Jay Calderin: Having served as Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) for ten years, you have been in a position to mentor many designers. When it comes to fashion designers what are some of the red flags that indicate they're not ready to be in the business of fashion?
Fern Mallis: Some of the red flags are a lack of consistency, no clear focus or point of view—which will only be demonstrated after several seasons in business. Certainly under-financing is a red flag. It makes it impossible for designers to even produce their collections.
JC: What are some of the signs that they are on the right track?
FM: A taste level and a quality of workmanship, the ability to be articulate and convey their point of view, starting small, focused, producing what they promise to, designing collections that garner favorable press and orders. To sell through at retail certainly will help launch careers and keep the designer on the right track.
JC: Why is mentoring important to you? Did you have any special mentors that helped you develop into a fashion professional? If so, who were they, and what were some of the things they taught you that still serve you today?
FM: My father and my uncle were both in the garment district. I became enamored of the industry as a young child visiting their showroom. As I started my career when they were still alive, they provided a great source of knowledge and support for me. I still try to live by some of my dad's words of wisdom. Such as, "No two people should have to worry about the same thing," which frees up a lot of unnecessary stress for me and, "a good idea with a stupid person has less of a chance of succeeding than a bad idea with a smart person." Various professionals that I have interacted with throughout my long career have also been instrumental.
JC: How would you encourage industry leaders to get involved in mentoring the next generation of talent?
FM: Luckily there are many programs being initiated around the country starting in NY with the CFDA Vogue Initiative, CFDA incubator program, and Harlem's Fashion Row for example. There are many opportunities for local merchants, bankers, accountants, etc., to step up to the plate and mentor young designers who want to succeed. They need to put themselves out there and offer their services. I doubt any designer would turn down their counsel.
JC: Boston has several great fashion design programs. What advice would you give new designers coming out of regional fashion programs, not based in fashion capitals like New York City, to kick-start their careers?
FM: Young aspiring designers need to be fearless and aggressive within reason. For instance Fabricio Dos Santos who is an aspiring fashion designer, was living in Boston and working at All Saints when I visited the city on a family trip. Fabricio recognized me, very subtly mentioned he was coming to New York to study at Parsons and was interested in an internship. That started a conversation between us. When my former assistant said she was returning to London I contacted him to see is he was interested in working for me. Immediately he came to New York for an interview. He has been working for me close to six months, has assisted me in my 'Fashion Icons' series, will provide an important assist in New York Fashion Week and many other activities I have on my plate. In conclusion, seize the moment and an opportunity when you see it! Do not be afraid to approach somebody you want to work with! In addition as both Tom Ford and Donna Karan have said—every aspiring designer should have experience working in retail.
JC: You probably get lots of questions from aspiring fashion professionals, but not everyone asks the right questions. What do you wish they would be asking you about?
FM: It's always more productive when the questions are intelligently thought out by someone doing their homework. That way I don't have to explain my life and career from the beginning. I like when questions are direct and focused, when they ask for concrete tips.
JC: James Belzer's documentary The Tents certainly captures the glamour and excitement of 7th on Sixth and Lincoln Center tent shows, but it also seems like a reality check. Throughout the film your passion for fashion was obvious but so was your pragmatism. What kind of tough love advice do you have regarding the balance between the theatre and business of fashion?
FM: I try to tell them fashion is a business and not a theater. I tell them their brand should reflect and understand that. A fabulous and big production doesn't necessarily bring business and good reviews.
JC: What is your take on the fact that some in the fashion industry believe that "front row celebrity" seems to have drawn the focus away from the clothes?
FM: That is a no-win proposition. When you have too many celebrities people complain that they're in the way, and when you don't have them people think the shows are lackluster. Celebrity has become an essential and integral part of the business of fashion. They bring press and when properly handled could be great ambassadors by launching and promoting a designer's work.
JC: Part of your work as senior vice president of IMG Fashion involved traveling around the world to help establish fashion weeks in other cities. A weeklong series of shows is obviously a huge undertaking, but what are the biggest challenges associated with integrating an event of this magnitude into the natural culture of a city, where the perception of fashion might be a superficial one?
FM: I think we are passed the superficiality of fashion at this stage. Most major cities need a Fashion Week, no matter how small it is. It generates revenue and becomes an economic engine as much as a social and entertainment vehicle. Every city has stores and consumers. I have yet to go to a city where people aren't wearing clothes.
JC: With almost every major city in the world hosting a fashion week, and technology leveling the playing field, how do you see the regional fashion designer succeeding on a local level? How do they make the transition to being a national player? What do they need to position their brand on the international stage?
FM: Talent! Talent! Talent! And they should do it slowly and methodically. Editors have a knack for sniffing out talent no matter where it is.
JC: For those who have yet to see Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis at the 92nd Street Y, or hear Fashion Insiders with Fern Mallis on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, what's it like for designers in the hot seat? What kinds of insights into these fashion leaders are you looking to provide your audience? And why do you think it's important?
FM: It's critical to me that these interviews are fun, enlightening, and informative. At Fashion Icons my interviews have a beginning, middle, and end. Starting with their birth and upbringing, to the pinnacle of their success and how they got there. It's important at the conclusion of the evening that the audience learns step by step how these designers have built their careers. The radio show broadcasts the Fashion Icons interviews in addition to other relevant and interesting fashion topics/people.
JC: It seems like you've been enjoying life after NY Fashion Week. You've been in the Off Broadway hit "Love, Loss, and What I Wore." You've recently launched Fern Finds, a jewelry line. Are there any exciting new projects on the horizon that you can share?
FM: There are two books being developed. I just returned from a trip to India where I am on the board of Tara Jewels. Fern Finds is taking a new direction which will be launched in October. I am consulting on some very exciting companies such as Fashion GPS and Rent The Runway. My radio show will be sponsored and broadcast from Saks Fifth Avenue. I will also be overseeing the fashion programming at The Grand Central Terminal centennial celebration and much, much more.
This interview ran as part of a special insert for "The Tent at Boston Fashion Week" in the September 2012 issue of Boston magazine.