In a decade at the helm of fashion’s pre-eminent organization, STEVEN KOLB, President and CEO of the CFDA, has treated it more like a corporation than a trade group. His approach has paid off with record revenues, the successful revival of the men’s shows, the acquisition of the Fashion Calendar and lucrative partnerships with companies like Cadillac and Amazon, sponsors of New York Fashion Week: Men’s. His vision for the next ten years is even bigger, he tells The Impression.
BY CONSTANCE C.R. WHITE
Steven Kolb stands at the threshold of his CFDA office, a light-filled space in New York’s trendy West Village. At 54, he is a trim, compact man whose rectangular jaw is emphasized by square, thick-rimmed glasses and neatly-tailored jackets which he prefers be American made. Right now he favors sweaters by menswear darlings Orley. There’s no affectation or haughtiness to Kolb’s game, just a fair amount of no-nonsense directness. He describes his look as “American disheveled,” as in: “There’s always something a little off,” like a button missing or a tie askew. “I guess if I were 20 years younger I’d do the drop crotch pants, but I’m a bit too old for that.”
In his younger days, the Village was ground zero for the fight against HIV/AIDS and Kolb was a fundraiser for the leading activist group battling the disease. These days, his work is more corporate and less grassroots. It’s not a matter of life and death, yet he’s just as passionate and proactive about his cause today as when he worked for DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS).
Kolb has now logged a decade with his hands on the wheel at the CFDA, steadily steering it forward while transforming himself from tentative outsider to quintessential insider, which, loosely, means he speaks with designers regularly; when he says Anna he means Wintour; and, generally, earns his living attending to the kind of minutia that makes the wheels of fashion turn. During show week, he is a familiar yet low-key figure who attends dozens of presentations. It’s faux-glamorous (he gets a front-row seat every time), but it’s actually a really exhausting and peculiar part of the job that he has had to overcome a natural shyness to do.
But it’s not the end of the road for Kolb. He’s ready to tackle bigger challenges, like stocking a war chest to the tune of $25 million. “With that, I think, there’s opportunity for a greater expansion,” he said. He has reason to be optimistic. Annual revenues have grown at a rapid clip from $3.5 million in 2005 to $15 million in 2015.
The money will go primarily in four directions: education, media, manufacturing and an overhaul of Fashion Week.
CFDA Media, as it’s called internally, will bulk up with new staff, publishing partnerships and a reimagined website, one that emphasizes an editorial approach rather than, say, the company newsletter. A year ago, Kolb hired Marc Karimzadeh, a former editor at WWD, to serve in the newly created position of editorial and communications director. Freelancers and additional staff will contribute to the site.
According to Kolb, CFDA Media is “not something we’re branding, but the objective is to be more of a media company. A lot of companies are staking claim to their content.” Why not the CFDA?
Across America, the loss of factories and jobs that come with them have left swaths of the landscape with hollowed out buildings, ghostly remnants of productivity. In fashion’s garment center in Manhattan, the factories have been replaced by luxury offices and pricey apartments, a threat to fashion’s viability.
Kolb wants to create a manufacturing hub in New York City and the CFDA has already donated about $ 2 million to support factories. The CFDA is working with the city to find a suitable location. It could include a subway ride to Brooklyn. Wherever it is, it will be a handmaiden to two successful lifelines for young design companies, the 14-year-old Vogue Fashion Fund and the Fashion Incubator, which was introduced four years ago. It has put folks like Public School’s designers and Prabal Gurung into a 2-year business development program.
Kolb assures that veteran designers, too, will begin to see more educational initiatives to support their professional and business growth.
But the move that could have the most dramatic impact is Kolb’s decision to do a 360 evaluation of Fashion Week. A report commissioned by the CFDA is due from Boston Consulting Group in mid-February.
The central question, said Kolb, revolves around: “Is the present fashion show system broken, now that we are operating in a world of technology?”
Because of the web, designers get gobs of publicity, but it’s starting to seem like they may not benefit proportionally from this information deluge fueled by show week. Do runway presentations still help build brands and – let’s be honest – sell clothes? Is that $100-$200,000-show worth it?
Birthed some 60 years ago, the New York shows were just a loose group of American designers presenting their wares to the trade, largely hidden from public view. Understatement: They were nothing like the global spectacle they’ve become, attracting hundreds of photographers, retailers, editors, bloggers and marketers transmitting millions of images around the world, in many cases instantaneously.
You might think this is, undoubtedly, a good thing. I would argue, you could be wrong. “Shows should have a more buy-now factor,” said Kolb. By the time a shopper’s ready to pull out her credit card, she’s seen the image of that sexy, red Ralph Lauren dress on Valery Kaufman so many times she’s confused, and she’s “consumed” it repeatedly with her eyes. Does she even know what season it is?
The report could shake the industry to its boots. And if that’s the case, Kolb is ready. “What’s the Helmut Lang factor in this disruption?” he said, referencing the influential Austrian designer who in the Nineties switched his runway presentation from Paris to New York and set off an international furor. Others followed suit and ultimately changed the order of the major shows around the world, with American designers kicking off first.
The CFDA has always existed to support and promote the work of American designers. Membership – generally coveted by designers, with a few outliers over the years, including, at one point, Marc Jacobs – has expanded from about 260 designers ten years ago to over 500 today, including his boss, Diane Von Furstenberg.
Kolb just expanded the staff to 25, with strategic partnerships being key to future revenue. Without this expansion, designers could well have found themselves victim of fashion’s growing popularity. As more people lay claim to a piece of fashion, a strong CFDA may be one way designers remain central to their industry.
Kolb never expected to lead the CFDA for more than five years. “My goal was to go one more year than my predecessor,” he said. Now, although he has a full life outside of fashion, spending time outdoors with his partner and their dog Donna in his home in rural Pennsylvania, he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I don’t want any other job. I’ll have to take it one day at time.”
When he first took the job, Kolb said, “I was an outsider. What made me stand out is I was not a fashion person. Now I guess I can say I’m an insider.”
Insiders never really become outsiders again. You’re La Familia for life.