Fashion Week’s Grande Dame Speaks Up


The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham and Fern Mallis, then-executive-director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, at the CFDA Awards in 1994. Photo by Rose Hartman/Archive Photos/Getty Images. Top: Models walk the runway at the Carolina Herrera Spring/Summer 2004 fashion show in Bryant Park during the 7th on Sixth Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week, an event that Mallis launched. Photo by Stuart Ramson/Getty Images

When the ceiling collapsed at a Michael Kors runway show in 1990, most people would have swept the bits of plaster under the red carpet, so to speak, but Fern Mallis saw an opportunity to build on them. The fashion maven, reigning at the time as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), responded by launching 7th on Sixth, the first centralized New York Fashion Week. The consolidation meant that designers no longer had to scramble to find available spaces, which sometimes proved inappropriate — or downright dangerous, in the case of Kors. The event quickly became, Mallis says, “the Ellis Island of fashion: Anybody coming to America who wanted to be in the business of fashion had to come through the tents at Bryant Park.”

When NYFW was acquired by global media giant IMG, in 2001, Mallis started developing the NYFW template and exporting it to such emerging fashion hubs as Los Angeles, Miami, Mumbai and Melbourne. Since stepping down from that role in 2010, she has led Fern Mallis LLC, a private consulting company, and, more publicly, programmed and hosted a conversation series, “Fashion Icons,” at New York’s 92nd Street Y. For five years running, Mallis has taken to the 92Y’s stage to engage in lively talk with many of the larger-than-life personalities with whom she had worked closely in the tents — Calvin Klein, Betsey Johnson and Kors, among them.

She has brought together a selection of these conversations in her first book, Fashion Lives (Rizzoli),which offers a fascinating, intimate view of fashion’s foremost tastemakers. Mallis begins every interview in exactly the same way, asking the interviewees about their zodiac signs and ages and for details about their upbringing — right down to what their mothers wore and what their childhood homes looked like.

“Well, you know, I look over my shoulder, and I always think somebody else does it better. That is still an issue.” — Marc Jacobs

Right: Sheer black silk shift dress with sequined pockets and trim by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, offered by Evolution. (Portraits in this slideshow by Joyce Culver, unless otherwise noted.)

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew who I wanted to be, and I became that woman. And I became that woman through fashion, therefore through other women." — Diane von Furstenberg

Right: 1970s floral wrap blouse and pant suit by Diane von Furstenberg, offered by Monalisa Creations

“I am not a loner — I love to be surrounded by people, I like to be contradicted. At the end, I have the last word. But I like to be challenged on a daily basis.” — Oscar de la Renta

Right: Sequined constellation evening gown by Oscar de la Renta, offered by Mrs. Couture

“[Max’s Kansas City] was a collaborative place for the nutcases who were poor and passionate. Andy [Warhol] was our God. Debbie Harry was a waitress. Julian Schnabel was a busboy. We were all there because of our passions.” — Betsey Johnson

Right: Vintage strapless floral dress and matching gloves by Betsey Johnson, offered by Brent Edward. (Portrait by An Rong Xu)

“I truly believe my legacy will be that you can have it all. I think you can be glamorous, I think you can be sexy. But at the same time, you can be comfortable, you can feel good in your own skin.” — Michael Kors

Right: Shift dress in a gold lamé brocade by Michael Kors, offered by Exquisite Finds

“Women designers, of whom I admire so many, have a very special relationship with design and clothing and other women. It’s a very personal journey.” — Vera Wang

Right: Halter-neck bridal gown in pastel tulle with rosebuds by Vera Wang, offered by One Of A Kind Archive

“There wasn’t anything my mother couldn’t do, and I thought that was normal. I was just imitating my mother and expecting that I should be able to do anything.” — Norma Kamali

Right: Vintage 1980s Norma Kamali puff-sleeve suit set in olive green corduroy, offered by Thrifted and Modern. (Portrait courtesy of Norma Kamali)

“Ralph Lauren grew up in the same neighborhood, and Ralph always dressed in sort of a peculiar way. I was the edgy one. I wanted to look like some tough guy, like James Dean.” — Calvin Klein

Right: Calvin Klein black silk crepe jumpsuit with a double row of gold-toned buttons, offered by Katy Kane

“Anne Klein hired me, and then I said I could only stay for the summer because I had to go back to school. And then she said to me, ‘Why would you want to go to school? You’re going to learn more here.' ” — Donna Karan

Right: Strapless dress in citrus green matte crepe by Donna Karan, offered by Helpers House of Couture

“If you’re going to be a fashion designer and you’re going to be relevant, you have to be part of your time. But you also have to have a good sense of history and pick up the spirit of those who came before you, and then make it your own.” — Tom Ford

Right: Tom Ford for Gucci strapless dress in black organza embellished with a jeweled snake, offered by Resurrection Vintage

Mallis on the stage of the 92Y, where she has led a popular conversation series with the fashion world’s leading talents. Those talks form the basis of her new book. Photo by Joyce Culver

As it turns out, most of her guests are Aries, a fact that Mallis, an Aries herself, proudly points out during an interview with Introspective. Another common thread: Many of these fashion greats were raised by their grandmothers, which Mallis insists is not a coincidence. “The grandmothers were the ones who were exotic and traveled and let the designers be more creative,” she says, citing fashion editor André Leon Talley’s Grandma Bennie, who nurtured the creativity of her flamboyant young grandson when he was growing up in Durham, North Carolina. 

An extremely candid Marc Jacobs (another Aries raised by his grandmother) recounts various trips to rehab, his star-studded journey to the top of the global fashion world and his struggle with body image. The late couturier Oscar de la Renta shares career advice, exhorting would-be designers to never “start at the bottom. Start at the top and go down,” and he dishes on how he used a few white lies to land his first design assistant job at the Parisian fashion house Lanvin.

Notably absent from the 19 stellar names featured in the book (which also include Vera Wang, Diane von Furstenberg and the late New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham), is Ralph Lauren. Lauren did, however, contribute the book’s forward. “Though her name is not on a label, Fern Mallis has made her own mark on the world of American fashion,” he writes. “Elevating [it] to its rightful place in art and culture has always been at the heart of her mission.”

The king of American fashion may have refused so far to chat with her in front of the 92Y audience, but Mallis insists she’ll eventually pin him down. Check your calendars and, we’d bet, your bookstore shelves for her interview with him in Fashion Lives, Volume 2.


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