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Eye on Design: Steven Kolb
By Marcia Sherrill
We find the Ambassador of American fashion, Steven Kolb, the Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, unfazed the day after a fire had threatened to decimate the CFDA offices. Valhalla to the numerous designers who petition year after year to gain entry, the CFDA is run by Kolb and company (his devoted hard working and very smart staff and with Council President, Diane von Furstenberg) in a way that its founder, legendary PR woman, Eleanor Lambert, could scarcely have imagined. Meaning: effortlessly.
As a youngster from the sleepy, blue-collar, democratic town of Waldwick, New Jersey, Kolbs’ core values were already were instilled in him by his family. In fact, Kolb became an early activist starting when he was an undergraduate at Rowan University in New Jersey where he was a volunteer with VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) and continued while he earned his Masters in Public Administration from NYU.
Kolb is not intimidated by either the fashion icons or legislative poo bahs. At issue is the fashion industry’s legal claim about the misuse of designs by imitators due to what has heretofore been determined as fact that designs in fashion are simply regarded as non-copyrightable. A grievous oversight about which Kolb and von Furstenberg are determined to argue. They have taken on the case of the fashion industry’s right to its intellectual property before unflinching politicians. Kolb’s languid pace and unflappable style have ushered the Council into uncharted territory as he and von Furstenberg have upped the ante on American design by finally bringing the industry’s legal claim to Washington, D.C. with The Design Piracy Prohibition Act . The Act has been a priority of the CFDA under Kolb’s leadership. He says, “It makes no sense to me that designers can’t copyright their designs when other creatives can. Artists or writer or filmmakers are all afforded protection. We’ve created a broad-based coalition of support in Washington and with the focus of placed by our First Lady, Michelle Obama, on young vulnerable talent, we will move forward and champion this bill to success.” Is Kolb overreaching? Not a bit.
In fact, he’s fought harder battles.
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As he declaims, “I have no fashion lineage. My road to the CFDA is paved in “not-for-profit” experience so that when DVF and the Selection Committee were looking for a new CFDA Director they liked the fact that I was NOT a traditional fashion type.” He knew early on that, “I pretty much never wanted to work corporate America because it is not my personality.” Although he now avows, “there is as much stress and probably more hard work but the payoff is personal. I learned the basic fundamentals of non-profit management at the American Cancer Society and then spent fifteen years working at DIFFA.” Those early years at the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS was about stopping our generation’s worst epidemic. And it was not a cause marked by popularity. Many were in denial of its very existence or at best regarded it as a scourge that would never garner corporate donations. It was a triumph of passion for Kolb. He says, “The early years were tough but success for DIFFA came from harnessing the creativity of the design community so that they could engage in a way that was optimistic, and a New York City idea grew to become a national response.”
With his experience in the trenches for DIFFA, Kolb expanded the charity, which quickly grew to a major organization with annual dinner soirees that had interior designers fighting to do a tablescape. He did spend a year at MTV International that he remembers as “a most exciting work helping them set up a new charity called ‘The Staying Alive Foundation’ whose premise was to award grants to youth groups on every continent for the education of kids about the prevention of HIV and AIDS. I would have definitely stayed but the CFDA opportunity came and I had the chance to work with creative types again and help promote and expand the American fashion industry while being able to work in charities through the CFDA Foundation.”
One wonders if the philanthropist in Kolb would be satisfied with the CFDA without both its Foundation and global outreach for causes. He has added his touch to the CFDA/Vogue 7th on Sale to raise money for HIV/AIDS and to Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.
Kolb is keen to move the Council forward and having made his mark in the less frenetic world of not-for-profits is undaunted by the complex personalities of designer/members and the ceaseless demands of the ever-changing fashion industry.
Excitement seems to follows Kolb and the CFDA as the Council has embarked on a series of books with publisher Assouline, which include the celebrated volumes, American Fashion and American Fashion Accessories, (ITALICS) and Men: The New Frontier in Fashion, (ITALICS) and Kim Hastrieter’s Geoffrey Beene: An American Fashion Rebel.(ITALICS) Just released is a CFDA cookbook, American Fashion Cookbook,(ITALICS) with a foreword by Martha Stewart and written by Lisa Marsh about which Kolb says, “is a hybrid style cooking cum art book.”
And Kolb has expansion plans for the organization. He says, “I want to celebrate the marquee names (ITALICS) like Ralph, Donna, and Vera – and welcome the next generation of talent with Proenza Scholer and Philip Lim, but always honor the other hard working designers who are creative and immensely talented but whom most Americans don’t even know. The CFDA is designed to help and support all of them.” Quite the self-imposed mandate. In addition, Kolb is working to make fashion Green, promote the Made-in-Midtown (ITALICS) mandate and keep all the various designers happy and organized. He’s even has them weighing-in models – checking for extreme underweight – and keeping underage teens off the runways.
He says, “America Fashion today is different and our mission has evolved to be more inclusive. Diane Von Furstenberg is genuine, smart, and passionate in her role as the CFDA President – she treats me as an equal partner and is a very hands-on President.” Right-on Diane; hand in- hand with Steven Kolb.
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