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As Fern Mallis remembers it, there wasn’t much of an office when she joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America as executive director in 1991.
“It was the size of a closet, with a bunch of file cabinets and a phone on the other counter,” Mallis recalls. “You had to get up from your desk to get it. There were people who told me they thought the CFDA was an answering machine, because nobody ever picked up.”
Much has changed since, and Mallis and then-CFDA president Stan Herman are widely credited with revamping the council, transforming it from an organization best known, perhaps, for throwing a good cocktail party—”I spent nine months of the year just preparing for the awards the next year,” former executive director Robert Raymond says—to a viable industry force that galvanized designers for the greater good of the industry. That only happened over the next decade.
“For me, it was really creating the office, the identity, creating a home and an environment for the CFDA to flourish and stand for the headquarters of the American industry,” Mallis says.
The Stan and Fern years—Mallis stayed through 2001, Herman ended his 16-year run as president in 2006—were marked by change.
“We made the designers stop, look and listen to the fact that they were a force, that they could work together and that it was more meaningful when they did,” Herman says.
Shortly after joining, Herman and Mallis adapted a new logo developed with Michael Bierut of Pentagram. They also revamped the CFDA Fashion Awards, moving them, in 1991, from a smaller venue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the more theatrical environs of Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater (now called the David H. Koch Theater), replete with a red carpet and paparazzi-posing celebrities and designers.
“Stan and I saw it as an opportunity to really celebrate the fashion industry in a big way,” says Mallis.
“We wanted to make it more democratic,” Herman adds. “We felt fashion was beginning to change and fashion should be open to a bigger venue. Some thought we made it too glitzy; some people thought it was better because it opened the event up to more designers.”
Oscar de la Renta was among those less pleased about the move. “I thought there was a natural link to the Metropolitan Museum,” he says. “Then, the CFDA decided to break the relationship to the museum, which I thought was unbelievably wrong.”
There is little argument, however, that the most defining moment during those years was the creation of 7th on Sixth and the centralization of fashion presentations into a coherent fashion week in Bryant Park in 1993.
Prior to the centralization, fashion shows in New York were scattered in showrooms and other venues, often overcrowded—in some cases to the point of being a fire hazard. In 1991, a crumbling ceiling in a downtown loft fell in the middle of one of Michael Kors’ earliest shows—a chunk of plaster famously hit Suzy Menkes. That was probably the most significant turning point in getting the industry on board with the tents format.
Mallis says, “It became the most important thing the CFDA ever did. It was the game changer—creating a platform for American designers to rightfully compete with the rest of the world.”
Although the centralized venue and coherent fashion week helped put American fashion on a global platform, there was no shortage of conflict and controversy around the CFDA during those years.
As Mallis’ own profile rose, so did the eyebrows of some members who felt the executive was generating more attention than the designers themselves. And while the shows in Bryant Park continued to grow, some griped they were getting too flashy and commercial.
“The good and bad about it was that it inspired people who had no education to do it,” Herman says. “We didn’t have a curriculum. If you had a name and money, and a desire and a fist full of punching p.r. people, you got yourself into the tents. It was not for me to judge who was great.”
When, in 1998, Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein decided to show their collections before Europe, it presented the CFDA and 7th on Sixth with a major headache.
“We had our schedule pretty much set and everything ready to go,” Mallis says, recalling the moment when Klein called her to break the news. “There was no way we could, at that point, have everybody else also shift dates because of production, and so for that one season, there were two separate [cycles of] fashion shows.” From the following season, New York started kicking off the collections season and it’s been that way ever since.
As the shows moved up, particularly so close to Labor Day in September, so did Bryant Park’s frustration with how fashion week impacted the public’s use of the park.
“The city and community board were constantly pushing us to change dates and make it more conducive to their desires,” Herman recalls. “There were meetings constantly with city officials, myself and Fern, and every year, we would cross our fingers. One time [in 1997], we ended up in Chelsea Piers.
“That rattled the tents and many name designers moved into other directions,” Herman adds.
That venue was widely regarded as inconvenient, isolated and lacking adequate access and transportation.
In February 2001, the CFDA sold 7th on Sixth to sports management and marketing conglomerate IMG, privatizing the shows and moving Mallis over to IMG. Some deemed the move controversial and feared the changes that could be made to turn the shows into a profit-making operation with more sponsors, marketing-driven events and front-row celebrities overshadowing the actual fashion.
“The truth is, I had to sell it or else it would not have worked,” Herman explains. “It had gotten so big and, at the time, we were beginning to lose money. It took away [from the CFDA’s main mission.]”
Herman admits he sometimes regrets the decision, noting that his sentiments are largely based on the fact that the shows have become so successful and financially viable.
“There was a time,” he says, “it was probably ego on my part. It’s nice to see the success and money rolling in, but I really felt it was not a part of our pentagon.”
Plus, he adds, the CFDA is still closely involved with fashion week, and current president Diane von Furstenberg and chief executive officer Steven Kolb are “very wise” not to try to bring the shows back into the CFDA. As he put it, “It’s a monster thing that has tentacles around the world.”
Indeed, fashion week—including the shows at Lincoln Center and off-site—is now a multifaceted affair with more than 275 shows each season and attendance of about 232,000 per year.
As for Mallis—who left IMG in 2010, started her own consulting firm and recently reinvented herself as a queen of talk at the 92Y and producer of a jewelry collection, Fern’s Finds, sold on QVC—there were more histrionics from her time at the CFDA than she can remember.
“There were so many [moments], I wish I had kept a diary,” says Mallis, who was reticent to share juicier tidbits. “Every day, you thought, ‘Oh god, I’ll never forget that, it’s so unbelievable.’ But the next week something more crazy came up. You just keep moving on.”