NY Fashion Week legend Fern Mallis discusses the evolution of Fashion Week events around the world
One of this year’s featured guests at Nashville Fashion Week (NFW) is fashion legend Fern Mallis, who worked tirelessly to found and champion the event now known as New York Fashion Week! Since then, she has also served as an inspiration and mentor to local Fashion Week events around the world, including NFW.
Fern was kind enough to sit down for a chat with O&AN to discuss the evolution of New York Fashion Week and how she’s taken the knowledge and experienced gleaned from her work to promote fashion in ever more local events.
Can you tell is a little about your role in founding the event originally called Seventh on Sixth, which we now know as New York Fashion Week?
Do you have a couple of hours?
Maybe just the Cliff’s Notes version?
Well, for nearly twenty years, I headed up Fashion Week in New York. But it all started back in the early 90s, when I was selected to be the director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the CFDA.
Just before I took that position—I had already been selected and agreed I'd start in a couple of weeks—it was the industry's Market Week, which was essentially Fashion Week... But there were 50 fashion shows in 50 different locations, and nobody spoke to each other and there was no central voice or anything. One could be uptown, downtown, you know, and getting from one to the other with no organization?
During that week, there was a show in a loft space in the Chelsea area that the designer Michael Kors had, and when they put the bass music on very loud, which is typical at a fashion show and if anything's not nailed down, it kind of shakes. And at that show, the ceiling started to shake and come down on the runway.
There was plaster falling on supermodels—Naomi and Cindy and Linda and all the big one name wonders… But plaster also landed in the laps of very important editors in the front row, from
The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune… They all wrote the next day that “We live for fashion, we don't want to die for it…”
It was a big red flag that this was crazy, and then it started to point at all of the unsafe and scary situations of people putting themselves into to see fashion shows. Climbing the stairs to funky little lofty spaces that had one exit, crowded hallways and stairways and blocked exit routes… Isaac Mizrahi had a show the next season where the power blew, leaving 1,200 people sitting in pitch black waiting for a show to start.
So, it just became a real issue and when the ceiling collapsed at Kors, I said, "I think that my job description just changed." It became a mission for the Council, which was … to find safe, sound, secure places and to modernize, centralize, and organize the American fashion shows.
And you know, about a year-and-a-half later, we had a temporary organization, with shows in the district close to the garment center.
Then in 1993, we had the first shows in tents in Bryant Park and then the New York Public Library and called it Seventh on Sixth, because it was Seventh Avenue moving to Sixth Avenue, and it became the organized platform for American designers to show their collections. It created a whole series of benefits and systems and cost savings for everybody, and that reached the world's buyers and the world's media with a unified voice, and it changed the game. It was a game changer. It succeeded beyond anybody's wildest imagination.
So, in the wake of that success, when did emerging fashion markets start to reach out for advice about starting local Fashion Weeks?
Well, you know, it's been a while. We succeeded in New York, taking our cues in many ways from Paris, Milan, and London, learning and avoiding some of the problems there. It then became a very global fashion scene: you name a country that has a fashion week in it now. IMG, which after 10 years in Bryant Park, bought the Fashion Week entity from the CFDA, and then we began doing many, many Fashion Weeks and we were out in the world. It became almost a franchise really. But hate even using that word.
I think after those ten, fifteen years, a lot of the smaller regional markets started to say, "Oh, why don't we do something with the talent in our city?" And everybody would come to the tents and kind of study it and take copious notes and pictures and go back to their towns and call up the car dealerships and the local hotels… You need money to do this and sponsorships were very much a part of the project in New York and everywhere else in the world.
Boston, Miami, Las Angeles … the bigger regional weeks were pivotal to inspiring others. Nashville is now I guess nearly a decade old... I think Charleston is maybe in its 12th year maybe for Charleston Fashion Week... I know Omaha last year said it was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Honestly, I hadn't heard of that until I was invited there in its 10th year!
So, they are all over the place. And I am a huge fan of these regional fashion weeks. I think that there's a lot of energy there, there's a lot of love, and at the end of the day, there's often talent.
What impact do you see these events having on local fashion? And do you think they impact the broader fashion scene?
Well, I think locally they all have impact in their various cities. I've been to many of these cities, and when we talked to the audience, my favorite thing to ask everybody is, "How many people bought new clothes to come to fashion week this week?" Every hand goes up.
To me, that's an indicator that the week is having an impact locally on the economy and on people's shopping and on buying new things. I mean, at the end of the day, every fashion week is about trying to get people to put their hand in their pocket, take out their credit card, and buy something. That's the bottom line. You know? If nobody goes shopping and nobody buys any of these things, then it's a vanity exercise.
Their biggest impact on fashion more broadly is that they are opening a door for people to learn how to put a collection together, how to see their vision executed on a runway, how to see what they're doing put together with professional help from hair and makeup and styling and first-class production values. Many local designers in these markets would never be able to do on their own. So, these fashion week provide that and give them that confidence and that platform to see their work out there.
Honestly, one never, ever knows where the talent comes from. I've always said—my entire career in fashion—that editors and journalists and retailers are kind of like truffle-sniffing pigs. They need to find the new fashion. And when there's talent somewhere, it surfaces.
Now more than ever, the opportunity is there because the social media. It didn't used to be the case. So, now, everybody has images out there on Instagram and on Twitter and on Facebook, and people who are talented, somebody might see that and say, "Oh, I like this. Who is this person? Who is this designer in Nashville?" You know? "Let's go see what's going on." Or, "Let me follow up on them.
I know, since very early on, you've had relationships with Nashville Fashion Week. How have you been involved in the past and what is going to be your involvement this year?
Well, I mean, I come, and I help judge and jury where necessary. I usually come with my mentor hat on and talk to all the designers… Fashion Week usually sets up an opportunity to have that discussion with everybody and answer lots of questions about what they're doing and talk to them each about their collections and give just my sage old advice from being around this business for a really, really long time.
I try to talk to them about what they are doing and what they're doing well and where they might be able to improve on something. You know, so it's really more of that, and there's ... it's hard for me to say it, but … there's a certain credibility factor of me being there, giving them that information and a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Fashion Week.
I know when I come to some of these markets, everybody's like, "Is that okay? Is the lighting okay? Is everything okay? Do you approve?" I'm like, "Of course I do," you know? And if I don't, I take somebody by the side and say something, like, "You really should put up some extensions over here. The lighting could be better here." You know? Or, "Hey, guys, start the show. This is running way too late!" Whatever. I am certainly not one who's ever shied away from sharing my opinion and hopefully in a very constructive and meaningful way to help them all realize their dreams.
You know, so many of these young kids do one show and get some publicity, and they think they're ready to run their own business, and they're not. It’s an insane industry to try and succeed in. So, it's like, okay, you should really work for somebody like X, Y, Z who really has your sensibility and who you could really learn from and giving them sage advice that will help them in their career and help open doors for them. When I see somebody talented somewhere, I do that all the time. And I look forward to doing that in Nashville.
I know that there's great talent in Nashville and I've gone around and seen that. I haven't been there for a couple of years. So, I'm not right up onto who's doing what, but you know, I do remember the first season I came down there meeting … Elizabeth Susan, who had a very small space. We went to see her because, I mean, some of the gals involved with the week were wearing her clothes and I was like, "Oh, where's that from? I like that, I could wear that!" And you know, that's how that happens… Now her business is extraordinary. I follow her on Instagram and see all the stuff and it's great. I love seeing that kind of success happen.
Are you sort of a featured speaker at any of the events or are you going to be judging this year?
I believe so … on Thursday, April 5th, and it's going to be live streamed. Don't ask me what I'm going to talk about because I don't know yet! It happens when it happens.
Well, just in terms of concluding, what would you say to people locally about supporting their local fashion industries?
I think that that's critical. You know? I think that there's a very healthy fashion community in Nashville, just like its music scene, its food scene. I mean, clearly, Nashville is a whole new place than it was 10 years ago. Lots of new buildings, new growth, a lot of people moving there… I know some New York editors who have moved back to be there and have a presence.
Nashville's one of those really, really hot, talked about cities in America that people want to be in... And I think it's important. I think more and more people are looking to do something different, and, I mean, the least fashionable thing in the world is when everybody's wearing the same brand and the same labels.
For me, it's important to find your own style and that's what makes fashion fashion. And I think there is that opportunity in these cities to wear some of the local designers and champion them and be excited about it, and carry that banner. I'm all for it.
I'm really looking forward to coming. I miss being in Nashville. Check with me at the end of the week and I'll say, you know, "This is a star. This person I think really has potential and this designer, let’s see where we can help her or him get ahead and do this thing!"