NEW YORK — Fern Mallis celebrated her 71st birthday Tuesday night at 92Y here by answering questions instead of asking them.
In a case of role reversal, Bevy Smith asked the “Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis” creator questions about her life. In her middle class neighborhood in Middle Basin in Brooklyn, doors didn’t have to be locked and children roamed freely. Mallis described her mother as “a Turkish Martha Stewart” and her father worked in the garment center where rolling racks covered the streets and “’garmento’ was not a bad word.” Named “Best Dressed” in the senior class at James Madison High School, Mallis said Chuck Schumer was in the halls when she was there.
After a series of twists and turns in fashion and publicity on Seventh Avenue and beyond, Mallis joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1991 as executive director, and helped create 7th on Sixth productions, the precursor to New York Fashion Week. After exiting the CFDA in 2010, she served as senior vice president of IMG until 2010. She now has her own consulting business.
In-the-know about the behind-the-scenes side of fashion, as well as the business part, Mallis said she never bought into others’ suggestion that she could be a designer. “When you get along the path, you almost feel as though you know too much to do it. When you’re kind of stupid and you don’t know what’s happening, it’s easier to just plow through things. When you know what the obstacles are, you kind of [pulling back and holding up a hand as a stop signal].”
Joining Mademoiselle’s College Board and being named a guest editor, which required a monthlong stay at the Barbizon Hotel in the summer of 1969, were pivotal experiences. Meeting Stan Herman at the Mister Mort showroom would later prove serendipitous — since he joined Mallis at the CFDA as president. “That’s a story that plays through my life. You never know where people are going to turn up in your life,” Mallis said. ”It’s not easy to hold your opinion about people, especially if you’re trying to make do.”
After the requisite summer in Europe with a Eurail pass, the University of Buffalo graduate returned to New York City. Her visions of working in advertising didn’t happen but she took a full-time job at Mademoiselle touring college campuses. She later moved into merchandising.
Her networking skills were developed as fashion director at Gimbels East, followed by a stint at Cinnamon Wear, a popular label at Henri Bendel at that time. “I hated that side of fashion. I hated being in the showroom and having to sell to people,” Mallis said. “I also got fired from that job during Christmas week. The offices were at 1412 Broadway. I remember walking through the lobby feeling so depressed and everyone was passing trays of cookies. I thought, ‘If I am ever in position to have to let someone go, I will never do it over the holidays.’ And everybody does it at the end of the year.”
As fate rules, years later she returned to that same building to help head up the CFDA — or as what she described as her “triumphant return.” Before getting there, she set up her own public relations firm. Jane Hertzmark Hudis, who is now group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., was her first hire as an assistant.
Working with the IDCNY as a client later turned into her accepting a full-time job. She poignantly recalled how the interiors furnishing industry banded together to fight AIDS in the early Eighties “at a time when nobody — the President, not even the New York Times would mention AIDS,” she said. “I had a boss who wouldn’t shake hands with a gay man [for fear of catching the disease].”
With many interior designers dying of AIDS — as many as three a week — Mallis said awareness and fund-raising were needed so the Design Industry for AIDS, which is now known as the Design Industry Fighting AIDS, was created.
Those types of philanthropic efforts helped her land the CFDA job eventually. After being fired by the IDCNY following the real estate crash of the late Eighties, Mallis took a temp job at Loving & Weintraub, sharing an office with Lesley Stevens before her LaForce & Stevens days. Reading in WWD that the CFDA was looking for a new director to succeed Carolyne Roehm, Mallis decided to reach out to Herman and Monika Tilley, who were part of the search committee. Later asked by Roehm, Herman, Bill Blass and Calvin Klein why she should be hired after a 10-year hiatus from working in fashion, Mallis said she told them, “I never stopped wearing clothes. I never stopped shopping. I never stopped looking at magazines. It’s either in your DNA or it’s not. I grew up in this world and I know it,'” adding that her experience in the home industry proved she could organize events. Eleanor Lambert never warmed up to Mallis, though, calling her “that woman.”
Plaster falling from the ceiling during a Michael Kors runway show in an unfinished space in Chelsea resulted in Suzy Menkes and Carrie Donovan declaring that while they lived for fashion, they weren’t about to die for it, Mallis said. The CFDA then focused on finding a central place to hold the shows, starting out at the Macklowe Hotel for two years. A multidesigner show in Central Park in honor of the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1992 helped designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham and Klein visualize what Mallis meant by shows in the tents, she said.
Klein’s endorsement helped to bring the group all together in Bryant Park, which was more of a needle park at that time, Mallis said. The location was “the backyard of the garment industry,” she said.
Speaking through tears, Mallis described how designers and showgoers were urged to leave the tents on the morning of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Fast forward nearly a decade when New York Fashion Week became all about the sponsors, Mallis decided to move on. “It was sponsors, sponsors, sponsors. I said, ‘We created this product for designers.’ So it became a conflict of interest. At that point, I had also spent several years going all over the world for IMG. Creating a fashion week in Mumbai, 10 years of working on that. Moscow, Sydney, Melbourne, creating fashion week in Berlin, consulting on fashion weeks in Mexico City and Toronto. I went to Singapore and Dubai…”
While creating “Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis” was never on her wish list, she said entering the coffee phase of her life inadvertently led her in that direction. “All of a sudden I was getting calls from people saying, “Hi, can I meet you for a cup of coffee? I created a new idea…’ Everyone was calling for coffee. Nobody wanted to buy me to lunch or dinner. I had coffee coming out of my ears until I had tea with the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who is a great pal and always took our [CFDA] press photos. He introduced me to an agent friend, who did a speaker series.” That led to another espresso with the 92Y’s program director and the start of the fashion-based talks.
“Without question” Bill Cunningham was her favorite guest, telling Mallis how he attended every AIDS benefit he was invited to in order to keep the issue in the news. Second-favorite honors went to Leonard Lauder — “Talk about supporting women and women in business. The sandbox he built where all these women are competing and playing and they all like each other. And they’re all making money for the company,” Mallis said.
Reluctant to point to the worst, Mallis preferred to describe Lauren Hutton as “the most interesting funky guest.”
“An incredible model — I love Lauren. I think she probably was stoned and I’m not so good at perceiving that,” said Mallis, adding that the actress asked for a cigarette twice and later accepted a mint instead. That led to a hand towel request for to sticky hands. Fidgety and adjusting her seat, Hutton told Mallis, ‘The lighting isn’t right,’” Mallis said that she told Hutton, ‘Trust me. Tom Ford approved the lighting. It has never changed.’” Representatives for Hutton did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Ralph Lauren “is one who makes her nuts” for not committing to an interview despite readily writing the foreword to her book. “We’ve been very close through the years. But he has a documentary coming out on HBO…”
Open to grilling new guests, Mallis said she is looking forward to speaking with Bethann Hardison on April 25. With her first book ensconced in the Library of Congress, Mallis is in talks about a second one for Rizzoli. Nineteen of her Y interviews were in the first one, and the total is now 43. When Smith mentioned how Mallis’ ability to continue to reinvent herself abides by Smith’s habit of saying, ‘It gets greater later,’ Mallis piped up, “I like that.” And Smith responded, “I’m trademarking that, so please don’t touch.”
Asked what she thought of the prospect of a TV or streaming series, Mallis said she would do one in a heartbeat. ”Are you kidding?”