In conversation with Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA

In conversation with Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA

American fashion

Text: Marianna Milkis

Image: Anton Lombardi

Buro 24/7 caught up with the man behind the American fashion industry and how NYFW: Men’s looks to usher in a new wave of designers

We expected to see more bared celebrity bodies at the 2015 CFDA Fashion Awards but this time the majority chose conventional outfits. So, how did this maximum exposure trend become such a thing? 
It started, of course, last year when Rihanna wore an Adam Selman dress covered in Swarovski crystals. Well, I must tell you that this dress in person was not nearly as sheer as it was in the photos. You'll laugh, but I would say she was pretty covered. One of our members, Kerry O'Brien, has a line of invisible underwear called Commando, which Rihanna wore that night. It sure started a trend, but even Rihanna's look goes back to Marilyn Monroe and Cher at the Oscars, and Bob Mackie. Fashion is fun. Fashion is about expressing yourself. Short of obscene, I think it's fine.


Diane von Furstenberg has been the President of the CFDA since 2006, and she was recently re-elected. What makes her such an ideal leader for CFDA?  
The board of directors elects the president of the CFDA. Board members and peers put Diane in the office, and this has the support of the general membership. There are a few things that make Diane a good president. First, she is a working designer, so she has real-time, practical experience and engagement with the industry. She has an invaluable sense of immediacy of what is happening and changing dynamics in the industry. She's in the game. Second, she has an international presence that's goes beyond the States and Europe. Not just at the consumer level, but industry-wide. This not only aids in our ability to partner and collaborate with other fashion capitals, but also in terms of public awareness for our organization. Third, she is available for someone who is so busy. She responds to an email probably quicker than anyone I know. She is very hands-on and involved, but not in a way that doesn't let me do my job, she doesn't micromanage me or the organisation. And lastly, she has relationships. Many of the programs that we have in place started when people reached out to Diane looking to work with her but were not right for Diane von Furstenberg, so she sent them to the CFDA. To put it simply, she's a well-known global businesswoman.

New York Fashion Week has been having a serious problem with its overloaded and hectic schedule. What have you done to solve this?
The official New York Fashion Week (NYFW) is scheduled under something called The Fashion Calendar which is owned and operated by the CFDA. The Fashion Calendar was started more than 65 years ago by a woman named Ruth Finley. She was the first person to take what the Fashion Week was then and schedule and organise it through this service. Last year, we bought the Fashion Calendar from Ms. Finley and are now taking control of the scheduling. First, we modernised and streamlined it because the technology, process and systems were all a bit dated. Then we began to be more strategic with the show scheduling. It used to be anyone who contacted Ms. Finley and wanted to show during Fashion Week could do so. Now anyone new to NYFW has to go through an application process. Of course, anyone who's already been on the schedule before remains on it for the time being. We also separated the official calendar from everything else that is happening during Fashion Week — a distinction that didn't exist before.

The first-ever NYFW: Men's kicks off July 13 to 16. Why has CFDA finally decided to make it official and separate now?
There was a Men's Fashion Week fifteen or so years ago that didn't solidify. Today, menswear has become more creative and innovative, particularly in the United States where right now there are many young menswear designers who are adding to the conversation. We discussed Men's Fashion Week for a while, so when our first partner, Amazon Fashion, came on board, we knew it was time. We wanted to create something that would be authentically men's fashion, not a commercial circus-like atmosphere. Men's fashion in the United States has matured, it doesn't have to be bland anymore, and the American guys are embracing it and being more creative in the way they dress.

You began your career working with charity companies like the American Cancer Society, DIFFA and Staying Alive Foundation before making the transition into fashion. How does your previous experiences help you now at CFDA?
My background is in not-for-profit management where I worked with organisations that have a social mission; be it cancer, HIV or AIDS. But the fundamental management of an NFPC handling social issues is the same as the CFDA which is also a nonprofit. I had zero fashion experience but I knew how to run an organization, work with a volunteered board of directors, raise funds and put partnerships together. These are skills you don't necessarily gain working in fashion PR or marketing, and this is what the committee that hired me liked. I was able to structure the CFDA and run it as a business. When you work for any charity, your goal is to help someone. It is not different here. Our mission is to strengthen the influence and success of American designers in the global economy. The fashion stuff was easy to learn.

What are some of the programs that exist at the CFDA for that purpose?
Our CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is a competition for young American designers who are given the opportunity to win a business grant of up to $300,000, as well as mentorship and support from the industry executives. This program has really identified and created a new generation of American talents. The first year the program was in existence, back in 2004, Proenza Schouler won the main prize, and since then designers like Thom Browne, Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra and Rag & Bone came out of it. There is a big focus there to actually define American fashion and support only the most talented and skillful designers who, we believe, can succeed. It was a huge success for the CFDA and one of the first programs of its kind.

Proenza Schouler

The number of new labels grows very fast, but just recently two well-known indie designers, Band of Outsiders and Kris Van Assche, announced that they are closing their brands for financial reasons. Both of them looked pretty strong in the market. Is it such a tough time for independent brands?
There is always the good and the bad of nurturing new businesses, and the bad is that there are a lot of new businesses, there is perhaps a bit of saturation in the marketplace. I think a designer who has a point of view, is focused and determined can take an idea and grow it very quickly to a $10 million mark, which is a nice healthy steady business. It's the $10 million to the next jump that is harder for designers because such growth requires investments, capital, and financial partners. And it often gets tricky because business guys don't always understand that creative process or what that brand was built on — and there you have yourself a conflict. On top of that, there is just not enough of investment to go around for everyone who needs them. So only the brands that are the strongest are going to survive. And sometimes it's just a matter of fatigue, too. A designer works so hard to deliver seasonally and has no time off. When you are a creative person whose business grows, and you end up spending more time crunching numbers and not really creating, than you've moved away from what you started and wanted to be. So does it make more sense to go work for someone else and just be creative and not have to worry about anything?

What advice can you give young designers who want to start and grow their brands now?
Have a strong vision, which sounds like a cliché, but it's so important. Be ready to work. And be true to yourself. Often you are so tempted to worry about what happens to your left, to your right or behind you, but you just have to stay focused. Last night I spoke with Joseph [Altuzarra] about reinventing yourself. Well, you don't always have to reinvent yourself. Every season doesn't have to be the next thing. If the slit in the skirt is your thing, then just keep doing that. Or if you are known for a perfect white shirt, make it your core item. Because then the customers are going to recognise you and come to you for that. Make it your core and then build on that core.

So what exactly, beyond sportswear, sets American designers apart? 
There is no fear of commercialisation in American fashion. I don't think fashion is art. I think it can be artistic, but it's not art. Fashion is a business. You can be the most creative person but if nothing sells than you are out. Commercial is not a dirty word.

There is no fear of commercialisation in American fashion. I don't think fashion is art. I think it can be artistic, but it's not art.

Can we at this point even speak about Italian, French, British designs, or is it all just one global fashion landscape today?
There are still borders in terms of French, Italian, British, American, Japanese fashion, but they are blurring more and more because we live in a global economy. Now, Joseph Altuzarra is with Kering [the French luxury holding formerly named PPR], Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan are with LVMH, so it gets harder to see who is who anymore.

CFDA embraces digital changes in fashion. Last year, you established the Fashion Instagrammer of the Year Award and this year awarded Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom. How have digital and social platforms changed the industry?
Today, we are all chasing content. You guys are a great example of this changing landscape. Even traditional media is caught in the change. Digital tools give designers, and even the CFDA, a chance to tell a story as they want to tell it. It's a way to talk directly to the audience that you control and own. You can say things the way you want to say to them and you can develop relationships through those channels and get a sense of what a customer or an audience likes. The traditional landscape of retail has also shifted from a wholesale model to a more direct to consumer model. It's empowering from a business standpoint.

So you don't think that fashion has lost its exclusivity, mystique and has become too accessible?
I don't think so. I think there is still mystery and allure to fashion. Following Tory Burch on Instagram doesn't put you into Tory Burch' show, and liking a picture that Marc Jacobs posts from a trip he is on doesn't mean you're with Marc Jacobs. Music has always been very mainstream and accessible but there is still an allure there; we still want to know where Beyoncé and Jay-Z are. So no, I don't think it's taking anything away from it at all. I think it enhances it.

And at the same time there has been what feels like a strong pushback from New York Fashion Week, which is now curated by the CFDA, and even some rumors that they may ban bloggers from the shows.
Seven or eight years back the board made a decision to start allowing bloggers to take part in the CFDA Fashion Awards Guild that determines nominees for the CFDA Fashion Awards and was traditionally made out of editors, designers, retailers, buyers, stylists — all the people who pay attention to the collections. And one particular board member at the time was so horrified by the idea that a blogger could be knowledgeable enough to participate in the nomination process. And I think that many are, and probably some aren't. So for the shows, it is an individual decision based on what a designer deems as appropriate or is trying to accomplish.

Over the years, you have done a lot to change how models are treated and perceived by the industry. Do you see the situation changing for the better?
Back in 2007, we started the CFDA Health Initiative based on the concern about health and well-being of models. Every season, we release recommended guidelines that focus on education and awareness for the industry. And I see the change happening. We have always advocated that no girl under the age of 16 should be working on the runways and during fashion week because emotionally and physically they are not mature enough for that. And we got that girl off the runway, at least in New York City, which is a big change. There is now a new legislation that protects models under the age of 18 in similar ways that child actors are protected. There are differences, of course, because a child actor goes on a set for three months, they have a tutor and one employer, whereas a model has multiple employers. So we've been working with the Department of Labor on refining it. We push the needle on body image and size topics, too. Our tagline is 'Health is beauty'. We also recently held a panel 'Diversity in Fashion' led by Bethann Hardison, who received a CFDA Award last year advocating the idea that the industry needs to change to be more reflective of society.

Back in 2007, we started the CFDA Health Initiative based on the concern about health and well-being of models. Every season, we release recommended guidelines that focus on education and awareness for the industry.

What else needs to be changed in the industry that you haven't quite gotten around to yet?
Our priority is continuing the refinement of New York Fashion Week and how it's scheduled and organised. Another important topic is manufacturing. We have a program called The Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, where we invest through grants in local production facilities to help retain or bring back local production. In terms of education, we are making sure that the fashion schools have curriculum that gives students the skills and the knowledge they need to get jobs, and at the same time we make sure that graduates find the right job and the industry receives the best and top talents.

What does your average day look like?
None of my days is the same, but I will tell you the kind of day I like. I started my day at 9 o'clock with breakfast with one of our CFDA members named John Bartlett. John is a vegan, and he's got a great idea having to do with vegan fashion, so we discussed that. Then I spent a lot of time planning, budgeting and number crunching for Men's Fashion Week. I had lunch with another CFDA member, Alexandre Plokhov who used to have a line called Cloak and now it's called Alexandre Plokhov. He's going to be one of our designers in Men's Fashion Week, so we spoke about his business. I had a couple of calls with the Mayor's office about the Local Manufacturing Initiative. And tonight Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, is getting an award at the High School of Fashion Industries, and I'm going there to present him the award. I often go to night events, but I'm much more productive in the mornings. I start emailing at 7 AM when I am still at home.

Are clothes and fashion a big part of your life now that you are so involved in it? 
Well, I'm not a fashion guy, although I'm lucky that I work in fashion, so I understand it and have access to it, and it is super cool. When I started at the CFDA, someone would ask me who American Designers are, and I would have said Ralph [Lauren], Calvin [Klein], Donna [Karan], I wouldn't have known anything else, just the big guys. Now I know a lot of creative people, at many levels, and I'm very inspired by them and love to be around them. I go to these amazing events, was involved in producing the CFDA Fashion Awards, got to go to the Burberry show, was at the Met Gala. No matter how often I go, I keep asking myself, how did I get here? But at the end of the day, when I don't work at the CFDA anymore, I'm not going to chase it. I enjoy it while I have it, but I can see myself living somewhere quiet and just gardening and being very happy.

What are some other things the make you happy?
I have a husband and a dog who I adore. We have a home in Pennsylvania where we spend a lot of time on the weekends when we want to trade the city for the woods with pine trees, lakes and rivers. I like to hike and kayak out there. About a year ago, I started transcendental meditation, and I find it to be fulfilling. I go to the gym, movies, theater, spend time with my family, you know, typical stuff. And Instagram — I love to take pictures, it's kind of an obsession for me.

Is it why you decided to give Kevin Systrom an award?
No, I had nothing to do with it! But we have just released a book called Designers on Instagram.

Designers on Instagram