, Inc.

Her current passion is leading The Friends of Reutter Park.

She hopes this once-neglected area named for J. Gottlieb Reutter, mayor of Lansing from 1912-18, which sports a huge fountain in his wife’s memory, will become a shared space and enhance the downtown community.

Swisher was inspired to help with this project after walking by a large, public square in Cincinnati, where the downtown work crowd enjoyed their lunch hour.

“That shared, urban space seemed so special to me — I was just a visitor walking by, but I could see what a sense of community was created by that shared space,” she said.

She also volunteers with Operation Santa, an organization providing gifts to local elementary school children who would otherwise receive nothing at Christmas. 

“A friend introduced me to the program years ago,” Swisher said. “It brings back memories of the two toys at my grandmother’s house, given to my mom and her siblings through a local charity,
on what would have otherwise been a very bleak Christmas. I have the great pleasure of working with many generous people who don’t hesitate to share their good fortune through Operation