Fern Mallis

Meet the woman who launched New York Fashion Week

At the close of the interview with Fern Mallis, I read an excerpt from her book entitled, “Fashion Icons.” It was an emotional moment for us both; for me in particular because the interview personified her rare humility and inner grace. The excerpt reads:

Fashion’s truly a collaborative business. To pull off a successful show takes a village, a very cool sheik village. During this time I get to see firsthand from the front row what worked, what didn’t work, who triumphed, who failed, but, more importantly, I learned and watched how hard this industry works, the dedication, commitment that it takes to succeed season in and out over and over again. No one is an overnight success. There is a price to pay for fame and fortune but the respect and admiration I have for these people sustain me and bring me joy.

 

Fern, thank you very much for participating in this interview. I want to begin the interview with your childhood. You’re the middle child?

Middle of three daughters.

You loved going to the Garment District with your dad?

I did. My father was a salesman selling women’s scarves, and both of my uncles worked in the Garment District as well, so textiles and sportswear. I loved every chance I had to go to work with him.

Your oldest sister is an architect and your youngest is an artist?

Yes, an architect and an artist and a mom of three extraordinary children.

And here in New York?

All three daughters are here and her two grandchildren.

That is the legacy of the Mallis family?

Yes, they’ll carry it on.

So when you were small going with your dad watching him sell scarves, was there one experience that brought some enlightenment that fashion is something that you want to do?

No, it’s hard to pin down one experience. I mean, it was years and years of going to work with him, meeting his buyers and the fashion directors at the stores that he worked with, going to lunch with him, and watching the women design the scarves behind the scenes. Just being there, soaking in the energy of the district at that time.

Fern Mallis is interviewed by Karen Floyd, ELYSIAN publisher, in New York. Mallis, whose career in the fashion industry began by winning a contest to be a “guest editor” at “Mademoiselle” magazine, will always been known as the founder and guiding force behind New York Fashion Week, which she ran for 20 years.

And your mom was an artist as well?

Well, my mom had the most common sense and was probably the most creative person. We always called her Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart. You know, she could make anything out of anything. She’d find some broken-down toy on the street, and we’d come home at night, and she wired it into a lamp. Or she would find an old tomato crate and upholster it and make it a doll bed and a cradle. She would paint the house ­— the interiors constantly. We never knew, when we came home from school, what color the walls would be.

So the common theme really in your family of origin is a little bit of a creative bend?

Absolutely. There was a lot of creativity in the household. My parents loved the theater. My mom went to Broadway all the time. They took us as kids, every chance they got, to the theater. We had an art school, the Brooklyn Museum. There were always art supplies in the house encouraging us to be creative.

So your entry or your foray to this fashion world really was when you were the guest editor for “Mademoiselle?” How did that come about? Was it a competition?

“Mademoiselle” had had a guest editor program for many, many years. It was one of the most prestigious honors. They set up the College Board, which was their kind of focus group, targeting college students all over the country. You would submit something. You would see it in the magazine. You would send in an application to serve on the College Board, and they would pretty much take anybody. If you were on the board, you would get periodic letters and packages with things to review and advertise a product. They would be able to say back to their advertisers, “This is what college girls in America are using. This is the product they like. This is — this one sucks.” I submitted a package that would have been a direct mail piece to subscribe to the magazine, something that folded out in many ways and was a lot of fun to do. Next thing I knew, I got a letter or a call, I don’t remember exactly, from an editor at “Mademoiselle” saying that they were going to be in my area, in Buffalo, and could I spend some time and meet them. I thought that this was something they did all the time with everybody. I didn’t realize that I was the finalist being interviewed. And so I spent a day on campus with this editor. To date myself and tell you how long ago this was, about a month later, a telegram arrived saying I had been selected to be a guest editor. That was probably the most exciting piece of mail I ever got in my life.

1969?

1969. I followed in the footsteps of people like Betsey Johnson, Sylvia Plath, and Ali McGraw. I was the guest art editor. So I skipped my graduation at school to come to New York and be an editor for the month of June. One of the other bigger experiences I had when I was at “Mademoiselle” was becoming a merchandising editor. We did only “in store” events around the country. So I traveled to probably every state in the country to their major department stores, and that was a time when they all had interesting regional names, from Marshall Field’s to Myer, Gray’s, all sorts of names I can’t even remember now. Now they’re all Macy’s. I was the only one of the 20 in my group that were winners who was asked to stay on for a real job. I did that for about six-plus years.

And then director at Gimbels?

And then, I got this position with Gimbels East, which was their uptown east side store at the time. It was massive and a wonderful experience. I touched a lot of different creative things. I remember hiring a lot of people to do ads and drawings and other things for me. Everybody from George Stavrinos, who’s an artist who was brilliant and passed away, to Larry Laslo, who’s done home furnishings and collections.

And then you started your public relations firm?

You know, things just evolve somehow naturally. I mean I never have a five-year plan. I never think about what’s really going to be next. I’m not even sure if it was – it was after Gimbels. So friends of mine were architects and interior designers. My friends, Scott Bromley and Robin Jacobsen, had a business together at the time. In fact, they were designing Studio 54 in New York. I took a desk in their office and shared that space with them and started a public relations firm. I didn’t know what else to call it. It was Fern Mallis Public Relations.

Was your sister’s influence what drew you to interior design? She seemed such a strong part of your life.

My sister had a lot of influence. I mean, I loved all the architecture and design. She was in interior design at the time and had worked at – she was the head of design for I.M. Pei & Partners and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. She worked in all the big firms. Then she had her own business and then, at a certain point, decided she wanted to be an architect and just closed it all off and went back to school. She went to Harvard and got her degree at the GSD, and then went off to India actually on a Fulbright for a year. So she was the first IDCNY person in the family, which I’ve subsequently become.

March 26th birthday, how was that celebrated?

Well, it was a fascinating time because I was freelancing at this point in a PR firm in New York. I knew that the CFDA was looking for a new director. They had just done a big AIDS benefit called 7th On Sale. Lo and behold, several months later, when that was all over and they were trying to distribute monies and figure out what to do with everything, they were looking for a new director. I saw that they were interviewing what seemed like hundreds of people and reviewing hundreds of resumes. They were looking for how they were going to take this organization to the next level, and I threw my hat in the ring at the very last second. In the last meeting were Calvin Klein and Bill Blass and Carolyn Robbins and Stan Herman, my friend, and Monika Tilley. They said, ‘Why should we hire you? You haven’t been in fashion in 10 years? You haven’t worked in this industry?’ I said that I never stopped wearing clothes. I said I never stopped shopping. I never stopped looking at magazines, and that it was in my DNA. I grew up in the business. I didn’t have to work in it to understand it and have a feeling for it. That led to a bunch of other questions. The next thing I knew they invited me to the big board meeting to be ratified. That turned out to be on my birthday. It was a very, long big conference table with every designer you’ve ever heard of in your life there, from Ralph Lauren to Donna Karan and Calvin and Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta and Mary McFadden, Joseph, Monika Tilley, and Mary Ann Restivo, and Eleanor Lambert, who started the organization, lots of people. They drilled me, and it was not an easy back and forth. I stood my ground on things that I really believed in. I was then asked to go out of the room while they deliberated. The next thing I knew I was invited back in, and the entire CFDA board sang happy birthday to me.

What were the mechanics of designing, devising 7th On Sixth?

Organizing the industry and having a centralized Fashion Week was very much an industry dream. I mean, it’s something that had been talked about. But it hadn’t happened. If there were 50 fashion shows, there were 50 different locations. I was hired the end of March. I think it was the first week in April when the shows use to be in New York. They were later. Everything shifted years later, and I hadn’t started the job yet but was following what was going on. Michael Kors had a show in an empty loft space down in Chelsea, lots of raw concrete. When they turned the bass music on, things just shook and the ceiling shook, and lots of plaster came down from the ceiling and landed on the shoulders of all the one-name super models, Linda, Naomi, Cindy… They just kept walking, brushed off their shoulders. Chunks of plaster landed in the laps of Susy Menkes from the “International Herald Tribune” and Carrie Donovan who was the “New York Times” fashion critic. They wrote the next day, headlines that pretty much literally said, “We live for fashion; we don’t want to die for it.” I said I think my job description just changed. So it became a mission to organize, centralize, modernize the shows. It took another two years to happen.

After you created the concept, was monetization or underwriting where you spent the lion’s share of your time?

Well, we couldn’t build it without paying for it, and the designers were not going to foot the big bill for that. So we were one of the first fashions shows in the world that really got corporate sponsors involved. I blindly called everybody. But I started through friends who were helping me and publishers, and we started with — Evian was the first one that came on board. They were looking to brand their water in a way in America, and this is when there was Evian or Perrier on the shelves.

A fashion panel at Charleston Fashion Week in March included Fern Mallis.

So when did IMG come into the picture?

Well, when IMG came in, it was 10 years later. I was still the director of the CFDA and director of the foundation and 7th On Sixth, and we were doing all the award galas. We were doing Fashion Fights Breast Cancer. We were doing a million things. Scholarship funds and Fashion Week twice a year, and Men’s Week, which we had started then. So we had our hands full in a small office. We were constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep all this in place and juggle everything. IMG, whose business was to put on events, came around, and they had sponsorships. They do those big corporate title sponsorships for sports arenas. We knew the IMG guys, and they were friends. They made a compelling case that they would be interested in buying Fashion Week, the 7th On Sixth portion.

Why did you leave IMG Fashion in 2010?

Bryant Park was my baby. It was close to 18 years. It was the end of an era. I was involved in this transition to Lincoln Center to Damrosch Park. I also saw the writing on the wall. I saw the memos going from three people to 30 people, and nobody could make a decision on anything. It was becoming catastrophically expensive, which meant that the IMG team was having to sell sponsorships up the kazoo, and the sponsor lobby became this humongous space. It became all about the sponsorships. It became about the corporate partners and less about the designers and the creative community. I created Fashion Week to give a platform to the designers. The corporate sponsors were there to support that and help make that happen. Not the other way around.

And do you think there’s been a move back to where it was in 2002?

Well, in that sense, yes, only because, in the last two years, Mercedes Benz dropped out and said no more, and American Express said no more, and so there’s no more title sponsors to Fashion Week. So now it’s all branded NYFW. But it’s gone back, back, back to where we were at the beginning because shows are all over town now. It’s completely decentralized.

What was the coffee phase of your life?

Well, during the coffee phase of my life, which is when I left IMG, I took some time off to reflect and get my bearings. It didn’t last long because people would call me every day for a cup of coffee to meet and talk about a new idea or a new project, a new business startup, I mean whatever it was. In one meeting, New York 92nd Street Y, one of the most prestigious centers with their programming and lecture series came to play. Every prime minister and president, author, musician, you name it, they’re all there speaking being interviewed by somebody fabulous.

And now Fern Mallis moderating?

So they asked me if I would be interested in interviewing fashion people because they’ve had runoffs but never a dedicated series for that.

How do you approach relationships with new and upcoming designers?

Well, you know, I see them when they become CFDA members. I read about them. I go to their shows or presentations, and I meet them. Eventually you just have an instinctive feeling about certain people, and you feel, I really like this kid. He’s going to be great, or she’s really talented. I also think a lot of people in the industry who’ve been around a long time, and after a while you can see a collection and see a personality and you say, “You know, they’re going to make it.” You just know. They have the tenacity. They have the drive. They have talent. You know, they’re doing something that has a voice that’s not out there, and it’s not repetitive. They bring something fresh to the table; you want to be around them. You like their energy. I always have said, be nice. You don’t want to work with people who are divas and a pain in the ass. You meet a lot of those, too. You say, “Who does that kid think he is? He hasn’t done anything yet, and he’s already trouble?”

What has fueled you?

You know, I’m not sure where it comes from. Partially what fuels me is a mortgage, the bills to pay, the rent, the car. You want to live a certain life. You have to afford it. That is the God’s honest truth. You work to do that. I’m not married, and no one supported me ever. So, you just keep doing it. I have a curiosity, and I like being busy. I complain a lot when I’m way too busy, and everybody says, “Oh, stop it, you’d kill yourself if you weren’t busy.” When I do try to relax, I chill for a minute, and then I pick up something to do.

There’s a series that we do called Inspiring Women. I am fascinated with whether women can have it all, or do the real successful ones have to make the choice early on? Do you feel like you had to make a choice?

No, I don’t feel like I had to make a choice, and I do believe there are some people who are able to do it all. You know, it’s a lot of negotiating and logistics. It just didn’t work out for me. I had interesting men that I dated at certain points in my life. Were they marriageable material? I look back maybe. You know, at the time, I had my sightlines somewhere else. So I didn’t try to make them happen and pursue that. There was an era where I probably would have met a lot of great men, and that’s an era where I was having too much fun with all my gay friends. So they were a diversion. You know, those Studio 54 years and just having a really good time. Lasting relationships and friendships, yet a lot of those people died, and only a few of them are still around. But, I was having a good time, and I was busy enjoying my work. I wasn’t seeing a lot of happily married friends. So, it just wasn’t an issue for me. You know, I lived by hope springs eternal, and around the corner something will work out. I still keep thinking I’m gonna sit next to somebody great on an airplane, but it’s usually some really dorky woman that’s next to me on a plane. I go, well, it’s not this trip.

How would you tell a student fresh out of college how you make a name for yourself?

How do you make a name for yourself? Stay focused. Be honest. Be nice. Stay true to your core beliefs. Don’t burn bridges. I mean it’s a lot of things. I think it takes a while to step out of college and know what you want to do and make a name for yourself. I think you have to experiment and do lots of different things and become a sponge and take it all in. It’s a very different world now with the Internet and with computers and social media. I do tell students and groups, when I speak to them, you have got to get away from that screen. There is a world outside of that screen even though you’re seeing it in that screen. Experience it away from that… travel, go to museums, go to theater and talk to people. Social media is the most antisocial thing there is in the world, I think.

What’s your favorite place to go to travel?

Well, there’s two answers to that. One is my house in South Hampton. I have a house in the country, my favorite escape. That is where I decompress and recharge my battery. It is on a lake, and it’s really beautiful. I’m really happy there. If I have to get on a plane, one of my favorite vacation places is St. Barts. I’ve been going there for a gazillion years.

Who is your favorite designer?

That is a tough question, and I’m not sure I really can answer that. There are so many of them. I’ve always been the Madeleine Albright of the fashion industry and been a diplomat about that.

Is there a new designer on the horizon that we should be aware of?

There are two that I’m fond of. One is Brandon Maxwell, who is designing for Lady Gaga, and did a really beautiful show. Very beautiful black and white clothing. The other is Monse, and it’s two young designers, a man, Fernando, and Laura, who use to work for Oscar de la Renta and their own collection. They are also being watched very carefully by the industry.

How long does a trend last?

A trend doesn’t last very long at all. That’s why they’re trends.

But then they come back into style.

Well, style lasts forever.

What is the difference between fashion and style?

Well, the fashion is clothing. Fashion is everything, but style is something, to me, that is more unique and more specific. You know, people either have style or they don’t. It is a way of understanding clothing and accessories and a way of putting things together. There is a way of knowing what is stylish and what is trendy. You know to me, stylish people aren’t wearing trendy clothes. You know, trends are at-the-moment, like the “in” bag.

What do you look for to be inspired?

I don’t think I look for it. I think you find it. It’s just there. I think you have to just be open to the elements and people and things around you, and somehow that just becomes an inspiration.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Well, my tombstone will probably say, “She created Fashion Week,” which is okay. It was a game changer and opened up a lot of doors and a lot of windows for me. It’s something that I’m very proud of. But, I’d like to be remembered for just being a good human being.

If you could give advice to someone interested in the fashion world, what would that be?

It would be to be nice. Be nice because, you’re going out into a world competing with a lot of people and a lot of talent. At the end of the day, you want to work with and support and be with people who are nice

If you could be one age for any day what would it be?

I think 30s are a good age.

What’s your next adventure?

My next adventure is unbelievable travel. A weekend in Melbourne followed by the next week in Charleston and the next week in Mumbai, where I’ll be with Donna Karan and Calvin Klein interviewing them. Then a week in Savannah and Atlanta, SCAD Style Week, where I’m honorary chair, and then conceivably a week in London doing interviews, and finally September 1st through September 8th, I will be a special guest on the Queen Mary going from South Hampton to New York, arriving in New York on the first day of Fashion Week.

You need to get back to the Hamptons.

Exactly.

What is that role of fashion in the world?

The role is to keep people dressed and civilized in society.

Fern Mallis, thank you very much.

Thank you.

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