Days before Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA opened at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, deputy director Patricia Mears gave nycgo.com an exclusive preview. The exhibition honors the organization's nearly 600 designer members, past and present, through object and image, including pieces by Halston, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Tom Ford and Rodarte. Mears shares behind-the-scenes details about how the milestone show came together, what the exhibition means for American designers and why Diane von Furstenberg's personal impact goes far beyond the wrap dress.
How do you think American design has evolved over the last 50 years? Patricia Mears: The CFDA was founded to promote American designers by name, in the way they had [been doing] in Europe. Americans have always created good, functional sportswear, but you had to put a name behind it. That's continued to help the diversity of the field: we had everybody from Bob Mackie to Liz Claiborne in here. This speaks to our belief that American fashion is so broad—we have the most couture of couture designers and then the most practical, functional and affordable clothing. The message was really just to celebrate that. The hardest thing was to take the hundreds of members and to only pick a small selection for the show.
Tell us about your curating process for the exhibition.
PM: Normally you have a thesis and an idea of the objects you want to include, but this was a truly participatory show. So the designers were contacted [to choose their own piece for the exhibition]. Oscar de la Renta, who's been in the business many years, wanted to look forward, so he picked a design—a very contemporary piece—from 2011 [for his spring 2012 collection]. Arnold Scaasi wanted something that he felt had a high impact from his history. He picked a piece that was emblematic of the work he did in the mid–20th century. He was one of the earliest designers to join in the CFDA. If we go through the exhibit, you'll recognize some styles, like the Ralph Lauren prairie [look]—you sort of get it immediately—and the black Donna Karan outfit with gold jewelry. To me, it's very, very obviously her. But some selections might be surprising. Most think of Ralph Rucci and his opulent ball gowns. His piece here is all handwork, but it's meant to be a day outfit. That's one of the things I think he wanted to emphasize—“I really want people to know that this is what I make.”
It's interesting to me that Narcisco Rodriguez would pick the same design worn by Mrs. Obama, but it looks different here. Isabel Toledo went way back in her career, to the mid-'80s, shortly after she started designing her own label. I think it was charming that Marc Jacobs picked a piece from the Perry Ellis grunge collection. I think it says a lot about him that he realizes, as devastating as it was at the time, that it was the thing that really set him off to create his own company.
You've clearly done a ton of research. Are there any designers or pieces that stood out as particularly inspiring? PM: All of them. But the star of this, for me—not just because of design but also because of who she is as a person—is Diane von Furstenberg. We all have a vision of who she is: this glamorous, earthy, sensual, smart woman, accomplished on all levels—wife, mother, philanthropist—but she's a real human being. She's got a leader's long-term vision. She sees the big picture, yet she's incredibly human. So, even though she may come up with ideas, she will listen to what other people say and she will always find a way to compromise. Never lose your vision, but come up with a solution. She's the one who came up with the show idea. She's the one who wanted to see Impact happen. She's the one who came up with the title of the show.
How do you see the CFDA encouraging young design talent? PM: In several ways. One is exposure. Another is the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, [which gives designers] a very important component to take their business to the next level. Business in fashion is not structured how it used to be. A lot of the manufacturing is not done here. Department stores can't extend credit the way they used to. Designers really do need seed money, just to fill orders. The CFDA is very cognizant of that. Plus, they provide scholarship money for students. And there's also a mentoring program. So they encourage on all levels.