Christina Zabat-Fran
Alumna Christina Zabat-Fran. (Steve Zylius/UC Irvine)

When Christina Zabat-Fran started her freshman year at UC Irvine in fall 2001, she heard other students joking that the omnipresence of cranes and other machinery on campus meant that UCI now stood for “under construction indefinitely.” But she took a different perspective. “I saw it as a positive,” she says. “UCI has a great entrepreneurial spirit. Unlike our older peers in the University of California system, we’re always building something, and we have opportunities to start things new.”

A proud Anteater, Zabat-Fran has embraced that pioneering ethos as her own. After graduating in 2006 with a double major in political science and arts & humanities, she joined the inaugural class of UC Irvine’s School of Law, where she earned a J.D. in 2012. Zabat-Fran has carved out a corporate counsel career in the luxury fashion industry that draws as much on her artistic interests as her formidable legal skills. And in January, she became the first Filipino American – and only the second Asian American – to be elected president of the Orange County Bar Association, the second largest in California. “The spirit of being ‘under construction indefinitely’ speaks to my core,” she says, “because that’s what I am too.”

An Orange County native, Zabat-Fran credits her UC Irvine instructors for helping shape how she sees the world. As president of the Campuswide Honors Student Council, she connected with the honors program’s founding director, physics professor Roger McWilliams. “He taught me to think widely and to think big,” she says. Catherine Lord, professor of studio art, nurtured her passion for sculpture and “was a great champion,” Zabat-Fran says. “She could see that I wanted to take my artistic mind and pair it with community leadership and business in a nontraditional way.”

While working in public affairs for different government agencies after graduating with her bachelor’s degrees, Zabat-Fran recognized a pattern. “I knew I wanted to be a leader,” she says. “All the fantastic leaders I encountered had law degrees.” She distinguished herself in the UC Irvine School of Law’s inaugural class by helping launch the Student Bar Association and the UC Irvine Law Review, for which Zabat-Fran served as co-editor-in-chief and leveraged her art background to design its cover. “To be able to establish some of those key foundational pieces within the law school was an inimitable experience,” she says.

During a short-term position at St. John Knits while still in law school, she discovered that the luxury fashion house founded in Southern California in 1962 was a perfect fit for her. Over the next 12 years, Zabat- Fran worked her way up from an entry-level legal analyst to the top legal post of global general counsel and corporate secretary of the enterprise.

As a vertically integrated company, St. John Knits runs its own workshops, stores and offices around the world. It sells to high-end retailers in 16 countries. Zabat-Fran became fluent not just in Italian and French but in supply chain, manufacturing, intellectual property and loss prevention matters. She most enjoys working closely with the brand’s creative directors. “I love the creative process,” Zabat-Fran says. “I love being able to work with designers and artists on such issues as contracts and marketing to help bring a product to life that is worn and loved by so many people. Artists think differently than business people; I’m glad to serve as a translator between them.”

She uses those same skills in her pro bono work for California Lawyers for the Arts, helping emerging designers get their businesses off the ground. “You don’t have to separate what you do and what you love,” she says. “The more ways you can weave what you’re passionate about into your skill set, it makes things so much more fulfilling.”

After the Lanvin Group acquired St. John Knits, Zabat-Fran was promoted in February 2023 to general counsel (North America) and corporate secretary for the China-based parent company, which owns five distinct brands. “I’m focusing on bringing people together across teams in different countries and different time zones who [have] different cultural approaches to our work,” she says. “In one country, they might make a deal on a handshake, but in another, it takes a 60-page agreement. So I’m working hard to be a good mediator.”

The Orange County Bar Association has been a vital resource for Zabat-Fran throughout her legal career. “Corporate counsels often have limited resources and work in small teams,” she says. “The bar has helped me find mentors in my field. Having the strength of the bar association behind me means I have nearly 10,000 members I can call on for insights, referrals and gut checks.”

She found an incredibly inspiring mentor in fellow Anteater Lei Lei Wang Ekvall, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information & computer science in 1988 and who served as the OCBA’s first Asian American president in 2010. “When I was a young lawyer, Orange County Lawyer magazine would hit my desk every month and featured such impressive, impactful attorneys,” Zabat-Fran says. “I never knew how I could be like them. And then one day, the cover featured Lei Lei. She was female. She was Asian American. She had a [double] last name. I said out loud, ‘She’s like me. I can do this!’”

With Wang Ekvall’s encouragement, she pursued leadership positions within the OCBA. After chairing several committees and serving on the board of directors, Zabat-Fran was sworn in as president in January. She intends to strengthen the relationship between the bar and UC Irvine and nurture a new generation of diverse legal leaders. “I’m half Asian. I’m an older millennial. I’m an in-house counsel. I studied the arts. I worked in a completely different field before law school. I want people to know, ‘This is what your lawyer can look like,’” she says.

In her induction speech, Zabat- Fran evoked the spirit of bayanihan, a cornerstone of her family’s Filipino culture, which calls on people to be a part of something greater than themselves.

“Everyone who wants to be involved in the OCBA can have a role,” she says. “This bar is their bar. Everyone will always have a seat at the table.”