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As Milestone Nears, CFDA Plots Growth

Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb discuss the past, present and future of the organization.

NEW YORK — In the past two years, Diane von Furstenberg introduced a new tradition to the CFDA Awards. As president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she has taken it upon herself to personally ask mingling crowds during cocktails to take their seats in Alice Tully Hall’s auditorium so the evening could move along in a timely manner.

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This hands-on approach has come to define von Furstenberg’s first two terms as American fashion’s chief. Now that she is in her third term — the bylaws were changed to allow her another stint — and executive director Steven Kolb just marked his fifth anniversary, the duo has plenty to look forward to.

Among the forthcoming initiatives is the CFDA’s 50th anniversary next year, which will be surrounded by a flurry of activities to mark the milestone; an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology; an increased focus on international activities to heighten the awareness of American designers abroad, particularly in emerging markets, and a continuation of book collaborations, future ones with Abrams.

“You don’t need to explain what the CFDA stands for anymore, not in America, nor abroad,” von Furstenberg said, reflecting on her first four years as head of the association. “The CFDA is now something people know, and other countries would like to have.”

Kolb added, “The awareness is beyond just people in fashion who work in the business. We also started to resonate with the consumers and the public that is interested in fashion. They are gravitating towards the CFDA to connect to fashion.”

Von Furstenberg noted that developments the past few years include the CFDA’s involvement in the Made in Midtown initiative as well as a more aggressive, proactive role in the scheduling of runway shows. These and other moves have ultimately contributed to growing its designer membership, which in five years has climbed 37 percent to 375. The CFDA is now made up of members who reflect a wider spectrum of the industry, including creative directors like Deborah Lloyd from Kate Spade, Jenna Lyons from J. Crew and four members from Calvin Klein Inc.

“You can’t look at fashion as just ready-to-wear anymore,” Kolb said. “The membership growth is significant. Before, every year, maybe 12 to 13 designers would get in; now we are closer to 30. It doesn’t mean that we are just letting anybody in. You have to have the talent and the point of view.”

The CFDA sales power is vast, since the organization encompasses some of the largest businesses in the global, not just American, fashion industry: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Coach, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Gap and J. Crew.

CFDA members have been able to benefit from several programs, including the Business Services Network, which companies can use as a networking tool. “We are now much more open to the business world,” von Furstenberg said. “Companies constantly approach us. Anybody in consumer goods, from cars to coffee, likes to associate with fashion. With the Business Services Network, more companies are coming to us to create joint programs with designers.”

The duo also prides itself on the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, which would protect fashion designers and apparel brands from blatant knockoffs. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill to provide three years of copyright protection for “unique and original designs” in early December, though legislation will have to be reintroduced this year, as a new session of Congress will have to pass both the House and Senate before heading to President Obama’s desk for his signature. Either way, von Furstenberg said the overarching efforts are already showing results. “It’s the best news that mass merchants like H&M and Target hire designers,” she said. “It means we really have made an impact on the industry, because our role is to increase the value of design.”

To further the idea of changing the culture of copying, the CFDA drafted a manifesto to distribute to designers, who are being asked to display it in their ateliers and sample rooms. It emphasizes the importance of creativity and raises specific points, “such as the idea that just changing hemlines doesn’t make it yours, it’s still somebody else’s,” Kolb said.

The CFDA also just partnered with eBay in an anticounterfeiting campaign, which includes a line of limited edition designer-customized totes to raise awareness of the issues. Participating designers include Donna Karan, Catherine Malandrino, Yigal Azrouël, Helmut Lang and Billy Reid, and proceeds from sales of the “You can’t fake fashion” totes will benefit the CFDA Foundation.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Swarovski underwriting the CFDA Fashion Awards, and von Furstenberg considers the move to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center a success — one in line with Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week moving to Lincoln Center. “The fact that we identify with Lincoln Center makes fashion, and art and culture more important,” she said of the American fashion industry. “Fashion has had more acceptance all over, in the business world, in the city and in the world of culture.”

That said, there are still plenty of challenges the CFDA continues to tackle, from maintaining the rule von Furstenberg created to start the New York cycle of shows on the second Thursdays in February and September, to collaborating with the Fashion Calendar on the scheduling of shows for a more efficient fashion week. There are plans to make the scheduling of shows easier by taking it electronic.

There has also been much talk in recent seasons of adding a New York Men’s Fashion Week. Kolb said that although it seems less feasible, perhaps, to start a whole men’s fashion week unto itself, the CFDA continues to increase its focus on the city’s men’s wear industry, from alternative ways to promote men’s wear designers to supporting American designers showing in Europe.

Another continued focus, Kolb explained, is the overall role of fashion week with the delivery season and the seasonality of clothes in stores — an ongoing conversation in the industry that the CFDA takes seriously.

Other challenges, he said, include “the changing face of the industry. In the past, there would be ready-to-wear designers, but now we have so many categories of designers between contemporary and designer. We have opened our arms and grown the CFDA membership, but we need to make sure that there is value to our members, and be responsive to all categories of the membership.”

Last week, it emerged that Teddy Forstmann, chairman and chief executive officer of IMG, was being treated for a brain tumor. It is unclear if and how this could impact Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which IMG owns, but Kolb said that the CFDA pays close attention to every aspect of fashion week, “from the fashion calendar, to the relationship of IMG and Lincoln Center, to what is happening down at MAC & Milk. Anytime we see something that could be disruptive to an important spoke in the wheel of fashion week, we pay attention.”

The CFDA will mark its 50th anniversary next year and will stage an exhibition that will kick off at FIT in February and showcase the work of everyone who has ever been a member of the organization. The CFDA is working with curators Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears on the exhibit. “It will be called ‘Impact,’ because I think that American fashion is about impact,” von Furstenberg said. “We will look at the most impactful moments of American fashion, with a piece for every member to be a part of it. It’s being designed so it can travel.”

As part of the anniversary, the CFDA created a campaign called “Stars of American Fashion,” which will feature 50 designers each giving $50,000 to design a star for a special CFDA flag. The flag will launch with 13 founding stars this July, and is expected to raise $2.5 million for the organization and its future programs.

The duo also envisions providing more international opportunities for members. The CFDA recently entered a two-year partnership with Samsung to create an exchange between American and Korean designers. Last fall, 10 Corso Como in Seoul opened a CFDA-branded pop-up shop featuring collections from Rag & Bone, Thakoon and Band of Outsiders. The organization also partnered with French department store Printemps to stage the promotion “Printemps Loves New York,” and last September, it sold special “I Love New York”-themed T-shirts by members such as von Furstenberg, Tory Burch and Marc Jacobs.

“Diane always says you can’t just look at your business domestically, you need to look at the global marketplace,” Kolb said. “This idea we started, going to Korea, going to Printemps, is assisting the membership in becoming more internationally minded. Paris is an important market for designers. We have been talking about the idea of bringing CFDA members of Fashion Fund alumni to Paris in a collective space.”

Does the CFDA have ambitions to take over the global fashion industry? No, said Kolb. “It’s always about the CFDA with the ‘A’ being America. That will always be our main focus, but it would be naive to think that our effort, because it’s an American effort, is only in the confines of our country.”

CFDA Minutes
Diane von Furstenberg has been instrumental in several developments at the CFDA, including:

• The CFDA partnership with Fordham School of Law to create the Fashion Law Institute.

• The 2010 launch of the Fashion Incubator program.

• The growth of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, with similar programs in the U.K. and Italy, and France and China in the works.

• Collaborations with GQ and Harper’s Bazaar to highlight emerging men’s wear and accessories designers.

• The CFDA “Fashion for Haiti” T-shirts, which raised $1 million for Haiti’s earthquake victims.

• The expansion of Fashion Targets Breast Cancer on several fronts, including Esteban Cortazar’s capsule FTBC collection for Colombian retailer Exito.

• A continued emphasis on the CFDA Health Initiative.

• Seven CFDA books, including “American Fashion Designers at Home,” “American Fashion Cookbook” and, this month, “American Fashion Travel.”