Steven Kolb on Fashion's Night Out and the CFDA

Mallory Passuite

Steven Kolb was recently promoted to CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the not-for-profit trade association. The newly created role recognizes Kolb’s contributions to the industry. He has run the CFDA as executive director for the past five years, helping the organization in its mission of cultivating young talent and, in doing so, growing the global power of American design, with NYC at its core. As another fall fashion season approaches in New York, beginning with Fashion’s Night Out (FNO) on September 8, Kolb takes a moment to discuss FNO, the CFDA’s future and why New York City now flourishes as an international hub for designers.

Since its inception two years ago, FNO has expanded to include many new locations around the world and, this year, online components. Why do you think it’s been so successful? Steven Kolb: People like to shop. It’s something social that people do with friends, girlfriends, moms, family; it’s an American pastime. And Fashion’s Night Out just wraps it in a special feeling.

What are your plans for the night this year? SK: Well, there’s a lot going on, so I don’t necessarily know yet where I’m going to be. But I would like to go down to Diane von Furstenberg’s store in the Meatpacking District. And I’ll try to go to as many CFDA members’ stores and appearances as possible.

Do you have a favorite FNO memory? SK: I’d have to say it was the first Fashion’s Night Out at Barneys. Alexander Wang was in the store teaching shoppers how to walk runway. I went by to say hi and he coaxed me, pushed me onto the test runway and made me do runway.

And how did you do? SK: I got a nice round of applause and some hoots and hollers, so I guess I did pretty good.

How involved were you in the genesis of the event? SK: The idea was originally [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour’s. She came up with the idea in Europe. She came back and called Diane, who immediately thought it was a great idea. So Anna and Diane went down to see Mayor Bloomberg. And when Diane and Anna ask you to get involved in something, it’s hard to say no—even if you’re the mayor of New York. And that was the beginning. The three of them agreed it was a good idea. I got really involved in the planning and activation and recruiting of retailers and designers, just by the nature of what I do here at the CFDA

What are your hopes for the future of FNO? SK: I think the event has begun to take on a life of its own. As many people have said, it’s almost becoming a holiday. You see more and more activity happening [around it] in cities across the country. And it takes a lot of time, effort and resources to put together. So I hope that people and participants get enough out of it so that we can continue it and keep it on mark for what it’s really about, which is celebrating shopping—going out and having access to wonderful product and fashion that you just want and will always remember you bought that day or night.

With the recent induction of 33 new designers, the class of 2011 is the CFDA’s largest ever; the organization is approaching its 50th anniversary; and you’ve just been promoted to CEO. What is your vision for the future of the CFDA? SK: Fashion is constantly changing. As an organization, we’ve evolved over the 50 years to become a very forceful, dynamic family of creative types. There’s really no other organization like it in the world. And what we see now, particularly with this new class and the designers that have been inducted over the past five or six years, is an embracing of this new face of fashion. It’s not just about expensive ready-to-wear clothing or designers. You have people working in different categories of fashion, between contemporary designer and even mass market. I think we [the CFDA] have stayed modern and have brought in designers to reflect this new face of fashion.

And despite what people can think of fashion as being superficial or fake, there’s a very genuine connection among our designers and the people in our industry. We do a lot to support each other, like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund [which provides financial awards and business mentoring for emerging designers] and our Fashion Incubator. Those that have had success give back to those who are working toward success. And that has been a force globally in helping build American fashion into what is probably the strongest market of the floor.

As we look at our 50th anniversary next year, we’re going to celebrate with an exhibit called Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA, which will open at FIT during February Fashion Week 2012 and will look at all of our members from the beginning, 1962, to today, which is about 600 designers. Along with that, we’re doing a book [of the same title], which will be a big, thick, beautiful art book including all of our members and how [their careers] impacted American fashion.

Some critics say the current industry climate—financial burdens, conglomerates and a crowded market—may drive today’s young designers to design for established labels or elsewhere, rather than building their own brand. Do you see this as an issue? How do you encourage young talent to stay local and launch independently? SK: I personally believe that young talent should never embark on launching their own label from the beginning. I think the designer who graduated from design school, or who aspires to be a designer otherwise, is best suited if they can work for an established designer. There’s an opportunity to really learn the ins and the outs of the business from a place of experience. You can more or less be an apprentice and you can, in your interaction working for someone else, learn about sourcing, production, delivery, fit—all of the things that are critical to defining a young brand. Fashion has become a pop-culture phenomenon. More and more people aspire to be designers, so it’s really competitive. And one really needs to understand that success doesn’t come from just having a good idea. One also has to have the business ability and be a left-brained-right-brained kind of person to succeed.

How has your style evolved, from growing up in New Jersey, uninterested in fashion, to becoming the ‘‘Accidental Fashion Drone,” as you’ve tagged yourself on Twitter, running the CFDA? SK: My background is not fashion. I’ve always worked for issues like cancer or HIV and AIDS. So coming into fashion was a shift for me. When one has access to the creative designers that I know, it’s natural to get influenced by that. So I might not have known prior who some of the designers were, but getting to know them and being around them, it rubs off on you. I think of myself as a disheveled American dresser. I’m pretty loyal to American designers. After all, the CFDA is the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And I like to really mix it up with so many of our members.

What excites you about design in New York now? SK: We’ve got great schools in New York: Parsons, FIT, Pratt. It’s really an international magnet. You want to be an actor, you go to Hollywood; you want to be a designer, you come to New York. The City attracts talent. And with so many of the things we do here at the CFDA, like the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and encouraging young designers and giving them a road map to success, we’ve made it a very vibrant spot and a very young and energetic market. And there’s a lot in New York to inspire a designer: culture, geography, the people, the streets….

When you think about New York, if you were to sum it up, say, 20 years ago, people would say, “Oh, New York is just a commercial market. It’s all about selling. There’s no creativity there.” But that’s so not true now. Americans are very entrepreneurial, so we’re always about selling, but the state of New York fashion now is this beautiful melding of art and commerce: clothes that are artfully designed and beautiful, but that people will buy and want to wear.