InterviewsPop Style TV Channel

Fern Mallis – What Makes a Fashion Icon?

Fern Mallis

Fern Mallis joined POP Style TV to discuss her new book Fashion Icons 2 , Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis interviews on 92nd Street Y , thoughts on NYFW and so much more! Enjoy watching!

Interview by: Tijana Ibrahimovic

Edited by: Basile Sampson

Tijana: Hello everyone. I’m here with Fern Mallis creator of New York Fashion Week and hosts of 92nd street Y Fashion Icons conversation series and books, a president of her own fashion and design consulting firm better known as The Godmother of Fashion. Welcome Fern to POP Style TV.

Fern Mallis: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Tijana: Um, so I wanted to start right away with Fashion Icons book. 

Fern Mallis: What Fashion Icons 2 is, is a continuation of the series that I’ve been doing. Um, you know, we had some, I’ve interviewed so many people at the Y and we had 19 in the first book and, um, altogether, so far, there’s been 58 interviews. So now we’re adding the next 15 to volume two, and I’m very, very excited about it because this book kind of got put together during COVID, you know, when I realized the stories that these designers and these, um, fashion icons had in their lives were very much a part of what everybody was going through the ups and the downs and the having to reinvent themselves many times in their careers. And the stories seem to become more relevant than ever before. And it seemed time to put another book together and share those stories again.

I mean, the series is very, very much who are you? How did you get started in the business? You know, how did you grow up? What was your family life? You know, people are way more than just a name on the label, you know? And so I don’t like to talk to them just about their collections. You know, I want to talk to them about literally how, how did they become the people they became, you know, and how they built businesses. And many of them are still true to that mission. What you described in the first go around in many of them still started from scratch and from zero, they weren’t all handed over a big empire to take over daddy’s business.

So, um, the second book, which, as you said, is coming out in May and it’s going to be, uh, launches exclusively at Nordstrom. Nordstrom is doing actually a box set that’s quite spectacular. We are reissuing book one with updated information about the people since the first interview happened. And the illustrations that are spectacular by this artist, Ruben, um, artwork is included.

And so the both books will be in a sleeve that you could buy at Nordstrom’s for $125. And the second book includes people like, um,  Valentino, Victoria Beckham, um, you know, Bethann Hardison, Rosita and Angela Missoni. Leonard Lauder, Bob Mackie, um, Iris Apfel, Arthur Elgort  the photographer, Tim Gunn. Uh, my good friend, Stan Herman who was president of the CFDA for many years and my close buddy, uh, Christian Siriano. Uh, who’s just as hot as they could come, they could be Zandra Rhodes, the British designer. So this book has some international players, which we didn’t really do. The first book was very American centric and also Billy Porter, uh, who is just a scream.

Tijana: So you’ve been in, in, in the industry for such a long time. You’re always very confident. Were you nervous, your first interview was Norma Kamali, right? Correct. Were you nervous at all or you just went for it?

Fern Mallis: I was absolutely nervous. I’m nervous before all of them a little bit, you know, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s off stage till you get there a good nervous. But with Norma, Norma has been a friend for 40 years, so that’s, there was a reason for her being the first one. I felt comfortable with Norma and, you know, we both knew each other, so well. But I learned a lot from the very first interview. Cause the first one I had all my questions on index cards and I had, I had a little bit too much back information about every award she won and every, and I realized I don’t need to, I don’t need to do that. You don’t need all of that. That doesn’t, you don’t really learn anything about people just listing all the awards they’ve won.

Um, and it became cumbersome with the note cards. At the very beginning, I was. I was so concerned about my questions that if somebody went on too long, rambling on and on, I would cut them off and say, no, no, no, don’t, stop. We’re going to get there later. And now I’m much more relaxed about that. Let them go, let them talk, you know, and then I will adjust as I go through it and realize, okay, skip those six questions.

They answered that 10 minutes ago. It’s a learning curve.

Tijana: What makes a fashion icon?

Fern Mallis: Oh, I think what makes the fashion icon? I think what makes a fashion icon is, is their contribution to the industry. It’s their presence. It’s their um, their individual power. The way they give back the way they share their knowledge, uh, the way they treat other people.  I don’t like doing interviewing fashion icons that are major divas and have a terrible reputation. I don’t need to do that. I want to be with people that, that I like, and I think are the fashion icons. The title gets stretched here and there. But I think the word icon in general, I mean, everybody calls somebody an icon.

Um, these are people that are, have achieved some level of success that is worth acknowledging.

Tijana: And, um, is that how the fashion industry, uh, got this reputation of having too many divas around or that people are mean girls within the industry? I mean, why do you think people have that opinion about a fashion industry?

Fern Mallis: I’m not sure why people have the opinion of the industry being full of divas and primadonnas which it does have that reputation, I think it’s a self perpetuating kind of description. And I think the fashion media has a lot to do with that. Fashion media, the way they describe people and create those personas.

Um, the fashion fashion is a very easy target to make jokes about and fun about, you know, how silly it is or how irrelevant it is. And how this, how that, you know, how silly these people look, it’s an easy, easy target, but at the end of the day, it’s a trillion dollar industry. It’s huge and employees, millions and millions of people around the world.

Now, the one thing that everybody has to do every day is wear clothing. Get dressed. You don’t have to go to the theater. You don’t have to go to a movie. You don’t have to go to a store. You know, you don’t have to go to university or to school, but you do wear clothes every day. So this is a critical part of everybody’s life and, and, and, and just the world we live in.

And so. You know, I, that’s why I always had great respect for the designers from when I was the director of the CFDA, The Council of Fashion Designers of America. I was always championing them designers are, as craftspeople, as, as talented people, making a contribution, working their butts off day and night and, and how hard they work every day.

And in and out of every season, you know, if you’re an artist, if you’re a writer or an actor, you could write a great book or do a great movie and then hang your laurels on it and not do another one for 10 years or, you know, take a break and say, I haven’t seen any scripts I liked. You know, I used to say when I was at CFDA Calvin Klein, can’t say I’m skipping fall. I just don’t feel it. You know, you have to do it. You have to keep turning out the goods and doing that. And, and I will never forget the time at the CFDA awards when we gave Gianni Versace, an international award and his good friend, Elton John presented it to him and Elton John looked out at the whole audience and said, I really applaud you all.

You continue to do your thing over and over and every season, keep knocking it out and you don’t have a choice to, to walk away from it. And so, I mean, that’s how I feel about the industry and about the professionals that are in it.

Tijana: Do you think that this is one of the reasons that New York Fashion Week you created was such a success because you proved, uh, people that aren’t part of the industry, what industry really means what fashion industry really means for New York City, for the designers, for just economy in general.

Fern Mallis: Well, when I, okay, let’s see what I tried to prove with fashion week when I created New York Fashion Week was really, it was really an initiative about convenience and common sense. Before there was an organized fashion week if there were 50 shows in New York, they were in 50 locations and nobody knew who was next, who was Uptown, who was Downtown. And it was not a big deal in the city. You know, sometimes you drive in a cab and you’d see a lot of people on Seventh avenue in front of 557 7th Avenue.

You didn’t know if it was a sample sale or what was going on, you know, once they were organized in the, together in the tents in Bryant Park there’s safety in numbers, you know, just the, just the magnitude of the amount of people showing in one central location gave the whole industry a voice, and I was happy to participate in that voice and to, and the world knew fashion week was happening in New York.

You couldn’t miss it. Um, every taxi driver knew, if you said I’m going to Bryan Park, oh, you going to a fashion show? Every student said, oh, I want to be in Bryant Park. It meant that they wanted to have a career in fashion. That didn’t mean they wanted to go sit on the lawn. So that’s what organizing the tents did for the industry.

It gave it a real platform and it became an opportunity for the American designers to level the playing field with Paris and Milan and other world capitals.

Tijana: When you look back now, is there anything you would do differently?

Fern Mallis: If I look back now and think about what I do differently, I’d go crazy. Every season. I would look back and say, we could do this better. Oh, we can make that signage a little clearer. That sign should have been higher. This space was a little too tight for always, always reinventing and improving on what we did. So there would probably be a list of many things that I could do differently, but, um, I’m happy with how it went and it was 19, 20 years of a wonderful, wonderful experience in my life and in the entire fashion industries life.

I can’t go anywhere now without people saying, oh, please, please bring back Bryant Park back. Would you. And I’m like, no, it’s not going to happen.

Tijana: So it’s not going to happen. What do you think about New York Fashion Week now?

Fern Mallis: What I think about New York Fashion Week now is, um, I’m very, I’m supportive of it. I think that there’s great talent still showing in New York. Um, I think this past fashion week felt very good. It felt like we were almost back to whatever the new normal is. Um, I, I think it’s a little scattered clearly there are venues in Brooklyn and up in Harlem and then down in Wall Street, you could go a little crazy trying to get around. Um, but the, those are designers expressing their, their vision. And they all try to find a venue that expresses that for them and for their collection. So we do make the best of it. But I think that the talent is what at the end of the week is what, what rises to the surface. And that’s what you remember.

Tijana: Do you think they could do better in bringing more editors or more buyers more? Obviously it’s difficult to bring international editors in the last two years, but, um, do you think that it’s maybe lacking, uh, more of, uh, people from the fashion industry versus, uh, influencers, celebrities, or that’s just what works currently?

Fern Mallis: What do I, what I think about the audience now and who they could bring and how they could make that different. It’s a different world now. I mean, and at the beginning you couldn’t see, you wouldn’t know what was going on unless you were there at the shows. Now, everything is all so virtual. Most of the shows are on the 360 platform and they’re streamed. So it’s not necessary to actually be there in real life.

And the audience has completely changed. When I was doing fashion week you would look at the front rows and you would be able to name everybody in the seats and that there’s the Saks group. There’s the Nordstrom group. There’s the Bergdorf team. There’s the Barney’s team. There is Vogue and all their people. There’s Bazaar. There’s Elle. There’s, you know, every, all those people. Now you look and you go who are they? I mean, I have a hard time even recognizing most of those people now, the way, the way fashion is communicated now is very different. And like it or not. It’s influencers. I mean, a few years ago, we’d say bloggers, that’s, that’s almost an ancient term now influencers, Tick Tokers.

I mean, It’s all through social media. That’s how we live and breathe. And that’s how. That’s how we view everything in the world now through social media.

Tijana: So I want to go back to one of your legendary interviews with, uh, Bill Cunningham, um, that, uh, at one point during your interview said that, uh, people will soon start start dressing inside their heads. Do you, I mean, it looks like he was kind of predicting maybe something that’s currently Metaverse or like fashion metaverse. What do you think about that? Do you think that’s what he kind of was thinking, but it couldn’t really name it because it didn’t exist.

Fern Mallis: But what Bill’s comment was was also that. He said, look, look where the kids are. Are they lining up outside Bergdorfs and Saks to get in? He said, no, they’re lining up outside the Apple, you know? And so what’s in their head is more important than what’s on their body is what he was saying. And he was right on the money for that. I mean, it was all about the technology and this is from a man that didn’t have a cell, doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t have a TV, you know, but he’s aware of that shift in society, of what was happening, you know, did he have a clue about the Metaverse? I doubt that, but, but he, but he was on about the technology and that that’s, that’s what people were interested in way more than clothing.

Um, you know, to get the new iPhone when it comes out, you know, as well. I I’d say there’s also a big rush for the new sneaker when it comes out somewhere and they line up, but nothing like the technology and, um, Bill was very forward about that. He, he really had a pulse and sense of what was happening and he was right. 

Tijana: So what do you think about, um, Plus size collections and sustainability, is fashion moving forward in the right direction. Um, obviously there’s probably a lot more to do when it comes to maybe better fitting plus size when it comes to certain designers. Um, do you feel that some of them just sort of jumped on the trend? Um, and, and how, how do we correct that?

Fern Mallis: My take on plus size, um, clothing and sustainability, um, is that in fact, the industry I think, is now seriously addressing those issues and realizes the importance of it. Designers who are not doing Plus sizes are leaving money on the table and it’s, uh, and they’re, they’re, they’re crazy.

It’s the, it’s the biggest growing market in the country, in the world. I mean, I think size 14 is, well now 16 is the average size in America, not 0 2, 4, 6. Um, designers are, are, are beginning to really pay more attention to that. And there were a couple of designers, certainly somebody like Christian Siriano has always stepped up to the plate way at the beginning.

And it’s really helped his career and his business measurably, you know, he’s taken a stand with that with the red carpet, with every celebrity who can’t find a, a sample size in, in the showroom to wear.  And it’s really, really important. Um, everybody deserves to have the opportunity to wear beautiful clothing and feel fabulous.

Um, I actually just read, uh, at the salon this morning, the new Vogue magazine, it’s a body issue in the one with Kim Kardashian on the cover. And there’s an article and I’m sorry that I don’t remember her name, but she’s a Vogue editor. A woman who is a very, very plus-sized and. And she’s just lovely.

And she it’s about a four page article about her experience in growing up and loving fashion and wanting to be in fashion and her experience in going to Vogue and getting a job there and going to an event as a Vogue editor and the PR people keep looking at the list and they almost don’t want to let her in because they don’t believe that she could be a Vogue editor, you know, until some superior said, no, but that’s, that’s who she is.You know? So all the stereotypes that come with that are, are, are really unfortunate. It’s a  very beautifully written article.

And I think sustainability is also becoming more and more accepted and understood. It’s not easy to do it, finding the right fabrics, finding ways to remake things without having to use as much water as you use in the industry and in the way things are packaged and the way things are delivered. And it’s such a huge project. And it’s pathetic that this industry didn’t start that 50 years ago. You know, maybe we wouldn’t be in this climate crisis that we are in now. But at least it’s it’s on the table and people are talking about it and it only will get better if consumers really demand it, because it’s all about the consumers.

Then at the end of the day, they’re putting their hand in the pocket, in their pocket with their credit card and swiping it or not even having a credit card, just swiping their iPhone. And, um, you know, if they demand that product, that’s what the industry will have to supply.

Tijana: Um, did you ever have any crisis in your career? Was there ever a moment because everything seems like so smooth for me, an outsider, uh, you know, looking at your career, did you ever have any ups and downs?

Fern Mallis: Um, let’s see, did I ever have any crisis? Of course I’ve had crisis and, had downs and had moments of reinventing myself, trying to figure out what I want to do next. And, um, what was the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do? Um, I’ve had, I’ve had a very long career people think I was just from CFDA and now to my, um, role at the 92nd street Y and with the books. I had a long, long career before ,started at Mademoiselle Magazine when I was out of college, uh, to being a fashion director to department store in New York,  having my own public relations company for 10 years, uh, to running a big design center in Long Island City in New York.

So it’s been a lot of different things and I’ve been fired from jobs that I didn’t think I deserved to be fired from knowing I only bounced back better and, you know, took my three row rolodex with me and moved on to the next project, um, you know, and just kept busy and I never had a five-year plan. I never said, this is what I’m going to do till I’m this age.

And then at this age I have to do that. And I it’s always just evolved. And I believe in doing a good job and doing the best you can do. And hopefully the right people around you would recognize that. And, and things progressed at an organic pace.

Tijana: It’s kind of a hard to pinpoint because you’ve done so much, um, is there anything you can share with us that, um, is left that you’d really like to do next in your career?

Fern Mallis: Well, I mean, I’m going to continue to do Fashion Icons books where we want to start very soon with book three and book four. There is in fact, the project that I’m extremely excited about that is in the works and that’s, um, it’s taking the series that we’re doing and making it into a, um, a streaming series so that people can see each of the designers and their own, their own story on one of the many streaming services that happen now and doing that with, um, a company called Peaceable Assembly and the producer executive producers,  Jonathan Gray, who did the movie, Diana Vreeland: The Eyes Have to Travel and he’s working with a team and we’re putting that together. And hopefully we’ll be able to announce that at some point soon.

Tijana: Amazing. Thank you so much. It was so lovely speaking to you.

Fern Mallis: Thank you. Pleasure speaking to you and being part of Pop Style here. 


Want to learn more about fashion in NYC ? Check out our interview with NYC fashion designer , Byron Lars  

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