WWD: Sum up the state of American fashion as you see it.
Steven Kolb: It’s a bigger story — I think it’s the state of global fashion. There are four big cities and a lot of emerging cities. If you stay focused on the four majors, we’ve seen a big shift and change in the way business is done, and we’ve seen the influence of technology and how we do business. I would say each of the cities probably has different challenges, but I wouldn’t isolate this necessarily to an American story. Those hard borders that existed 20, 30 years ago really aren’t there that much anymore; it’s so fluid. We’ve seen that in the ways designers are showing at fashion week, shifting around, going to a city, bouncing back to a home city. So to me I see it as a much bigger global change.
WWD: Agreed. Global fashion is in transition, much of the change is technology-driven. It seems that there’s an increasing striation between the U.S. and Europe, with American fashion seemingly looked at separately from a global perspective.
S.K.: We’ve always been historically classified as commercial. And some people think that is a dirty word. When people challenge me about the idea that American fashion is commercial, I’ll be like, yeah, it is. The idea of starting a business is to have something to sell. We’ve had a high optic on the commercial side of the industry. That doesn’t mean there’s no creativity. There’s creativity, but this isn’t a fine arts scheme or program.
The influence of American fashion is great. You asked about the state of luxury here. Look at sportswear and how American fashion drove sportswear as a category, even streetwear. I look at a European house like Balenciaga, and in many ways that’s a streetwear brand. So you really do see the influence of American fashion infiltrating some of those global markets. Someone said to me, walk around downtown Paris and it’s like you’re walking around downtown L.A. with the way people are dressing in streetwear. That American influence shouldn’t be discounted. Luxury isn’t the same as it was years ago. And [the financing issue]: we don’t have an LVMH or a Kering. There are not big conglomerates that are driving and pushing the fashion agenda.
When I look back at CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which is in its 15th year, I think that the designers who’ve come out of that program, whether they’ve won it or not, have been a great influence. The fact that Thom Browne shows in Paris — he’s an alumni of that program. Or the fact that Rodarte and Proenza [Schouler] went for a few seasons and they’re now back in New York. I think we cultivated young brands.
Look at Brandon Maxwell, I consider that a budding luxury brand. And I don’t know that Brandon would have had the same ability in Europe. Joseph Altuzarra did the fund twice; the second time, he won it. After Kering invested in Altuzarra, his mother called [with the news]. She said to me, “I want to let you know and I want to thank the CFDA because when we started Joseph’s business, we could have started it in Paris, we could have started it in London. We specifically chose New York because we knew the opportunity and the support we would get. Where we are today is because of that support.”
And let’s not discount Ralph [Lauren] or Michael [Kors] or some of these bigger brands — Oscar — that have been around for a while and are continually adapting and evolving for the time.
So that’s not to say that it’s not without its challenges. When you look at what we do, I think people often don’t understand the mission of the CFDA. We are very different from our European counterparts, where they have a board with, say, the folks from Kering or LVMH or those big houses. Our membership is the designers. That can be anyone from our chair, Diane [von Furstenberg], or Michael and Ralph, to a designer who is only in business three years.
[We function by] mandate of the designers. Everything we do is in reaction to or a proactive step to support those designers in their businesses. The ecosystem — the fashion, the retailers, editorial, all manufacturing — is all part of that, but everything is driven by the designers.
The Fashion Calendar — that was Ruth’s [Finley] baby for decades. It was not something we necessarily wanted to take on, but the industry [wanted us to]. It’s like a giant Rubik’s Cube. Every time you make a shift decision, it affects another decision you’ve made. You hope to get all the colors lined up, but it’s complex. We work so hard on that, but without question, we never get the cube perfectly.
And our programs on sustainability, what we do on manufacturing, what we’re doing and have done for a decade on model health — long before the #MeToo movement. What we did last year with the ACLU, or Planned Parenthood, what we’re doing immigration, on retail…
WWD: Let me stop you on immigration. I’ve heard input that it would be great for the CFDA to be more proactive about trying to secure H1B visas that often get scooped up by the tech giants.
S.K.: But we are! We have had two sessions with experts on how to navigate that works with the tech industry also, and we’ve done two immigration reports. We are proactively involved in the visa [issue], and how to get talent to be able to stay in the States.
I think sometimes people see the work we do [as only] the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund or the CFDA Awards. But manufacturing, immigration, that’s stuff that we’re constantly doing. Investing — we created mock investment panels where we have had real investors in a room, training designers on how to pitch an investment and actually putting them in front of people. So this is stuff that we do on a day-to-day basis. But like any group, we’re not perfect and we’re never going to make everybody happy. I just know that there is so much solid work we do.
We’re even beginning to think about membership. Because if you look at who is a member of the CFDA, it’s very based more or less on what was established by the Pauline Trigère/Bill Blass/[Arnold] Scaasi [generation] back in the Sixties, a designer whose name is on a label. And in the last 12 years or so, since Diane and I started, we opened that up more. So you have the creative directors of brands now who are part of the organization, not just the designer name.
We’re beginning to ponder: Look at a lot of the great success in fashion right now — it’s business people, entrepreneurs. Look at Warby Parker or look at Everlane. These are entrepreneurs who started a business based on design versus a designer starting a business. We’re just starting to have early conversations — how do we engage those people more? Because that is the changing nature of American fashion. And that might not be well received. Some traditional members might say we should just stay focused on designers. But we’re having those conversations.
Even when you look back to Alex [Wang] and the June show, what strikes me about that was every editor went to Europe [for couture] and worked Fourth of July and that wasn’t a story. But a Sunday night in New York was what was problematic. To me, that didn’t make any sense.
WWD: There’s a big difference here. The couture: time-honored, long-established, the best of fashion and it has been over Fourth of July weekend for years. Alex’s June show: there was about a week-and-a-half notice of a Sunday night show in the summer. That’s disrespectful of the audience.
S.K.: If you look at it differently, you have a shift in the way business is being done. One idea that came out of our report with the Boston Consulting Group was looking at a new calendar, shifting away from February and September and migrating to a December and June pre-collection. Alex combined his [two seasons], you had Rosie Assoulin, you had Narciso [Rodriguez], and some others.
When I talked to designers, so many of them were interested. The reason Proenza went to Paris in July was to be on that pre-collection schedule. As much as people hate this comparison, to me it’s not that different from when Helmut [Lang] and Calvin [Klein] went before Europe when [originally New York showed] after Europe. The positive [takeaway], despite the Sunday night, was that at least American designers are experimenting with new business ideas and new business models.
So what would the story be if the June/December thing really cemented and everybody went to that, and then all of a sudden, parents didn’t have to worry about shows in September before back-to-school? That could be a sizeable shift. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know, but at least there’s some effort to try something different and experiment. What it became was, “Here’s an other fashion week that we have to go to.” Sure, I don’t want to work on another Sunday night either, but there was some experimentation. There are strengths in it. I think that we as an organization are present and reactive and proactive to what the industry wants.
WWD: After hearing from many designers for this piece, I don’t envy you the scheduling job.
S.K.: Fashion is not a police state brought by the CFDA. We are not trying to be Donald Trump and force people to do things based on some type of ego. Our authority is based on information-sharing and supporting designers in what they think and offering opinions. We can’t fine or penalize someone. Ultimately, brands are going to do what they want to do, there’s a mandate of what we believe brands should be doing. That’s always been the case.
WWD: For those who go to the shows, it’s an endless onslaught. The CFDA isn’t a police state, but should there not be rules, or at least guidelines, for membership? Could these include alternatives to a formal show, or that you have to attain a certain level before you can get a slot on the calendar?
S.K.: We do have an application process. We say if it’s your first time in New York, we’re not going to put you on the official calendar. There’s also the industry calendar, which is just like the industry 365 calendar — anybody can be on that. My sister could be on that, if she wanted to and she paid for it. But she’d never get on the Fashion Calendar.
WWD: You talked about the opportunity in New York. Some say that, given direct-to-consumer technology, the barrier to entry is too low. Anybody can get in, but staying in, developing a real business, is a different story.
S.K.: Like any industry, the cream rises to the top. So those that are doing something different or interesting are going to succeed, and those that aren’t are going to [will] float away. But a brand like Vicara or Telfar, or some of these indie brands, would we be paying any attention to them now if they didn’t have that [access]?
WWD: Let’s go back to perception of creativity. What do you say of the perception that American fashion lacks creativity? Is the global fashion community biased?
S.K.: Well, I’m the ceo and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, so I’m hyper-sensitive to any criticism. We’re the youngest of the four majors. American fashion has always had more to prove. Even back when, as we know, historically the retailers would send [people] to Europe, sketch, come back, copy, reproduce. And I think about how Eleanor Lambert, the CFDA’s founder, and really the founder of fashion week, took the designer from the back room of the manufacturer to the front. So we have always had it uphill more so than Europe. That still exists to some extent, and I don’t know why….But I’ve never seen a story about London, Milan or Paris that is remotely critical of those cities’ [fashion weeks].
WWD: In Paris and Milan you don’t have to choose among three 3 p.m. shows. Those schedules are manageable.
S.K.: There isn’t a major show where I think you’re having to make a decision. And the little bit of the difference [in calendar congestion] is because of the opportunity here. Some brands might be doubled up, but we’re making a determination from the designer’s side.
Maybe we’re not considering this from the editors’ side because [editors] cover all of it, but when we’re looking at it from the business side, we’re saying that the buyer going to A designer isn’t the same buyer who’s going to B designer. We factor that in. We would never — not that they would let us — but we would never put someone on top of Michael Kors or Marc Jacobs or Coach or Ralph. With the majors, we would never [double-book]. Even the before and after, we have to be so sensitive to it.
But if it’s a choice between — and I’m making up two brands that probably don’t make any sense because I don’t have the schedule in front of me — but the idea of putting Bibhu at the same time as Zimmermann, is that really a problem?
WWD: Many of us would like to see more of the younger, smaller people. Even the most diehard showgoer can’t see more than one show an hour. I’d like the idea of a chic trade show, like the art fairs.
S.K.: Like a country fair where everybody has a tent.
WWD: No, like Frieze. Or an expanded version of what LVMH does for its LVMH Prize finalists. You walk around and you can see a whole lot of people in a little bit of time.
S.K.: I would agree with you. That is something that we have considered and we would do it in a minute. But again, the designers don’t want to do it. Everybody wants to be independent. You would have to worry about the adjacencies…
I just had a great meeting with Virgil [Abloh] and talked about what he’s doing with Off-White, LV. He gave me so much great insight into American fashion and New York Fashion Week. He said there is such an opportunity to do things differently, all great ideas. And it doesn’t even matter when you do it.
WWD: Virgil — what’s he’s done is amazing and a major reason why American themes are dominating fashion right now with casual, street, athletic. But the brands getting attention for that are European.
S.K.: You have to factor in the times that we live in. So maybe Virgil is the Marc or the Michael of today in Europe. That’s how I would look at it. The fact that Alex went to Balenciaga, for whatever time he was there, was a reflection of that time in fashion. Virgil is so proud to be a guy from Chicago and to represent American fashion at a big house like that. I’d say that about Thom Browne. I think Thom belongs in Paris. I’d wave the American flag if I could at his show. I think that’s a great, great statement for who we are as an industry. And who knows? I think Virgil is the first of a new generation of Americans of those houses. Who knows what’s next?
If you compare [fashion] to, say, restaurants, how many new restaurants do we see pop up in New York and go away? Apps — everybody’s going to make a gazillion dollars on an app. American fashion is so incredibly entrepreneurial, they’re always trying something.
WWD: Direct-to-consumer has become so important. That generation beginning with Proenza, they were and remain very wholesale dependent. Is that an Achilles heel?
S.K.: That question goes back to the June dates. I think the more traditional wholesale brands find that idea more interesting than the brands that are developing direct-to-consumer. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an Achilles heel, but in my opinion, a brand that’s too focused on wholesale is not going to be successful in the end.
On the flip side of it, a brand that is too aggressive in the direct-to-consumer — Thakoon is a good example of that — is also not a good idea. A lesson learned on that was no wholesale, no distribution beyond direct-to-consumer, and you lose visibility on the floor of department stores, you lose that direct connection to the consumer that’s going into the stores. So there needs to be a healthy balance between them. There needs to be a strategy beyond just creating an infrastructure to sell directly to the consumer, and that isn’t always easy. How is a customer going to find you?
WWD: Are you hopeful?
S.K.: Oh, incredibly hopeful. [Over] 12 years, I have been so amazed by the energy and the creativity of our industry. As an industry, working and living in a world that is just changing day to day to day, I see thoughtful [consideration] and new ideas. If you had asked me this six years ago, I still would have been hopeful, but I would have said that I see an industry that’s trying to hold onto the way this has been done in the past. Now, I see an industry trying things and not necessarily defining it by the way it was done. That’s an exciting thing.