Peter Arnold is eager to put his nonprofit hat back on.
Today, the former chief executive officer of Cushnie & Ochs and Cynthia Rowley will join the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund as its new executive director. For 80 years, the FSF has worked with colleges to award promising students in all aspects of the fashion industry with scholarships to pursue their dreams. Its big event is in early January when some 200 college scholarship recipients come to New York to meet executives within the fashion industry and attend a fund-raising gala. This year’s honorees for the event on Jan. 10 are Ryan Seacrest, Martha Stewart and Macy’s Inc. president Hal Lawton.
Over the course of his career, Arnold spent five years as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, another nonprofit organization, and he’s also a lawyer, making his experience enviable to his new employer’s board.
Billy Susman, founder of Threadstone Advisors, and the current president of FSF, said: “Peter is a proven champion of the next generation of leaders in fashion. His dedication to philanthropic organizations, combined with his deep knowledge and experience at the helm of major fashion brands as well as of the CFDA, make him the ideal leader to execute our mission.”
Macy’s Marc Mastronardi, who will succeed Susman at FSF in January, added: “While at the CFDA, Peter led the organization’s charitable arm, working closely with leading design schools and companies to provide substantive support to young designers. His broad experience across fashion and philanthropy will be key to his success in guiding FSF’s initiatives.”
Here, Arnold talks about what he hopes to bring to the organization to further expand its reach.
WWD: What was your last role in the industry?
Peter Arnold: I was at Cushnie & Ochs as their ceo. I don’t have a linear career path. I started as a lawyer with a Wall Street firm and Fern Mallis was leaving the CFDA and the search committee was looking within the industry and had a relatively short list. My name got mentioned and I made a big career leap to the CFDA. When I got there, I worked to figure out the role of the organization and how it’s connected to all the constituents: the designers and retailers and publishers and editors. So it was a great transition for me.
WWD: Was fashion always something that appealed to you?
P.A.: I had always wanted to get into the fashion space. Quietly when I was a lawyer, I worked with friends who were designers and gave them unofficial legal advice, but the more senior you get as a lawyer, the more limited your points of entry can be and I didn’t want to be a general counsel or a lawyer at a fashion brand. So this opportunity at CFDA came along and it was a great fork in the road for me and I never looked back. There, my challenge was: let’s look at the mission and make sure that helping American designers succeed is still what everyone wants this organization to be. In fact it was. So then it was: how do you deliver on that and programmatically give people some benefit for being members. That was really the task for me for five years. [While I was there, I started thinking that] someday I can leverage this experience and go to a fashion brand on the operating side — and that’s what came to pass.
WWD: So you joined John Varvatos?
P.A.: Yes. John recruited me so I went there as president. I stayed there for a while and then went to Cynthia Rowley for eight years, and when the private equity group made their investment in Cushnie, I joined Cushnie.
WWD: And now you’re going back to the nonprofit world.
P.A.: I bring to the organization years of not-for-profit experience and true concrete substantive fashion operational experience, so it’s a perfect marriage for me to take all of that and bring it to an organization that does really great work. Could it be elevated a little? Could we make some more noise about it and expand its breadth and reach? Could we bring in some more innovative and tech-savvy partners and members and just scale the numbers of students we help and fundraise differently and not have it all be dependent on the success of one event? Absolutely.
WWD: What appeals most to you about this new challenge?
P.A.: I’m really committed to people succeeding in the industry and it’s not just designers. FSF is committed to the fact that it encompasses retailing and merchandising and marketing and supply chain and analytics. How do you give those kids a leg up? And FSF is not just scholarships: you come for a summer and have an internship and you’re mentored and really linked to folks who you want one day to work with. And it helps employers because they get a pool of future employees they feel good about. It’s really a giving back. People really care about their industry, they want it to continue and they want the right talent.
WWD: For around a decade, FSF had been the recipient of significant funding from the Geoffrey Beene Foundation, but that has ended. How will that impact the organization?
P.A.: That’s another reason you have to make sure you diversify your funding sources and not just focus on Geoffrey Beene or the gala. That’s definitely my mandate and my strategy: to go out there and bring in partners. Not just folks that are going to come to the gala and buy a table, but programmatic supporters — folks that are doing things a little differently. I know they’re out there. Last week, I met with SAP, which is the world’s largest b-to-b, b-to-c business firm, and they’d love to get involved in a real substantive way. So how do we put together a program to expose what you do to talent that wants to get into this business but doesn’t appreciate it?
WWD: Who else will you be targeting?
P.A.: Stitch Fix and Eloquii and Amazon Fashion. They’re not as inured to buying a table and going to a gala as they would be to getting up something that feels meaningful and substantive and gives a longer-term connection and a return for the funding you’re giving. So I’m not troubled by the Beene situation, but there’s work to be done. The board really feels that this is the future and in the longer term we want to create a real endowment that has legs and a depth and a stability that allows us to do this sort of stuff in a bigger way.
WWD: What do you like best about YMA/FSF?
P.A.: Their mission is very simple and pure and clean: it’s education, and either that checks your box or it doesn’t. And there are so many other organizations out there for whom education resonates: from search firms to Bloomberg. Those sorts of foundations are all committed to educating communities that are underserved but are in some way connected to fashion. What I love is that it’s 65 schools but it’s not Parsons School of Design and Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute only. It’s Spelman and Morehouse and Columbia: it’s a great broad reach and delivers on the promise of really going out there and reaching kids who may not have figured it out yet. And there’s a huge alumni network, I think there are 1,500 FSF alums that are connected to schools and there’s a wonderful staff member who has worked there 12 years and also has relationships, which gives us leverage.