Law school was incredibly boring, Whitney R. McGuire says. She initially hated it, but then her first-year property law professor told her about fashion law and at the time, Fordham University had just started its Fashion Law Institute. They were getting ready to put on a symposium.
“So, I went to the symposium my first year and just was like, Okay: these are my people, they’re speaking my language. I’m learning about labor issues in the fashion industry, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions––all types of legal issues that I’ve always been very fascinated by and interested in.”
McGuire was a student at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. After attending the Fordham symposium, she returned to D.C. energized. She worked with some students from the Howard University School of Law to produce a Fashion Law Week—a series of events focused on educating the public about fashion law and the legal issues that affect the fashion industry. After law school, she took on various internships and law-related jobs throughout D.C., but eventually decided to move to New York City because she really wanted to practice fashion law.
“And New York, at the time, in terms of intellectual property, had pretty good law firms that specialized in creative industries,” she said.
Catching on in a new city took some time. She did consulting work; clerked with a federal judge; advised artists and art institutions about hybrid legal, business, sustainability, and equity issues. At one point, she even moved to Las Vegas to work on trademark issues.
But realizing that she wasn’t doing the work she loved, McGuire decided to establish her own law firm. She returned to New York and continued advising recording artists, fashion designers, and other creatives about their intellectual property rights, while also writing and hosting workshops about sustainability and fashion.
“There was this kind of overarching conversation about the labor issues impacting the fashion industry and fast fashion, but nobody was really…addressing it from the perspective of the communities that are most impacted by unsustainability—the lower-income communities, the Black and brown communities,” McGuire said she thought to herself. “I rarely ever saw people from these communities being represented in these conversations.”
With her own law firm and having become the mother of a young son, McGuire joined with environmental educator and community advocate Dominique Drakeford to co-found Sustainable Brooklyn, an organization designed to combat the white orientation of sustainability issues. Sustainable Brooklyn conducts workshops and promotes information about the sustainability movement and ways to stave off climate change.
“Sustainable Brooklyn was really meant to educate and reclaim sustainability through the lens of the African diaspora and educate communities, like the ones from which we’ve come, about sustainability and fashion, agriculture, and well-being industries,” McGuire said. “Sustainable Brooklyn was…like my entry point into becoming a subject matter expert in this space: merging the intellectual property conversation––the theft of intellectual property and cultural appropriation––[with] how that leads to ultimately a culture of waste when it is based on a colonial framework, which is really what the fashion industry is based on.”
Her work on sustainability has now led to serving as the director of sustainability at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
McGuire is the first person in the country to lead a major art institution in sustainability; the Guggenheim is the first major art institution to establish a director of sustainability. Her job is to help the museum reorient its institutional culture so it focuses on sustainability.
“With our buildings and facilities, for example, I’m tasked with making sure that our emissions are in line with Local Law 97 and with the Paris Agreement, and that we’re drawing down our carbon [footprint] overall; that we’re auditing our waste, our water, our energy usage. And I advise our facilities director on the necessary upgrades that would help us meet those targets.” McGuire also ensures that when the Guggenheim puts up an exhibition, it meets the institution’s sustainability goals. She conducts staff workshops and works with the museum’s curators and exhibition designers to do carbon audits on upcoming exhibitions and to track shipping and travel emissions.
McGuire’s new role at the Guggenheim has found her traveling to speak out about the urgency of investing in cultural preservation and the importance of climate finance fundraising. She regularly travels across the country and around the world to talk about educating communities about sustainability. “This idea of reclaiming sustainability through the lens of the African diaspora is a resistance to this capitalist urge to buy into sustainability––or to be told that our community is ‘less than’ because we may not be practicing sustainability as it’s packaged and sold to us in the mainstream media,” she said.
“This idea of reclaiming sustainability is an empowering way to engage with our history and our culture––and cultures––and practices that have sustained us for generations and to highlight their importance. We need to ensure these practices are passed down to our children.”