A Conversation with Fern Mallis

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Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

As the third season of Fashion Forward kicked off with an industry luncheon, we sat down with Fern Mallis, formerly the Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the woman largely credited with the success of New York Fashion Week, to pick her brain about Fashion Forward, the Middle Eastern fashion industry, and what she hopes to accomplish over the next three days.

Welcome to Dubai.
Thank you. I’m happy to be here. I love your rings by the way.

Thank you. They’re from Paris.
They’re beautiful.

They’re from a small boutique called Jade et Julie.
They don’t fly off from the top of your fingers? That’s pretty cool.

No, not yet anyway. So, back to Fashion Forward. What were your initial thoughts when the organizers got in touch with you to invite you out here?
I was very pleased. This is not my first trip to Dubai, but I haven’t been here in about six years. A place like Dubai is constantly evolving and changing. In the last few years I’ve been getting more involved regionally, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to come back here again.

How much do you know about the regional fashion industry?
I know a little bit about it. There are a few designers who have come and shown in America.

Like Noon by Noor?
Exactly. I’ve been to those shows, and I was invited a couple of years ago to come to Bahrain, but it was during the unrest so I didn’t make it. It was not good timing. But I’m a huge fan of – dare I call it – ethnic clothing, things that speak to a region and a culture. That’s really what excites me, when people are true to their heritage and to themselves.

It’s interesting that you say that, because there’s an unfortunately common conception in our region that designers need to adopt a Western aesthetic to be successful on an international level.
Well you know, the first time I went to China I saw these collections with all these jeans and all this stuff and I said, “I’m not coming to China to buy this clothing. I can buy this anywhere in the world.” If somebody is doing something that references the history and the culture of their country – that’s what’s interesting and I think that’s what would make it more desirable overseas.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Fortunately there are a number of designers that are drawing heavily on the Arab culture in their collections. Have you heard of a Saudi designer called Reem Alkanhal?
No, I haven’t. I’ll definitely check her out.

There’s also an accessories brand that’s entirely based on Arabic calligraphy called Bil Arabi.
That sounds beautiful.

It is. So, you’re credited with the success of New York Fashion Week. What was your role within that?
Well, I was working with the CFDA at the time, and there was an accident at the Michael Kors show, where parts of the ceiling fell off. All the editors started writing, “We live for fashion, but we don’t want to die for fashion.” At that moment, my job description changed. I had an idea, which was to centralize and modernize the shows. So I started calling people to see if I could raise money and calling freelance and production people to see if they could create something. I spearheaded this initiative and created a company called Seventh on Sixth, which was corporatized with sponsors and became General Motors Fashion Week and then Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. I oversaw the creation and implementation of guidelines, which had never been done before in America. Things like credentials, press books, registered media, press lounge, media center – just things that to me seemed like common sense to make the week more effective.

I think the great part about Fashion Forward is that they were careful to implement all of these since day one. And what do you think is necessary for a fashion industry to thrive?
I think that there needs to be talent, an infrastructure, which seems to be what d3 is putting together, some manufacturing opportunities and capabilities, some mentoring for the business side of things, marketing, and media outreach. It takes what I say is a village to put a Fashion Week together. It’s a very cool village, but a village nonetheless. There are a lot of layers.

And what do you think the role of the press should be in all this?
The role of the press is critical. If there’s not an enlightened press corps that can report on what’s happening and send the message out, it will all fail. The press needs to be educated in fashion to be able to provide valid, constructive criticism.

Is there always a risk with these kinds of endeavors that commerciality will take over and take precedent over philanthropy?
Yes, of course. I always say that organizing a Fashion Week is like managing a hotel. You need to make sure that all your rooms are full, and you’re not always going to like everyone who’s renting a room from you. It’s all a game of balance. It’s a fine line.

What do you hope to see over the next three days?
I hope to see some wonderful things, I hope to keep meeting the nice people I’ve been meeting so far, and I hope to have a bit of time to enjoy this beautiful city.

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