CFDA ENTERS ARNOLD ERA
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — The American Fashion Awards last month were something of a coming out party for Peter Arnold.
He didn’t get the attention of Karl Lagerfeld in his slim jeans look, or even the spotlight afforded Diana Ross or new Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey. But he didn’t go unnoticed, either.
Arnold stood quietly off to the side, or as quietly as is possible when one is 6-feet, 2.5-inches tall with a shaved head and wearing a custom-made suit. Respectful of the swan song being performed at that moment by Fern Mallis, his predecessor in one of fashion’s most visible and diplomatically demanding jobs — executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America — it was perhaps telling of his approach that he made no attempt to out-fashion her.
Mallis, who joined the management and licensing conglomerate IMG last week as vice president and executive director of the fashion show production company 7th on Sixth, led the direction of the CFDA for the past decade in a style she honed in her prior career as a fashion publicist — bold and brash — which means she often stepped on some toes to get the job done.
Given Arnold’s background in practicing corporate and securities law for the past 14 years, his approach will perhaps come to be known as more politically delicate. His friends describe him as an engaging man of impeccable manners with a wry sense of humor, even if he comes off as a bit fastidious when it comes to matters of attire.
At least he and Mallis do have a common trait in that lawyers and publicists are the butt of a lot of the same jokes.
While Arnold’s appointment as executive director of the CFDA, a job he officially began last week, left many pundits scratching their heads, wondering “Who is this guy?,” it would not be correct to describe him as a fashion outsider. It turns out he has a number of both tertiary and long-standing connections to the industry, as well as a certain compulsion toward custom tailoring and double-breasted suits, the latter of which made him the sartorial talk of the Wall Street practice of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood.
Its seems an odd career track for a person who’s interested in fashion, but the 43-year-old Arnold has tailored himself a resume that helped him beat out several prominent figures in the industry for the job, partly for the legal expertise he brings to the not-for-profit organization.
“He’s sort of the perfect mix of outside and inside fashion,” said Cynthia Rowley, who knew Arnold through social connections. “He’s a very smart guy, but he’s fun, too. He’s very confident, but also humble, and he has great style, but he doesn’t live for that. He understands that it’s a business, too.”
Born in Northampton, Mass., Arnold was raised by an artistic family: his mother had interned for Harper’s Bazaar in the Fifties before becoming a professor of design at the University of Massachusetts (she now teaches at Temple University), while his father is a cartoonist and illustrator and his sister, Elizabeth Arnold, is a national political correspondent for NPR. He studied European history at Wesleyan University.
Not particularly sure what he wanted to do with his life, Arnold found his way through law school at NYU and in 1987 was hired in the municipal finance department of Brown & Wood, which merged this year with Sidley & Austin. He climbed the corporate ladder, working on corporate transactions like registering debt and equities, taking companies public, and eventually specializing in structural derivatives products, one of the most complicated investment products in which a security and its rate of return are altered with a synthetic product. He made partner three-and-a-half years ago.
“When I was a senior associate and looking ahead at what I would like to do, I figured that I could be a partner, but I wondered what would be next,” Arnold said, noting that he had begun to find fulfillment in working with not-for-profits, such as his board membership with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“I knew I had this love of fashion and I loved my experience with not-for-profits with GMHC, so I wondered, ‘How can I make this work?”‘ he said.
Arnold’s interest in fashion also matured over the years, evolving from thrift store shopping in his college days to Hugo Boss, Brooks Bros. and Barneys “warehouse sale” suits in his early days at the law firm. He later discovered the theory of “suppression,” how a pinstriped, double-breasted suit fitted tightly to the body can change the perception of a shoulder line or one’s height, so he began ordering his clothes from Domenico Spano, director of custom tailoring at Bergdorf Goodman Men.
His taste runs to silhouettes of the Thirties and early Forties, a look with which he is so enamored that the majority of his collection of suits comes with subtle variations of pinstripes.
At least he’s finally found an appreciative audience. Such was the level of taste at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood that most of his colleagues thought Arnold was wearing the same suit every day.
“There is an elegance to wearing a suit,” Arnold said. “If you walk into a room looking the way Phillip Miller [retired chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue] does, you command a certain level of respect. I am most comfortable at work in a suit. I never understood casual Fridays.”
That’s not to say Arnold is entirely buttoned down. Sometimes, he doesn’t wear socks.
“He’s not your jeans and T-shirt kind of guy,” said Jeff Mahshie, designer of Chaiken, who met Arnold in Cornwall, Conn., several summers ago when Mahshie was still in school. When they drove around town in a pickup truck, Arnold wore a suede jacket and cords.
“He’s incredibly natty, always in a tattersol or pinstripe suit,” Mahshie said. “I always tease him about being a chic nerd, but that’s because I’ve known him for so long. He’s totally cultivated that geek-chic look, that scholar-bookish thing. And he was bald before that was chic, too.”
The relaxed side of Peter Arnold, according to his friends, is as warm and friendly as his professional demeanor. He is an avid gardener and cultivates roses at his West Village home, while this summer he is renting a Sagaponack cottage owned by artist Robert Dash, noted for its garden paths, which was featured in the House & Home section of the New York Times last week. He frequently entertains with unpretentious dinners and, in his new role, has made his first appearances before the fashion public on the arm of Tim Braun, his partner of three years who is starting an independent television production company after working for CNN and “Good Morning America” for several years.
“He’s my best supporter and I wanted to share that moment with him,” Arnold said of Braun. “He’s a wonderful man and I’m proud to have him on my arm. I come from a very different work environment and that’s a very exhilarating thing to do.”
Arnold’s legal background is what most of his supporters turn to in assessing his potential for helming the CFDA as it marks a significant shift in focus, aiming to return to its original mission of promoting fashion as an art form and supporting American designers after nearly a decade of being overwhelmed by the unwieldy success of its fashion show production business.
“He gave a fantastic interview,” said Diane Von Furstenberg, a member of the executive director search committee, who also knew Arnold socially. “He is so different and very good with people. Because he was a lawyer, he will be able to do a lot of things that need to be dealt with there. It’s a major step for the CFDA because he will really help put it back in perspective.”
Mahshie added that since 7th on Sixth was sold to IMG, he also feels the CFDA should return to more philanthropic endeavors and that there is a particular need to unify its membership toward common goals.
“He is incredibly diplomatic and understated,” Mahshie said. “He’s very gracious and charming, with impeccable manners and taste.”
Designer Roland Nivelais, who’s known Arnold for nearly 20 years, described him as “the slickest lawyer in town.”
“In the past, the little designers felt like they did not count, that they were not part of the game of the CFDA,” Nivelais said. “Peter wants to hear everyone’s voices. Hopefully, it will be a little less political than the CFDA has been in the past. I think Fern did a great job in putting the CFDA on the map, but I think the next step is to make it much more important for everyone.”
At his first week on the job, Arnold came up with a mission statement: “Not only is the CFDA a business, but fashion is a business. It is one that is unlike other artistic or creative endeavors in that it is inextricably linked to a bottom line, which is profits.”
The logistics of 7th on Sixth are in the process of being unpacked within the IMG corporation, just as Arnold is unpacking his UCC manuals on derivative trading, and, for inexplicable reasons, plastic knick-nacks in the shape of barnyard animals related to various deals he made at his former job.
Mallis said she hopes to quickly confirm a schedule for the spring Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week collections, expected to be held in Bryant Park beginning Sept. 9.
“I think Peter’s going to be terrific,” she said. “It’s a time for the CFDA to reflect and figure out what it wants to do. The shows took up so much time and energy that it opens a rare opportunity for them.”
With Stan Herman, who remains president of the CFDA, Arnold talked about several elements of what his approach to the organization could include, although he did not fully articulate his plans considering he had just begun the job.
The organization’s contributions to causes that combat breast cancer and AIDS will clearly continue to be a major focus, but the CFDA will also put a renewed emphasis on scholarship and nurturing young talent at its earliest stages, helping designers with understanding business and production needs, possibly through seminars and consultation on available sources of funding.
“I like the fact it’s limitless in the creative possibilities of what someone can do here,” Arnold said. “New York has become as important a global fashion capital as any other city. That part of the struggle of becoming an epicenter of fashion has been achieved.”
Herman added that the completion of the sale of 7th on Sixth to IMG has put the CFDA on solid financial ground and that the change in directorship will offer an important opportunity to refocus the membership of the organization, made up of 245 designers, to try to bring that relationship closer.
“I don’t want one single designer to come to me and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here,”‘ Herman said. “We have got to find a way to excite them. I don’t want to hear about the ‘inner sanctum.’ If they say they don’t get asked, that’s bull.”