Steven Kolb: In the Director’s Chair at the CFDA

It's the voice of American fashion and a proponent of numerous industry initiatives, but the CFDA is ultimately about building the brand.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/10/2012

The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s spacious new headquarters at 65 Bleecker Street is a clear sign that the organization is on the move.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Under the direction of chief executive officer Steven Kolb and board president Diane von Furstenberg, the CFDA operates on levels from professional development, design collaborations and nurturing new talent to hosting gala award ceremonies and numerous charitable efforts.

In an interview at CFDA headquarters, Kolb, 50, speaks about the accomplishments of the CFDA the last few years and where he sees the nonprofit association and foundation headed. Since assuming the post in 2006, Kolb has worked closely with von Furstenberg in implementing many new programs and initiatives.

“The truth is I didn’t necessarily want the job. I was working in a job I really liked,” says Kolb, who spent a year at MTV International, helping to start The Staying Alive Foundation. Before that, he spent 16 years at DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS.

But then he got a call from executive recruiter Karen Harvey. Holding a master’s degree in public administration from New York University, Kolb was unlike many of the fashion and public relations people who were being considered. “I think they really liked the idea of the CFDA being run as a business,” Kolb says. “It’s not to say it hadn’t been before, but I brought that kind of business management experience and not-for-profit experience.”

Kolb says what really clinched the deal was the final question posed by von Furstenberg: “She asked me what my sign was, and I said I was Libra, and that was the end of the interview,” he quips. “And they offered me the job.”

With literally no background in fashion, Kolb quickly immersed himself in the industry, attending hundreds of fashion shows and getting to know the membership of more than 400 designers. CFDA’s charitable component was a key element for him. “That made coming here really interesting to me. I don’t have a lot of fashion experience. That was the easy stuff to learn. I look at it as an organization, not a fashion organization.”

Kolb came in as executive director and became ceo last year. “As we’ve grown as an organization and have become more important to the industry, the title reflected the work and the people I interact with more appropriately. I think it reflected the impact of the organization.” Take, for example, the new headquarters. Before the move to Bleecker Street in August, the CFDA sat in a 4,000-square-foot office at 1412 Broadway in the heart of the Garment District. The worn-out decor had pulled carpeting and smudged walls. “At one time, I’m sure it was appropriate,” says Kolb.

In moving to a landmark building on Bleecker Street that houses the Andy Warhol Foundation, Focus Films and the Estée Lauder Cos., CFDA more than doubled its space to 9,000 square feet. Architects Sayigh+Duman designed the space pro bono. It’s branded with the CFDA colors of red, black and white, and lends itself to industry meetings.

Kolb acknowledges that it was somewhat controversial to leave the Garment Center. But the organization will continue to strive to bring more production to the district, he says.

One of Kolb’s top priorities is to increase the membership, now at nearly 450, and bring the next generation of designers into the fold. He says membership is still prestigious and not everyone gets in, but they’ve added creative directors of brands and multiple designers from certain brands. “We have become a brand. We are still the voice of American fashion and we speak to the industry,” he says. “We’re the [industry’s] ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.'” Kolb attributes much of CFDA’s success to deputy directors Lisa Smilor (programs and operations) and Casandra Diggs (finance and administration).

One would think with all the designer egos involved, it would be a tough job to manage so many personalities. “Actually it hasn’t been that hard,” says Kolb. “I am somewhat of a chameleon in that sense. I also think I’m good at bringing varied opinions to a consensus.”

One of the more frustrating parts of the job has been dealing with show dates, and not just the international calendar—the fashion week schedule in New York, specifically. “There’s so much crossover and some have to share a slot, and sometimes I feel frustrated that people can get stepped on. We can make suggestions and we try our best, but there’s been no fool-proof formula to make everybody happy.” Nevertheless, Kolb contends that the dustup over the international schedule and how it got reported on various blogs was “more sensational than it really was, and it created more tension than there needed to be.”

Marking its 50th anniversary, the CFDA created a permanent endowment called Stars of American Fashion. It sold 50 stars on a stylized American flag to 50 designers and brands for $50,000 each. Trey Laird of Laird + Partners produced the flag, which will hang in the CFDA offices. Shopbop is creating exclusive flag-image merchandise, launching next summer, to benefit the CFDA Foundation.

The biggest fund-raiser of the year, the CFDA Awards, dubbed the “Oscars of Fashion,” netted $600,000 when he arrived at the council in 2006. Now, it brings in $1.3 million. The CFDA’s assets rose from just over $4 million at the end of 2005 to almost $18 million at the end of 2010. At the end of 2012, they will be close to $20 million.

Among his favorite Awards moments are meeting John Waters (“I’m a huge fan”), Tracey Ullman and Lady Gaga’s acceptance speech. “She was funny and really poignant and spoke about being an outsider and how she put a jacket on layaway and how clothes really defined her. She was appreciative of the award.”

One new initiatives is the CFDA collaboration with Target and Neiman Marcus. Twenty-four CFDA members will create a limited-edition holiday collection that will be sold, starting Dec. 1, at all 1,763 Target stores and 42 Neiman Marcus stores, and on the stores’ Web sites. Target and Neiman Marcus jointly made a $1 million donation to the CFDA for their participation.

The CFDA doesn’t get any government money. “Everything we do, every program we have, we have to pay for. Fund-raising comes naturally to me, and it’s been a real strength in what I bring here.” Kolb says he’s proud of his accomplishments thus far, but if he has to pick one he’s most proud of, it would be working on the 50th anniversary “and recognizing CFDA’s importance over the last 50 years.”

Looking ahead, “I do think there’s a bright future for the CFDA. We’ve adapted with the times. We’ve evolved and changed and it’s going to get stronger. I’m here as long as they want me. I wouldn’t leave as long as Diane is president,” he says. Unless, he adds, “President Obama calls.”