Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has grown substantially in scope and influence since it was established by Eleanor Lambert.
Under the guidance of Steven Kolb, chief executive officer and acting chair, the organization is tackling more critical issues such as sustainability, diversity and inclusion, gender equality, climate change and the business repercussions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we were founded in 1962 by Eleanor Lambert, the focus was really cultural and arts. It drove the focus on our work around collections, fashion week and elevating American designers so that they were recognized as somewhat equal to their European counterparts,” said Kolb.
The organization, which today counts 456 members, has had 11 presidents/chairpersons throughout its 60 years history, and a new chair will be named shortly to begin Jan. 1, 2023.
Previous chairs have been Sydney Wragge (1963-1965); Norman Norell (1965-1973); Oscar de la Renta (1973-1976, 1987-1989); Herbert Kasper (1977-1979); Bill Blass (1980-1981); Mary McFadden (1982-1983); Perry Ellis (1984-1986); Carolyne Roehm (1989-1991); Stan Herman (1991-2006); Diane von Furstenberg (2006-2019), and Tom Ford (2019-2022).
Generally, the chairperson works with an executive director. Kolb came on board in 2006 as executive director and was promoted to CEO in 2011. He took over the role from Peter Arnold, who succeeded Fern Mallis. Kolb had also been president of CFDA, but that role has now gone to CaSandra Diggs.
According to Kolb, when Herman was president, he helped structure New York Fashion Week, and von Furstenberg helped elevate the organization globally and created more of a camaraderie among the membership.
“She looked at what does it mean to be a member of the CFDA and what is the value? She helped us build things members would get, such as access to things, work opportunities, licensing opportunities, educational programs. She helped us formulate more of a structural benefit package, beyond the prestige of being a CFDA member. She really redefined our mission,” said Kolb.
The inaugural mission of the CFDA was: “To further the position of fashion design as a recognized branch of American art and culture; to advance its artistic, ethical and professional standards, and to promote and improve public understanding and appreciation of the fashion arts through group leadership in quality and taste.”
At the CFDA’s 50th anniversary in 2012, they changed the mission: “To promote American fashion in a global economy.”
“That’s our current mission,” said Kolb. “Philanthropy was great, fashion week was great, and all the artistic stuff was always great, but she [von Furstenberg] really wanted us to be the trade group that was founded to support the business of fashion. That has been our focus for the past 10 years — the business of fashion. It’s not to say it wasn’t about the creative process…”
Another aspect of CFDA has been pushing the social impact agenda.
“We’ve always had our pulse on the societal issues, or world events, or cultural trends that matter, and certainly translates in two ways: One, through the CFDA Foundation where our charitable support has been focused on HIV/AIDS; Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, which Ralph Lauren founded with CFDA, and disaster relief. We’ve raised millions and millions of dollars through the foundation,” he said. He also pointed to the fundraising efforts after 9/11 and to help those fashion brands impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic (A Common Thread).
According to Kolb, most of CFDA’s funding comes from corporate partners, marketing support, some foundation support, member support and the CFDA Awards. “The funding comes from different revenue sources. We do have a small endowment, a couple of million dollars that was raised during our 50th anniversary,” he said. Two of their scholarships are endowed: the Geoffrey Beene Scholarship and the Liz Claiborne Scholarship.
The CFDA Fashion Awards is the organization’s main fundraiser.
The 2022 CFDA Awards are set to take place Nov. 7 at Cipriani South Street at Casa Cipriani in Manhattan and will be sponsored by Amazon Fashion. Last year the awards generated $31 million in Media Impact Value, 26 million in engagement and 7,500 placements.
Much of the CFDA’s work is influenced by cultural and societal issues. Some of that is addressed on the foundation side with its grant-making, but a lot of it is addressed in their program work. For example, CFDA raised $5 million through A Common Thread very quickly in 2020, and by the summer of 2020 it had given $5 million to small businesses, boutique retailers and small factories as bridge funding to help weather the financial impact of COVID-19.
Overall, grants were awarded to 128 brands, retailers and manufacturers that were impacted by the pandemic. CFDA formed a partnership with Vogue for the program, and Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation was the lead funder, donating $1 million to A Common Thread, along with Tapestry, Capri, Tory Burch and Tom Ford, among others, who were lead supporters.
For 10 years, CFDA’s programming has addressed climate change through its programs around sustainability and circularity.
“I think we were probably one of the first fashion organizations to really step into addressing climate change,” said Kolb. He said they’ve done that via a number of programs that provide mentoring, resources and education and they have an extensive Resource Hub on CFDA.com around sustainability. “That’s been a big area. At the end of the last year, we launched a new Materials Hub on cfda.com, which anybody can have access to,” he added.
The other area that has been amplified is diversity, equity and inclusion.
Turning the conversation to how CFDA has helped young designers, Kolb said there are 10 of them right now, who are finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, who have mentors. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was established in 2003 to provide financial support and business mentoring to the next generation of American fashion designers. Since its inception 160 designers have received mentoring and a total of more than $6.7 million has been given to them.
After 9/11, when New York Fashion Week got canceled, several designers ran out of money, and had collections they couldn’t sell. Carolina Herrera at the time opened up her showroom and allowed some of the young designers to use her space.
“That was the genesis of the program. Vogue and CFDA joined forces with partners like Instagram, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Afterpay…what the industry realized at that time was the vulnerability a young designer faces in a flash of an awful situation like 9/11, it could put them immediately out of business. So it was meant as kind of a safety net and a way to provide knowledge, education, resources and funding to ensure they were less vulnerable,” said Kolb.
Previously there were three winners of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund who all got cash prizes and mentors, but with COVID-19 the last two years, CFDA changed it so all 10 finalists get a mentor and everyone gets a cash prize. “We wanted it to be about a nice equity of sharing among the designers,” he said.
The winners receive one-on-one mentoring and expertise from industry leaders. For example, when Christopher John Rogers won, his mentor was Pierre-Yves Roussel, CEO of Tory Burch. When Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss won the prize, his mentor was Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas. Telfar got Josh Schulman, the former president and CEO of Coach, as a mentor.
“Telfar needed help at the time with supply chain and, of course, he has one of the hottest bags now,” said Kolb.
“There’s a lot of one-on-one advice and access, but there’s money on the table, too. Each of the 10 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists this year got $50,000,” said Kolb.
According to Kolb, the CFDA develops programming and partnerships to support the business needs of designers throughout their career life cycle, starting with students, and then early emerging, emerging, established, iconic and emeritus.
He said CFDA’s scholarship program is first in class working with schools. “It’s more of an open access application which helps increase the level of diverse student support that we can provide,” he said. He noted that last year 80 percent of its student recipients were from diverse backgrounds. They provide scholarship money, mentorship and professional development. For example, they have a scholarship with Coach where the students not only receive funding for their tuition, but they’re also getting access to the Coach team for mentoring. The CFDA has a sustainability scholarship and the student is mentored by a designer with significant knowledge in that area.
This year, the CFDA is handing out $500,000 in scholarships, as it did a year ago. Among the awards are CFDA Design Scholar Awards, Liz Claiborne Design for Impactful Futures Award, the Geoffrey Beene Designer Masters Scholar Award, Coach Dream It Real x CFDA Circular Design Scholarship, and CFDA_Swarovski Foundation Re: Generation Innovation Scholar Award. One award that will be launched in 2023 is the CFDA x Crystal Bridges Heartland Scholars Award, for those student designers who were born in the American heartland states or consider the heartland their home, having resided there for over five years, as well as those studying in America’s heartland.
CFDA has also teamed with Elaine Gold Launchpad and the Accessories Council, which is geared toward designers in business from zero to three years and provides mentorship, business development and prize money.
“A lot of success depends on industry support, volunteer professionals who contribute their time to really help people in our programs,” said Kolb, With Launchpad, the CFDA helped promote the first eyewear prototype from a brand called Genusee, based in Michigan. Because of the water crisis in Flint, people sent a lot of bottled water there. Genusee was able to use the plastic to create eyewear and employ local Flint residents. “We helped prototype the very first pair of glasses, and now it’s a very successful eyewear line,” said Kolb.
For “Early Emerging Designers,” CFDA has a program called Fashion Future Graduate Showcase that lives online. “That’s really a job bank, it’s meant for recruiters, HR, designers, industry…and they can see a portfolio of their work on cfda.com,” said Kolb.
He said for “Emerging Designers,” that’s where CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund sits. They used to have an incubator and there are other programs that support partnerships and work opportunities. “Fashion Fund is really a good example where we have created a new generation of American talent. Most designers of note have gone through that program,” he said.
Calling the “Established” designers the backbone of the industry, he said they have been in business for a few years, have retail accounts, are managing their supply chain and need knowledge and access. Programs are the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, supporting factories and production facilities in New York, Resource Hub and professional development.
The next level is the “Iconic” designers such as Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger, von Furstenberg and Tom Ford. “The way we support them is professional education, collaboration projects where we’re able to bring them business opportunities, but also we’ve been able to look at legislation and policy issues that impact their businesses,” said Kolb. He said they work closely with AAFA, which has been an ally and adviser when it comes to policy. These designers are also involved with the CFDA Awards and the content and storytelling they do through their social channels. CFDA has 1.1 million Instagram followers.
The last group is “Emeritus,” which are influential designers where fashion is still a big part of their lives and they’re still connected to it, such as Mary McFadden.
Earlier this year the organization began offering a new CFDA Interim Membership tier that serves as a pipeline to full membership. Interim members are invited by the CFDA to join for a limited time of up to three years. The interim membership is aimed at designers who have been in business for at least one, but no more than five, years, and have achieved a noteworthy level of recognition and success based on their talent. Interim membership dues are waived for the first year and significantly reduced for years two and three.
Kolb noted that under von Furstenberg, the organization grew its membership and added about 30 designers a year. When Ford came on board, he added about 10 designers a year. “He said there’s great work here and great growth, but instead of growing, now it’s time to look at strengthening what you’re doing, and supporting those who are already part of the organization. It wasn’t about more, but service to those who are already members,” said Kolb.
Ford declined to be interviewed regarding his chairmanship, but during his tenure he diversified the board of directors and membership and initiated new programs to bring much-needed diversity, equity and inclusion to the fashion industry, including CFDA Impact to identify, connect and support thousands of talents through DE&I work and partnering with brands to provide access to jobs, opportunities and mentorships. In addition, he was instrumental in the A Common Thread initiative with Vogue, with 79 percent of the brands and companies supported being women- and minority-owned businesses.
He also tightened the official NYFW schedule to five days and five nights; launched the American Collections Calendar to include all American designers regardless of when and where they are showing, and helped CFDA forge a stronger alliance with IMG.
Discussing how CFDA’s involvement has changed over the years, Kolb noted that during von Furstenberg’s tenure, the group bought the Fashion Calendar from Ruth Finley in 2015. “Prior to that, Ruth was responsible for scheduling. In every other city — Paris, London and Milan — the fashion council schedules the fashion week,” he said.
“Part of the reason we wanted to buy it was to bring our knowledge and our authority into a calendar. And we did that. We are the official scheduler of the Fashion Calendar, the industry’s 365-planning calendar. We’re really the curator and air traffic controller of fashion week. We don’t produce anything. We’re making sure we have a strong schedule and are supporting brands that are interested,” he said.
He said this season, international brands such as Marni, Puma and Fendi will be showing during NYFW.
“Fashion week has changed a lot,” said Kolb. Several years ago the CFDA did a study with Boston Consulting Group on the future of fashion week. He said some brands had chosen to do see now, buy now (which Tommy Hilfiger still does), some still do a wholesale model and some do direct-to-consumer. “When we took it [the calendar] over, we brought structure to it,” he said. In past years, everyone could get on the official Fashion Calendar, but now the CFDA decides who gets on.
Over the last few years the CFDA appears to be working much more closely with IMG, the official organizer and operator of NYFW’s event and official central hub, NYFW: The Shows, which takes place mainly at Spring Studios.
“And as you know there was always confusion between IMG versus CFDA and we have a strong relationship with IMG, and work very collaboratively,” said Kolb. He said there is only one fashion week schedule now. “We always worked well together, but Tom felt we needed to communicate that better,” he said.
“I think this fashion week is going to be amazing, but we’ve done a really good job in organizing it better. We’re shifting the narrative in what makes a successful fashion week. A successful fashion week isn’t necessarily about the big famous names being a part of it. It’s really about the talent,” said Kolb.
He said sometimes the narrative appears to be about who’s not showing and sometimes that appears to represent a weak fashion week. “We really put the focus on the creativity and the strength of the designers showing, and have given license to brands who want to show in Europe or outside the calendar and they’ll still be counted and valued as a CFDA member,” he said.
Further, he noted that this September, more than 20 percent of the brands on the Fashion Calendar are Black-owned or -led brands. “That’s something we recently shared with the Fifteen Percent Pledge publicly and continue to highlight them. There’s more diversity on the schedule than there ever has been,” he said. “Even with the membership, they used to say, ‘why don’t you have more diverse members?’ I’m embarrassed to say, but I used to say, it’s an open application and is based on who applies. That is not a good answer. Creating programs and being connected to programs where people want to apply and have access to apply, we’ve seen great growth in numbers and a more diverse membership as well over the last couple of years,” said Kolb.
Besides the white papers on the future of fashion shows and the environmental impact of New York Fashion Week, CFDA has conducted a CFDA x PVH study on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion and a CFDA x Glamour x McKinsey Glass Runway study on the state of gender inequality in fashion, among others. “We take those reports and use that knowledge and incorporate that into our professional development work as well,” he said.
While some people may question the validity of having a fashion show and whether brand building can be done more effectively over social media, Kolb believes a live fashion show is still important.
“I think it’s a combination. I think a show is still important,” he said. He recalled the first season back after COVID-19, he was at the Michael Kors show and was sitting there waiting for people to arrive, and one of the photographers came up to him and said, “Steven, I just want to introduce myself and I want to thank you, because bringing fashion week back live is my livelihood, it’s my work and my career and it means so much to me that CFDA really focused and made that happen.”
“That meant so much to me. There are a lot of jaded people. In many fashion weeks over my 16 years, some people say the 10 a.m. show is too far away from the 11 a.m. show. I don’t want to go there, I’m always amazed with fashion week and the fashion shows, that’s the work and that seems pretty cool. A lot of the naysayers who took for granted the beauty and going to fashion week were like, ‘we love fashion week,’ ‘we’re so happy to be back at fashion week,’ ‘thank you for fashion week.’ I think they still love it. I think the way we work, and we’re on Zoom right now, we’ve all had to incorporate changes that we made in the way we work in our business, and that’s true. We still have Runway360, it’s still a very viable platform. There are many brands that are digital-only still. There are brands that are live that are also using Runway360 as a tool.”
He said launching Runway360 in September 2020 during the pandemic is a good example of how CFDA mobilized. The digital platform was developed to support designers by bringing together every aspect of a collection launch. It allows designers to host virtual press conferences and showrooms, share press kits, release collections and display products to the public. Those who have used it include Anna Sui, Carolina Herrera, Coach, Cynthia Rowley, Jason Wu, Jonathan Simkhai, Khaite, Ulla Johnson and Tom Ford.
“The pandemic created a challenge and a need, and we quickly had a solution to it,” said Kolb. “Where we can foresee something and put time and energy and resource to it, we often do, but sometimes it’s as a reaction to something, like Common Thread, 9/11, CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and Fashion’s Night Out.
“In the purest description if possible, we’re a service organization for the fashion industry,” said Kolb. “We’re 1-800-CFDA-HELP.”
Describing his favorite parts of being CFDA CEO, Kolb said, “I’m a kid who grew up in ’70s New Jersey going to the Paramus Park mall. What did I know about fashion? I knew Ralph Lauren polo shirts. I didn’t come from a fashion job. I came from a very pure not-for-profit job having worked for HIV/AIDS. I think for me it’s the relationships that I built with creative people from all levels. I love talking to students and spending time with Diane or Tom, or whomever. And the people who work for them. I made a lot of friends along the way. I really appreciate creativity and when I see it, I want to be around it. The people I’ve met and the relationships, and the access that I’ve had that maybe I never would have had. A blue-collared kid from New Jersey going to Paris Fashion Week, why did that happen?”
Kolb said when Joseph Altuzarra got the Kering investment, his mother called Kolb and told him how important the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund was to her son’s success. “It’s nice when people acknowledge how that influenced someone’s business,” said Kolb.
He said the organization is doing better in diversifying the people who win CFDA Awards. There was a period where Michael Kors was being nominated every year, or The Row or Proenza Schouler. “It does change. If you look at it across the board. We’ve done a better job in creating a nominating system that allows for more participation, and we saw pretty much all new names last year. The CFDA Awards is our main event that celebrates CFDA and designers, and it’s considered a desired must-attend event for people in our industry.”
Over the years the CFDA has collaborated with such companies as Fitbit, Victor Glemaud, Starbucks, J. Crew, Gap, Kohl’s and Melissa Shoes, while Swarovski was a main sponsor of the awards for many years.
So what does he see as the biggest challenges of the organization going forward?
The CFDA will be doing a study with Boston Consulting Group and a branding company, Revivethecool, based in Brooklyn. “What they’re looking at is member engagement, how can we ensure that members feel engaged, what are the things we do they like, what more can we be doing so they feel part of the family so they’re getting value for being a member. We want to make sure our existence is addressing what the industry needs us to address,” he said.
For example, he believes that the CFDA should be a designer organization and not for marketing people or other industry people. “I believe we were founded as an organization for designers, we should stay an organization for designers.” Along the same lines, he believes the scholarship program should be for design students.
“We are excited to put together this report, which is gong to kick off in a couple of weeks and we should have it done by the end of the year,” said Kolb.
“I think the challenges we face are the challenges a lot of industries face. A changing workforce, a post-COVID[-19] economy and workforce…how are we addressing climate change and how are we ensuring a diverse, equitable and inclusive industry? We were an early supporter of Harlem’s Fashion Row. Ten years ago, she [Brandice Daniel, CEO] invited me to Harlem to have a conversation onstage. We give substantial funding to Harlem’s Fashion Row. That’s just part of our work. We are a kind of very broadly focused service organization that has many programs which is very unique and is our strength as well in terms of what we can accomplish.”