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Fashioning the way

Fern Mallis, the legendary creator of the New York Fashion Week is in town to promote her new book, Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis. Ananya Ghosh catches up with the fashion consultant who gave the American fashion industry a global platform

Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis is a series of no-holds-barred interviews with the fashion industry’s most talented, successful, and legendary personalities, including the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson, Polly Mellen, Bruce Weber, held at 92nd Street Y (92Y), New York’s prestigious nonprofit cultural and community centre.

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Late designer Oscar de la Renta with Fern Mallis at her show

Now, 19 of the best episodes have been converted into a book titled Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis, which will also have some never-before-seen personal photographs provided by these interviewees.

“Over these past two years, since these interviews have started, I often bump into people who have missed an episode and ask me whether there is any place they can read these interviews. Also, excerpts have been published in various magazines, but those are hardly 5-10 minutes of a 90-minute interview. So, we thought of putting it all together in a book.

Fern Mallis pic courtesy/
Fern Mallis pic courtesy/Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

There is much curiosity about these interviews and we certainly had more than enough content as well,” says Fern Mallis, the former senior vice president at IMG Fashion and executive director of the CFDA who now works as an independent fashion consultant at her eponymous firm.

What made the talks such a huge hit is the candidness of the interviews and according to Fern, sharing a personal as well as professional rapport with her guests is what helped her achieve this.

“I’ve championed their cause and been a cheerleader to all of them and they know they can trust me. They are comfortable sharing their personal lives with me,” says Fern who refuses to pick favourites among her guests. “Every single interview had something interesting, newsworthy and wonderful about it. I cannot single out any one,” says the 67-year-old.

However, there were some guests who surprised her with their honesty and frankness and the list includes Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein talking about addictions and rehab, Andre Leon Talley talking about a very generous gift from Karl Lagerfeld and Bill Cunningham discussing the red suit Mrs Kennedy (Jacqueline Kennedy) had in Dallas, which he dyed black so she could wear it to her husband’s (John F Kennedy) funeral after he was assassinated.

The idea of the show was pitched to Fern by the 92Y in Summer 2011, “I was trying to decide what I wanted to do after leaving IMG and having run the NY Fashion Week for more than 18 years, I was in a position to pick and choose projects. I always admired the talks at the 92Y, which is a very prestigious institution. Fashion is a big part of our culture and it seemed like a good idea to bring the icons to the stage and have a chat,” says Mallis, whose first interview in the series took place in September 2011 during Fashion Week with Norma Kamali.

Her love for the business had roots in her childhood. Her dad and all his brothers worked in the Garment District, which is known as the centre for fashion manufacturing and fashion design in the United States and it didn’t come as a surprise when she chose to study fashion design in high school. She landed her first job through a contest. “I won a contest at a magazine named Mademoiselle and started working as a guest editor there.

After college, they hired me full time and I worked there for six years,” says Fern, who went on to become a merchandising editor, doing retail store promotions before dabbling in public relations and interior architecture among other things. Then opportunity came calling and she was selected as the Executive Director of The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), on her birthday on March 26, 1991. She revamped USA’s governing body of fashion designers and runway shows and turned it into the iconic institution it is today. She did it with “a lot of hard work and by focussing on the strengths of the design community and creating opportunities for the industry.”

However, her biggest achievement till date is transforming New York Fashion Week into one of the big four fashion events on the international circuit and giving the American fashion industry a facelift. But she is unwilling to be tagged as a pioneer. “In 1993, I created a centralised platform, then called 7th on Sixth, to provide organised runways for the bi-annual fashion shows of American designers.

By doing so, we were able to reach out to the world in more streamlined way, which ultimately levelled the playing field and gave maximum exposure to the designers. We used a lot of common sense, hired good, talented people and freelancers, got all the designers to agree on coming together as an industry and also involved many big companies to raise the funds, thereby creating the very first sponsorship opportunities for fashion shows,” she explains.

And when the Fashion Week changed hands from CFDA to IMG, Fern refused to let go of her baby and joined IMG and went on to create fashion weeks in LA, Miami and so on. And today it has become a world phenomenon. “I think there are around 600 fashion weeks held across the world today and I don't take credit for all of them. However, the vast growth and evolution in NY has now resulted in a very fractured event with many locations scattered around the city.

There is no longer one central place or voice,” rues Fern, adding that although some of these are fantastic and still play an important role in the business of fashion, others have become just a mere source of entertainment. “But maybe even these serve a purpose in their community or country,” she says sounding optimistic. Ask her to sum up the evolution of the fashion industry over the past two decades and Mallis laughs, “It is getting bigger with each season and also becoming more expensive!”

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