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Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/10/2012

Given the number of designers in one room, CFDA meetings might seem like prime material for a knock-knock joke or one long complain-athon. But members insist attendees are generally on their best behavior.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

When the CFDA was just getting started, Eleanor Lambert would round up the 20 founding members in her 57th Street offices where everyone would sit around a table and run through the agenda at hand. As the years went by, the group would meet up after work in various designers’ showrooms such as past presidents Bill Blass, Carolyne Roehm and Perry Ellis. All in all, the meetings were pretty perfunctory though hashing out who should be new inductees and members was—and remains—a touchy subject for many. Debating who should win CFDA awards is another incendiary matter.

“Like anything in life, there are certain types of people. Some like to be heard and some like to listen,” says Monika Tilley, a member since 1976.

Tilley recalls how the membership committee had once approved of admitting a knitwear designer as a new member. But when his name was submitted for the board’s approval, Donna Karan piped up, “But he’s my contractor,” Tilley says. “So that was not very astute of us.”

Former president Stan Herman adds one of the more contentious discussions happened after all the votes for the CFDA awards had been tallied and the winners were under review by the board. The majority vote deemed New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn won a CFDA award, save for a few holdouts who had been rankled by stinging reviews. The opposed eventually torpedoed the idea, though Horyn later won the Eugenia Sheppard award in 2002.

However confrontational that particular meeting may have been, Herman says he is more than encouraged by the group’s current state. “The CFDA is as good as it has ever been, and there are a lot of young people. The membership meetings have become very popular.”

He adds, “I can remember the first board meeting I chaired. There were 20 people and we didn’t have enough chairs.”

Now the CFDA board meetings are usually held in Diane von Furstenberg’s spacious West 14th Street offices during “sophisticated yet informal” lunches where attendees get the lowdown on the latest issues. Comprehensive as those meetings tend to be, von Furstenberg is known to get a few laughs here and there just by being herself. “It’s never dull,” one designer offers. “Diane can be very funny. Her candidness catches people off guard.”

Another designer adds, “Diane is the leading lady and Steven [Kolb] is her supporting actor.”

Whatever the cast, attendees generally stick to a fairly tight schedule and differences of opinions lead to a vote.

Vera Wang says, “We take every issue seriously, and the board is so diversified by age, business models, designers’ fields of expertise [e.g.; accessories, men’s, etc.]. But I think the show schedule and the awards, short-term and long-term projects like the anniversary, and so forth, are always significant responsibilities.”

As for the seating, well, that can be a bit like high school. Wang recounts, “When I first started, we would frequently sit with the same people, depending on who arrived first. Since the board became so much larger, and diverse, you have to be on time. Sort of like school, ­though Diane does run a tight but fun ship!”

Joan Vass was known to be a rabble-rouser. One member, who asked not be named, says, “I remember once she was yelling about something and then she said, ‘Oh, but nobody listens to me because I’m obscure and marginal.'”

A few others express similar discontent, claiming that most members are only willing to hear out the big guns like Ralph, Donna, Oscar and Vera. Another designer who requested anonymity says, “There are not a lot of people who take the mic to make a comment. It’s intimidating, especially with so many designers in one room.”

Intimidating or not, there is no shortage of those who want in. Herman estimates that 100-plus designers are now considered for membership each year. “As you know,” he says, “this is the era of accessories, so everybody who is dangling an earring is ‘a designer.'”