A Word with Mallis

Fern Mallis, an independent fashion consultant, is the powerhouse fashion player that put New York Fashion Week on the map. Here, Mallis and The Manor discuss the evolution of fashion week, social media at the shows, and coffee orders.

What first sparked the idea to launch New York Fashion Week?

MALLIS: Well, what sparked it was an accident. I had just taken the position of Director at the CFDA, and Michael Kors’s show was being held in an empty loft, a concrete raw space in the Chelsea area. When you put bass music on, you know, things shake if they’re not nailed down. Well, it was so loud, and the space reverberated, then the ceiling started to collapse – chunks of plaster came down on the runway.

Oh, quite literally?

MALLIS: Yeah, on Cindy, Naomi, Linda, all the one-name supermodels of the day. And, chunks of plaster landed in the editors’ laps in the front row, mainly Suzy Menkes, who was working for the International Herald Tribune, and Carrie Donovan, who was the fashion critic for the New York Times. They wrote various headlines the next day that said [things like] “we live for fashion, we don’t want to die for it.”

I think, [after that], my job description changed. There were several other incidents of disasters – elevators stuck between floors, editors being pulled out by the fire department, overloaded spaces and power failures, and other stuff. So, it became a mission of the CFDA to find, safe, sound spaces to organize, modernize, and centralize the fashion shows.

Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Now for the second part of that question: did you ever imagine that NYFW would become as prominent as it is today?

MALLIS: I never thought it would become this massive, institutionalized event, but it’s funny, because now, as big as it’s gotten, it’s no longer an organized fashion week.. There are no real centralized locations anymore. It’s all very desperate and spread out, and lots of people keep saying, “oh God, we miss Bryant Park,” but it was a different time and place then.

You’ve said before that the fashion industry is in your DNA. Do you think your upbringing played a major role in the start of Seventh on Sixth?

MALLIS: I don’t think my upbringing had anything to do with starting Seventh on Sixth. I think my career path did. Prior to that, I was running a place called the IDCNY (International Design Center of New York), and that was the home base for the interior furnishing industry. IDCNY had hundreds and hundreds of show rooms of furniture, textiles, lighting, and all the things that you fill offices and buildings with. So, it was central to organizing an entire industry; getting the architects, interior designers together, and coming to one place.

I had experience organizing an industry, so I wasn’t that scared about trying to organize the fashion community. I also had a big event background; I was head of a public relations business for many years, and produced lots of events. All that kinda came together.

What is your opinion on the recent changes to NYFW?

MALLIS: I think it’s an event that is in jeopardy and in question. I think a lot of people are very frustrated by it, because it has gotten too big [with] too many shows. You can’t possibly see them all, and the timing for the shows frustrates people, because there is so much media out there and so much social media. Now, the imagery goes out to the public immediately, and customers are frustrated, because when the stuff comes out in the stores, they’ve seen it and they are bored with it. So, that’s becoming a big problem.

What are your views on the lack of diversity in the fashion industry, specifically in models on the runway?

MALLIS: I think it can be better, but several years ago it was almost invisible. [Then], it was a very Eastern European, blonde runway. Now, I think people are much more cognizant of it, and more brands are using diversified models, using African Americans and Asians. I think we are starting to see more of that, because it’s constantly pressured on these brands.

How do you feel about social media in the front row? Does this add to NYFW or take away from the prestigious event?

MALLIS: Well, social media is in every row. I think it is so pervasive that it’s changing the model of everything that’s going on, because people now have to address that. It’s painful when you’re watching a show, and you look, and everybody, in whatever row, is not even looking at the models going by. [Instead], they are looking at their phones, trying to take pictures. They can’t even wait a few minutes, just enjoy the moment and enjoy the show. I find that offensive.

How did the positions at IMG and CFDA influence your personal style choices?

MALLIS: When I was at the CFDA, I made a very conscious effort to wear American designers, and to wear clothing that was from our membership. I actually got rid of tons and tons of fabulous European labels and brands that now I regret. My nieces regret it, too.

IMG was a big company that wasn’t about influencing anybody’s style. [My style] was more influenced early in my career, when I worked at Madame Meusel Magazine, at Condé Nast. You saw all the different publications in the building, and editors, and you could see what everybody was wearing. It refined my taste level.

Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, and Stephen Burrows created the platform for American fashion. Who are some designers representing the American fashion industry now?

MALLIS: What they represented was a show in Versailles at a point when it was a big benefit for Versailles. They were the American contingent that went over to show, along with five French designers. That was a coming-of-age moment for American fashion, because folks in France were huge snobs about American fashion and about French fashion, and were completely dismissive of the Americans. But, the Americans completely owned the night and blew everyone away. It was an extraordinary historic moment. There are several books and documentaries out now about the story, about the “Battle of Versailles.” If you don’t know it, you should see it.  

And now, who’s representing America? Well, we went through the era of Oscar/Bill days, to Ralph/Donna/Calvin…you know…I’d say it’s Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs and people like that. Tori Burch, people that carry the banner as “America’s Next Big Major Brands.”

Then there are, you know, a lot of these new, young designers. Alexander Wang and Jason Wu. Derek Lam. It’s like an Asian contagion, but they’re all American powerhouses.

And now, the last question: do you have any advice for the next generation of fashion influencers?

MALLIS: Fashion Influencers?

Or, people coming into the Fashion world.

MALLIS: Experience the world. Don’t do it all on a screen. I think you should really look and listen, and put the phone down. Put it down at the dinning table, for a few minutes. Just soak it all up. Go to the museums, go to exhibits – not just the fashion ones. Because those are the things that influence everybody. Go to the theatre. Travel. Get on a plane and go somewhere. Understand what the world is. Go shopping, go to stores. You can’t be in the fashion industry if you don’t go to stores, or know what they’re selling, or what people are buying. It’s not all online, even though that is so much a part of the future.

Have an awareness, and bring that to the table. It will make you a better designer, merchant, administer, buyer, producer – whatever it is you want to be in the fashion business.

Rapid Fire Questions

Coffee order?

MALLIS: I don’t really drink that much coffee anymore, but I would have to say my favorite coffee order now is a decaf iced cappuccino with almond milk.

Heels or flats?

MALLIS: Absolutely flats.

Fall or spring?

MALLIS: Sss….Fall.

Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar?

MALLIS: Will this get me in trouble? I just like Harper’s better.

Oversized or tailored?

MALLIS: What do you think? Oversized! *Jokingly gestures to her oversized flannel dress*

Uptown or downtown?

MALLIS: Uptown.

Biggest fashion faux pas?

MALLIS: That people do? The biggest fashion problem is when people don’t have a full-length mirror.

Favorite fashion documentary?

MALLIS: I think I have to say Valentino: The Last Emperor. Or, can I add, Unzipped?

What’s that about?

MALLIS: It was done by Douglas Keeve, who was a great filmmaker who was the boyfriend of Isaac Mizrahi at the time. It was Isaac Mizrahi’s show in the tents at Bryant Part when I was running them. He did the whole show behind a screen that was lit, so you could see the whole thing happening behind the scenes. You could watch everybody getting dressed and running out. The movie is about doing all of that, and the whole chaos of putting on a show. It was one of the first great fashion documentaries.

Interview by Andrew Repak

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