Steven Kolb is one of the most influential and powerful people in American fashion. As CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Kolb is the gatekeeper of all things American. He’s guiding the venerable organization as it reaches its 50th year through one of the most rapidly shifting eras in fashion history, addressing the shrinking world stage, the impact of media on the fashion business, and an uncertain economy.
From discovering and nurturing fresh talent, to raising awareness globally for American fashion, to fighting to maintain New York’s place on the international fashion show calendar; to battling knockoffs and promoting creativity, Kolb’s influence can be found throughout the industry. Under his watch, the CFDA has grown in importance, having helped to build several high profile events including Fashion’s Night Out, CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Awards, and the GQ/CFDA Best New Menswear Designer in America Award. The organization has also been credited with discovering and promoting the careers of world class designers including Proenza Schouler, Zac Posen, House of Waris, and most recently, Joseph Altazurra, who was award the VFF award last week; and has developed a growing media empire, that includes a thriving Facebook community, Twitter and Tumblr, as well as a documentary series.
Kolb was kind enough to sit down for a brief interview, and shared his views on the organization he runs.
We were surprised to see how political and fraught with drama setting the global fashion week calendar is. How do you think the outcome of the recent controversy will affect American designers?
The show date conflict is really a big misunderstanding. CFDA is working with our international counterparts to fix it. I am certain it will be resolved. Not to do so will not only affect American designers but Italian, English and French designers too. Fashion is global now. We have to present a fashion season and not individual fashion weeks.
Locally-made products are coming back in vogue, and designers are looking for ways to manufacture their collections here in the USA. Does the CFDA work to promote American manufacturing? If so, how?
We are partners with the Design Trust on an important study called Made in Midtown. You can find it at www.madeinmidtown.org. Right now we are finishing up phase two of the study, which will make recommendations on how to improve and grow New York’s Garment District. We are working and supporting the efforts of Yeohlee Teng and Nanette Lepore and others who have been leaders in Made in USA product.
Thanks to the internet, even the smallest independent designer can reach a global audience. How are American designers building their cache globally to increase demand for our products?
I think ALL designers need to think globally. Designers understand that. There are many ways to sell on-line and to promote product through social media. Local business partners with equity can help build brick and mortar and provide access to local culture and resources.
You recently brought a selection of American designers to Paris. How were they received there? Do you feel that American fashion design is taken seriously in Europe? Are you planning to bring that initiative to other cities?
Americans in Paris was a huge success. Top editors and retailers who did not see collections in New York came. All the participating designers gained exposure and sales from participating. Thanks to our underwriter, Tommy Hilfiger, we will do it in Paris again in the spring. Right now Paris is our focus because that is where business happens. As part of CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund we just announced a China Exchange where will send a representative from Proenza Schouler to China to work next year and we will host in New York Chinese designer Uma Wang.
In your opinion what biggest challenge that a young designer faces? And how does the CFDA help meet those challenges?
Most young designers do not have business experience or the money to hire someone who does. So often they are running their business blindly. CFDA works to provide mentors and can connect designers to the resources and answers they need to make smarter business decisions.
CFDA is a trade organization that helps foster American design talent. It’s accomplished many great things, and has fostered some amazing design talent. However, the organization is sometimes perceived as helping the top 1 percenters, but leaving a large number of emerging designers without support. Can you address this?
I don’t think that is true at all. We do so much that people do not know about. There are designers who participate in our programs and get press but we are constantly working privately, one on one, with all designers.
Are you planning any initiatives that are direct to consumer?
We will continue to do Fashion’s Night Out which is all about the consumer. We have just completed our 8th book, which is called IMPACT, in honor of our 50th Anniversary in 2012. IMPACT will also be an exhibit in partnership with the FIT Museum that opens on February 9th.
How do you see the internet and social media impacting the industry? What social media does the CFDA use?
It is a great tool of communication. It is direct and very focused. We have a very active Facebook fan page, a strong following on Twitter and a very cool Tumblr. Social media for us is a way to have an editorial voice about our members and to share CFDA programs and initiatives
Tell us about the Fashion Fund.
Fashion Fund is a docu-series following the finalists as they go through the process. It is not scripted but rather an honest portrayal of the designers and our industry.
What advice do you have for young American designers looking to be one of the few breakthrough designers that will catch the eye of the CFDA in the future?
Designers should be focused and have a point of view. They should follow their creative instinct. Be patient. Take small steps and have fun working.
How would you describe your personal style? What do you consider wardrobe essentials for yourself?
Disheveled American. Made to Measure suits.