NEW YORK — After a decade that was focused mostly upon extending its reach, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, in its post-fashion-show-production era, is starting to get a better grasp on its original mission.
Nearly 20 months into his tenure as executive director of the CFDA, Peter Arnold, a former corporate and securities lawyer who had little previous fashion industry experience, has driven a quiet, but effective, campaign to change some perceptions of the nonprofit organization among its designer members. During that time, Arnold has pondered the original meaning and mission of the CFDA and engaged in lengthy discussions with many of its 258 members, as well as retaining a private consulting firm to undertake a 10-month analysis on the subject.
The results were not entirely surprising. Arnold and the consulting firm, Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, found what several members have publicly griped about for years: that there was a long-standing perception that the CFDA agenda was being driven by a handful of the biggest designers on its board, while small members and those with lower profiles felt they were being ignored. Designers were also asked whether they felt that the CFDA should focus more of its energies on philanthropic causes or promoting members and the results indicated their needs were not being addressed adequately.
“At the end of the day, the CFDA was meant to promote American fashion,” Arnold said in a recent interview. “There is a group of designers out there who are struggling and looking for guidance. We are a membership organization and a trade organization, and there was a need to place a little more attention on that membership.”
Such deductions might seem elementary, but the detailed examination of its mission through such surveys gave Arnold some leverage in pursuing two recent changes to the organization’s structure, which were approved last year by its board: instituting term limits for CFDA board members and a sliding scale of membership dues that would moderately increase the burden on more senior and successful members.
During the Nineties, much of the CFDA’s administrative efforts were focused on the development of 7th on Sixth, the centralized production facilities for fashion shows in Bryant Park, led by the former executive director, Fern Mallis. While its growth was fast and widely viewed as a successful way of putting New York on the map of world fashion capitals, the management of fashion shows ultimately took a toll on other member activities. The sale of 7th on Sixth to IMG in 2001 and Mallis’ move to that company was viewed as an opportunity for the CFDA to return its focus to members.
The result has been an organization that appears to be less in the public eye, with the exception of the promotion of its existing Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiatives, the scaled back CFDA Awards and the launch of the CFDA/Vogue “Fashion for America” response to 9/11. That is not to say that its philanthropic activities have been abandoned — the most recent FTBC/Saks Fifth Avenue shopping weekend raised close to $2 million to benefit breast cancer organizations. On Wednesday, Stan Herman, president of the CFDA, presented a $50,000 check to Evelyn Lauder and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation she founded in 1993, the fourth such donation CFDA has made to that charity in as many years.
“The CFDA has been involved in breast cancer charities since the beginning,” Lauder said. “The fashion industry is extremely important to our work.”
But in the place of intense debate over show dates, membership meetings are now focused on such initiatives as creating mentoring programs to connect experienced designers with those starting out, the possibility of producing a CFDA Web site that would offer information about members and potentially facilitating group discounts for designers to engage in employee health care networks or insurance plans.
“We are mapping out a strategy that may be not as sexy as having big parties during fashion week,” Arnold said. “We are talking about things that are relatively easy to do, but that we haven’t done yet. Too many of our younger designers are fighting the fight on their own, without anybody ready to help them.”
Some members have come to feel disenfranchised from the organization, which Arnold is trying to combat by instituting more committees within the group to explore different topics, such as fund-raising or membership nominations. The CFDA is also addressing the tenure of its 26 board members, who were previously elected for life, by instituting a class system where, each year, those in the longest-serving class would end their tenure in active voting positions and be replaced by a new group of board members. A committee to nominate new board members was also created and is made up of Stan Herman, Carolina Herrera, Herbert Kasper, Mary Ann Restivo and Louis Dell’Olio.
“He’s been able to put into place a functional, well-run operation that services the membership,” Herman said. “And at the same time he has a marvelous sense of fashion.”
As for membership dues, which have been $500 a year since 1987, Arnold said the CFDA board approved a sliding scale of dues for long-term members, although probably not raising them higher than $1,000. Two separate committees will also be meeting in the coming weeks, with one focused on discord among men’s wear designers over their place during New York fashion weeks and the potential of having a men’s fashion week in July, and the other on overall issues with fashion week related to global scheduling, conflicting dates with Première Vision and double-booked shows. Their findings will be presented at the next members’ meeting on March 11.