By Kenneth Richard | The Impressionist
Fashion has its fair share of influencers, but it is difficult to find one who has profoundly impacted and help mold the industry as much as Fern Mallis has.
Mallis, who previously was senior vice president at IMG Fashion and executive director of the CFDA, is the creator of New York Fashion Week. Along the way of building a fashion institution, she championed both up and coming designers as well as rallied established guns to help elevate American fashion to a global stage.
Since 2011 Mallis has hosted the popular Fashion Icons w/Fern Mallis talk series, which has featured interviews with Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Polly Allen Mellen, Marc Jacobs, Betsey Johnson, Vera Wang, Suzy Menkes, and Oscar de la Renta to name a few. The series delves deep into the the careers of fashion luminaries and offers fascinating and compelling perspectives of the fashion industry’s most talented, successful, and legendary personalities.
Mallis adds author to her long list of accomplishments with her new book Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis published by Rizzoli. The collection of nineteen of her in-depth series of interviews combines never-before-seen personal photographs from interviewees with her intimate approach of a tête-à-tête.
The Impression sat with Mallis on the eve of her book launch to chat about how she got her start, the CFDA, New York Fashion Week, American fashion, becoming an interviewer, and her new book.
Fern, congratulations on your new book and am really looking forward to hearing more. Before diving in I was curious, how did you get your start?
I got my start growing up in a family that was very creative and talented, my dad worked in the Garment District, as did all of his brothers, so I grew up going to the Garment District and falling in love with the business. I studied fashion design in high school, and also won a best-dressed award — clothing was always very important to me. I won a Mademoiselle guest editorship in a college competition and that got me my first job out of college at Mademoiselle magazine, which kind of started my career.
What did you do for the magazine?
When I was at Mademoiselle, I was a guest editor first with 19 other women who were selected from all over the country to work there for a month. It was quite a special opportunity. Then I was hired shortly after that to go to college campuses, recruiting people for the college boards and contests that we were running. Then I became a merchandising editor, doing retail store promotions all over the country, traveling to every major department store in America. And that’s kind of where I was when I left to go to Gimbels East as the store’s fashion director.
Having the magazine plus the merchandising experience makes for a pretty well rounded view that I’m sure served you well. How did CFDA come about?
For years I had a public relations business, then worked in the interior architecture world and became VP of a big design center in Long Island City. Then the real estate boom kind of crashed and the economy crashed and it was time to figure out something else – nobody was buying a million square feet worth of furniture for any buildings at that moment. The CFDA was actually looking for a new Executive Director after their very first benefit called Seventh on Sale, which was their first attempt to raise a lot of money for AIDS back in 1990/91. I kept reading articles in WWD about their endless search for a new director – at that point the director had been working in a tiny office no bigger than a closet; it was a good friend of Perry Ellis actually. So I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I was one of the last people to do so after many, many people were interviewed and they had already selected their finalists. I just stuck my foot in the door and got the job.
Thankfully – you turned that into something! How did you take a role that was run out of a closet and turn it into an iconic institution?
When I started I said, ‘This can’t be the headquarters for the American fashion industry!’ Then we did evolve it and grow it, hired some people, figured out how to really have a voice that mattered, changed the logo with the assistance of my friend, Michael Beirut of Pentagram, to the iconic logo it is now. We essentially created the foundation for the office in ten years. Under that office, I was doing the same thing during work hours, doing Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, doing more Seventh on Sale AIDS benefits before we shifted gears to breast cancer, and then certainly very early on, created another division called Seventh on Sixth, which was creating Fashion Week.
I don’t think people understand how disenfranchised New York fashion shows were prior to you pulling it together. What were the hurdles in those early days?
They were pretty monumental. I was trying to create something that had never been done here before, trying to get more than three designers to do something in the same space and to understand what that meant, and trying to open doors to Europe and Asia for everybody to come to some organized outreach for what was happening in America. You know, if there were 50 shows, there were 50 different locations. …Not unlike the way it is now, unfortunately. It’s kind of come full circle again.
Except it’s 350 shows.
And they’re in 350 different locations now.
So, you know, it was a spectacular moment in time. All the planets were aligned and everything made sense and I used a lot of common sense in trying to put it all together.
Well, you did a spectacular job and I want to thank you for helping American fashion get unified. What do you think would be a next positive step for American fashion?
I think it’s gotten to the place where it’s not about American fashion anymore, it’s fashion, and it’s a global world and the world is very small. I almost don’t think designers should be pigeonholed as American designers, they’re designers. I think that opportunities are for everyone everywhere.
So after that you went to be a part of IMG. How was that transition?
It was terrific. After 10 years at CFDA, we – the board and everybody – wanted to get Fashion Week out of the office because it was obliterating all sorts of things and was taking up way too much of the staff’s time. The rest of the membership was feeling cheated by it – which is interesting because now CFDA actually wants Fashion Week back. So we shopped it around, and IMG was the right partner at the time to help us grow it. It also needed more funding because we had hit a brick wall and we weren’t experts in selling sponsorships. I mean, we had done pretty damn good for a number of years, but IMG brings a whole other level to that business. So we spun off the Seventh on Sixth division and IMG bought it. So my choice was to stay at CFDA or move to IMG and clearly Fashion Week had been my baby somewhat, having created it. I felt I needed to go and protect it, grow it. It was a great opportunity, and it was a great company. At the time, it opened up doors for us to create Fashion Weeks in LA, Miami and everywhere else around the world.What did you do after IMG?
I was at IMG for about 10 years. After 2010, we knew that it was the final season of the tents in Bryant Park – for various reasons that are boring to people, for whatever reasons the City and Parks wanted us out of Bryant Park. We spent a long time trying to find another place to house the shows and Lincoln Center became the most suitable space and best opportunity to move Fashion Week. So I was involved in that transition, but I also saw the writing on the wall and thought, you know what? ‘Bryant Park is where I made my mark and I felt the most love and affection’ and in moving to a new home, I thought, ‘it’s time for somebody else to take it on’ and it seemed like the perfect time to make that break.
So I went to my offices at IMG and said I think it’s time for me to move on. That was a very cathartic moment. It was great. We worked out a really good arrangement, and I left. I had done some consulting – but not a lot – and thought I would set up my own consulting business and take advantage of all the people that I knew and had been calling every day of the week to help them do things, which I couldn’t really do because I had been fully employed. So that was the consulting business.And what does the consulting business do?
I am on the board of several US and international companies. I consult on regional fashion weeks around the US – Charleston, St Louis, and Nashville, advise on several start up businesses and depending on the day of the week and the calls that come in, I advise and consult on a wide variety of other projects, companies and designers that interest me.
Did you take a little time off at least?
I took some time off at the beginning because the season was right to do that. And then started meeting lots of people, having lots of coffee, figuring out what’s next. One of the things that came up was a meeting through mutual friends with the woman who does the talks programming at the 92nd Street Y. She said that they wanted to create a series for fashion programming and asked if I would you consider doing it – moderating or interviewing fashion industry designers and personalities. I said I’m usually on the interviewee side of the fence but I thought I could put together a couple of good questions, and thought, let’s see if we can get some good designers. In that very first season, we started with Norma Kamali and got Calvin Klein, then Tommy and Donna and Tom Ford. It was smooth sailing from there, so we just kept going and the series has been nothing short of remarkable, and something that I’m as immensely proud of as I am of having created Fashion Week.
And rightfully so. Now you flipped to the other side. Like you said, you’ve been used to being interviewed, and now you’re the interviewer. What’s that process like, developing questions and interviewing?
I try to be very thorough and do a lot of research. I try to put together substantial questions from the beginning — their childhoods and family life and present home life to their inspirations along the way that made them the creative people they are. What impacted their lives, things that I’m interested in. I’m not interested in season Spring 2010 versus Fall ’11, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about them as human beings and creative people.
Have there been people who have surprised you?
Not really, because so far everybody I’ve interviewed is somebody I’ve known and I’ve worked with, unlike my Valentino interview this year. I think that they’ve all surprised us with some of the things they’ve said – things they’ve revealed. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere and you tend to hear them tell a story and then say, ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve never told this before.’ That’s what makes these interviews kind of remarkable in many ways.
Any particular moment that comes to mind?
Oh, god, there’s kind of a lot of them, actually. There’s not a particular moment but there are stories that people have told that are just remarkable. Bill Cunningham talked about the suit that Jackie Kennedy had with her in Dallas, a red suit which we thought was Balenciaga but he corrected us and said it was Dior. And when [Kennedy] was assassinated, she sent it to where [Bill] was working, Chez Ninon, and he dyed that suit black so she could wear it to the funeral. I thought that was just a remarkable story.
Remarkable part of fashion history. In writing the book, you had to revisit the interviews. Did you make new discoveries about your previous interviews?
No, because I’ve read them and re-read them. I mean, I wasn’t writing them, I was just editing them. No new discoveries, no. They all held true from the first impression I had of them.
You’re obviously trying to help people by sharing stories of these successful icons. What do you hope that the audience and readers take away from the book?
I would like them to kind of respect the business and the craft and the skill that these people all have because I don’t think fashion necessarily gets the respect it deserves – that was always a part of my mantra – and realize how hard they work, how much they’ve had to sacrifice and put into it to be successful and stay at the top of their game. It’s not easy; nothing’s an overnight success.
You talk about tech in your interviews a bit. What’s your take on how fashion should use or not use technology?
Fashion should obviously utilize the technology available to us today. It’s at our disposal in a way that it’s never been before. It’s integral to every single thing we do, from design and execution and production to promotion to sales – fashion and technology are inextricably linked. It took a little longer for some fashion people to get on board. I was at CFDA at the time when designers weren’t sure that they needed a website. It’s an extraordinary ally.
And social media?
Yeah, social media. All of it. All of the above.Who do you think the book will be great for?
I think it’s a great gift for anybody who wants to go into design; it’s a great gift for somebody who’s starting any kind of business to read the stories of these amazing people. This is not fluff, it’s really wonderful. The book is as visually beautiful to look at as it is to read. Sam Shahid did a brilliant job as Art Director. And I think it’s a reasonable price for a book of this stature, it’s like reading 19 biographies in one place.
Spectacular! Congratulations and really looking forward to reading Fashion Lives.