NEW YORK — More than two years into his drive to center the focus of the Council of Fashion Designers of America on its designer members, Peter Arnold divides his accomplishments as the organization’s executive director largely into two categories: the tangible and intangible.
On the tangible side, Arnold noted, the CFDA has introduced several financial benefits to membership in the organization during the past year, like access to free or discounted legal advice, the imminent introduction of access to more favorable health care plans and even discounts at certain car service companies.
For members who take advantage of these services the savings can easily offset the average $500 CFDA membership dues, a point that Arnold underscores when pitching the value in joining the group. There are also efforts under way to beef up the CFDA’s annual scholarship prizes, revive the 7th on Sale benefit in 2005 and connect more members through its Web site, cfda.com.
The intangible benefits, on the other hand, are centered on efforts to promote the CFDA as a resource center, where the public can find information on designers, and designers can research vendors of public relations, showrooms, consulting or customs services — in some cases getting advice. Arnold, who was a corporate attorney before joining the CFDA in July 2001, has occasionally reviewed legal documents for designers, recommended publicists or hooked up a designer with sponsorship opportunities. Should a luxury headhunter come looking to Arnold for a list of talented designers, he said he would provide recommendations.
“I want to promote that sense that this is a service organization you can go to as a resource, whether or not you’re a big player,” Arnold said during a state-of-the-council interview this week. “We make sure we are not being too subjective in who we are helping or linking to designer aid. I think that one of the biggest concerns of designers used to be that ‘When I called, nobody answered.’ I don’t want to hear anybody say that anymore.”
Several designers have had public feuds with the CFDA over the years, as when Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein threatened to walk from the council following its 1999 awards night, but Arnold appears to have mended some fences during his tenure. For example, Marc Jacobs, who renounced his membership in the organization several years ago, has indicated to the CFDA he will rejoin in the near future.“It’s because of all the new initiatives they’ve been doing are focused on helping young designers,” said Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs. “When Marc and I were out of work, we would have loved to have someplace to go for information or advice.”
Stepping into such frays, however, comes with the risk of setting off more fires and bruised egos, especially in the gray area of making recommendations. The most controversial gambit made by Arnold thus far has been to pursue an industrywide protocol for fashion week behavior, convening a seasonal fashion week advisory group to discuss areas of the runway shows that could be improved.
While there have been some concerns expressed among designers and show producers that the CFDA is attempting to take a regulatory position on fashion week, Arnold said, “Despite the carping, I don’t want to lose sight of the fashion week advisory group. It is not meant to be punitive or draconian.”
Last week, Stan Herman, president of the CFDA, issued the organization’s first communiqué on industry protocol, which was far from blistering. Herman’s letter to the industry ultimately addressed only two points — start times and off-site shows.
As the majority of shows begin 25 to 40 minutes past the hour, this should not be the norm, said Herman, who argued: “It is not fair for guests, many of whom attend back-to-back shows from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. Everyone should do his or her part to improve the situation. We ask that a serious effort be made by all parties involved with shows to start as close to ‘on-time’ as possible.” The letter goes on to ask designers to start their shows no later than 15 minutes past the hour and to ask guests to arrive on the hour.
Regarding off-site shows, the letter advised designers to be more considerate in choosing the location of the shows in relation to those before and after, looking at the convenience of venue and the ability of guests to enter and exit quickly and easily.
Arnold described the measure as a gentle reminder of what should be industry “best practices,” although he acknowledged that some cases — such as complaints of late shows, double-booked time slots or monopolization of models — do not always result from designer forgetting their manners, but rather from taking a competitive advantage. Still, the underdog needs an advocate, Arnold noted.“I think my problem is that I want this to have some teeth and maybe that’s naive,” Arnold said. “We’re not in the business of producing shows at all any more and for all the right reasons. That frees us up to referee a little bit.”
However, with all the initiatives that have come out of the organization in recent months, some projects have been pushed back, including 7th on Sale. The event, last staged in 1995, was an enormously successful benefit for AIDS charities, but the scope and organizational requirements are too great to be accomplished this year, as had been originally hoped. It is now on the table for October 2005.
Meanwhile, the CFDA and Vogue have teamed up to establish a Fashion Fund, which will grant awards of up to $100,000 to at least two designers annually, beginning in September. Arnold expects to have an application process for the first grants established this month. He is also looking to separately establish an underwriter for the CFDA’s scholarship program, which typically grants 10 scholarships annually to design students in the amount of $3,000 each. Because the competition is judged by a panel of established designers and carries enormous respect in the industry, underwriting the program would allow the CFDA to increase the annual award substantially.
Also in the works this year is an effort to expand the CFDA’s lecture series, with three panels examining the business of fashion, each focused on distinct areas: building the business, building a collection and building an image.
Many of these measures are also geared at simply informing its 266 members of the services available to them, such as legal services coordinated by Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The organization, which works with many arts industries, will offer free initial consultations and discounted referrals if necessary, removing what Arnold described as a “barrier of entry” that intimidates many small designers from pursuing legal advice in the first place.
The CFDA will also begin hosting information sessions this month about access to health care plans with Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, the consulting firm that also worked with the group on its revised mission. By law, the organization cannot directly offer health care to its members, but it can make information available about certain plans that would not be readily available to small companies.“I want there to be benefits from being a CFDA member,” Arnold said. “If it’s too intangible, like you’re getting invited to a party, that’s not good enough. The members need to understand what they are getting.”
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