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How Being a Fashion Outsider Has Worked to Steven Kolb's Advantage at the CFDA

The Council of Fashion Designers of America CEO tells us how he made the leap from health non-profits to the fashion world.
Steven Kolb with First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, in February. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Steven Kolb with First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, in February. Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

From June 25 to July 4, we'll be examining — and at times, celebrating — all things American made, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.

Practically speaking, Steven Kolb is one of American fashion's more unavoidable characters. The programs and projects he spearheads as chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America are central to the industry — see the career-making CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the CFDA Awards, the remodeled New York Fashion Week calendar. The list goes on.

But for someone who's reached such an influential position in the fashion sphere, Kolb isn't exactly what you'd call a fashion person. It's not just his straightforward and businesslike manner, nor is it his remarkable degree of availability to reporters. Before joining the CFDA in 2006, he had a long run in health-focused non-profits, including the American Cancer Society and the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). Fashion, for Kolb, was something that came along somewhat later in life. 

This week I took a seat in his office — dark walls, a framed Arthur Elgort photograph of Maggie Rizer suspended against a clear blue sky — to hear how he made that career leap, what he finds frustrating about his job and what he still hopes to accomplish.

You spent the first part of your career at the American Cancer Society and DIFFA. How did you land at the CFDA and in fashion?

When I was younger, the idea of working in corporate America was not something I was really interested in. I would like to think it was because I was more interested in social change or being involved in something that mattered more than profits, but also the idea of corporate people scared me. That high pressure kind of office environment. I just didn't want to work with people like that. That's how I ended up working at the American Cancer Society. 

I had no intention to come here or work in fashion, but [the CFDA] is a not-for-profit. My career was always in not-for-profit, so the structure of the organization is similar. The American Cancer Society is about creating awareness about cancer prevention and raising money for either treatment or educational programs. Same thing with DIFFA: awareness about HIV prevention, treatment and care. The work is the same, it's just a different end result. Here it's about raising awareness about American fashion, promoting American fashion, and helping people and brands that need help because we're a trade organization. It's still about helping other people and doing things for others; it's just different.

The similarity, though, that I realized very early on — and I knew this even in the interview — is that the CFDA is actually two organizations. It's a council, which is a trade organization, and that's pretty much where most of our work is. But we're also a foundation, so that was very appealing to me, that I would get to still be involved in issues that mattered, like HIV and cancer and now disaster relief, too. But on the council side it's the same thing. When you help a young designer with business grants, mentoring, relationship building, you're giving them something that actually will eventually come back, so you look at a lot of people who come through this organization or through our programs that now have big businesses in New York. I'd like to think that through my work at the CFDA I've contributed to that and that it has positive impact on the lives of all the people that work for them now.

Tell me about your work at DIFFA. I'm guessing you had some exposure to the fashion industry while you were there.

I was living in New Jersey, working for the American Cancer Society, a young gay guy. HIV and AIDS was pretty serious — it still is pretty serious — but I felt very removed from this issue and this crisis that was affecting this community. I didn't really know anyone who was HIV positive. I felt... not guilty, but how am I not engaged in this in a way that I can add something? I was a fundraiser and a not-for-profit manager, so I had a skill set that I felt that I could bring to the cause. I didn't go there because it was a design organization, I went there because it was an AIDS foundation and my skill set worked there.

It's there, though, that I became aware of the CFDA. Lisa [Smilor, the CFDA's executive director] was the person who suggested to the [CFDA] selection committee that they interview me. We had worked on some collaborative stuff. The CFDA used to do an event at DIFFA called Viva Glam Casino with MAC Cosmetics and Maggie Rizer, the model, who lost her father to HIV and AIDS. That's how we got to know each other. 

DIFFA, now the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, was originally called Design Interior Foundation Fighting Aids. It was interior designers. It was actually one of the first creative industries, even before fashion, to mobilize around the issue, which was having a great impact on the people that were working in interior design, so they quickly got traction and expanded into other design areas. One of the very first things the CFDA did [around HIV/AIDS] was 7th on Sale, which was a big shopping event where houses and designers donated brand new product and worked in the booths. So that's how I became a little bit more familiar with design and fashion and people like Fern Mallis, who had my job back then and used to be on the DIFFA board.

So you knew people in fashion before moving over to the CFDA. How did you go about learning about the business of fashion and how the industry operates once you were there?

I think what got me hired is that I didn't come from fashion. I was a not-for-profit person. I had 20-plus years working in not-for-profit, and I think that's the skill set that the selection committee responded positively to, and that's why they hired me. You come into an organization, and you know what you know and you apply that. The fashion stuff wasn't really that hard because you learn very quickly, and you learn just by people telling you and being very aware and not being afraid to ask questions. I remember the first couple seasons going to fashion shows and Stan Herman, who used to be the president of the CFDA, would often be next to me and he'd just point out people, and that's how I got to know people. Or if I didn't know somebody but you could just tell from the flutter of attention [that they were important], then I would just ask. The business of fashion was stuff that I learned. I didn't necessarily understand how a wholesale business worked in fashion, I didn't really understand production, manufacturing, and that just was being around smart people, like Diane von Furstenberg, like Andrew Rosen, Anna Wintour. I just listened and when I didn't know I just asked. 

If you'd asked me in 2005, "Name five American designers," I would have said Ralph, Donna, Calvin, Diane, maybe. I wouldn't have said Proenza Schouler. I wouldn't have said some of the designers that were younger or even contemporary brands that had been established. I wouldn't have known who they were. But from the very beginning the industry was very open and receptive and made it very easy to learn that.

What do you like about the fashion industry?

I like a lot about it. I like that it's creative. I think that's the best part. Creative people I find fascinating. I've said that before and people are like, "Oh that's not true," but I'll say it again: I'm creative in a certain way, but I'm not creative like a designer's creative, so to be around that energy and around that process, that's cool. 

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I can't say I like that I get to go to [events]. I like it, but I don't love it. I appreciate it and I never take it for granted, but I know it's part of my job. My humble brag is that I don't think I'm affected. I don't think anyone would ever describe me as someone who's just so affected by fashion. I see it as my work and as my job and what I do, and I also know that at some point at the end of the day when I'm not working, a lot of that's just going to go away. I'm not going to fight it, and I'll move on to the next thing. I don't plan on going anywhere any time soon, but fashion is up and down and I think sometimes when people are no longer in a position of power or access it's hard to disconnect — it's hard when Billy Farrell doesn't want to take your picture. But I don't think it's going to be hard for me.

What do you think your outsider perspective on the fashion industry has helped you accomplish at the CFDA, if anything?

I think it was looking at the CFDA as a business. That's the irony. I didn't want to be a business person, but I ended up actually being a business person. It's looking at the CFDA as a business, which is being very conscious of finances, fundraising, budgets, committees, looking at our mission and always staying on mission, those are the kind of things that are very much part of what we've done, and also listening and adapting. [Diane and I] started something together called the Strategic Partner Group. That was because people were becoming members of the CFDA and it was prestigious, but what was the value beyond that? This program brought corporate partners in that brought value, whether that be discounts or work opportunities. What changed for me was how I was able to be more business focused and to run it like a business. That's not to say that my predecessors didn't — they did an incredible job. Each of us had our own impact and contribution, and I'm lucky that it was set up in a way that I could take it and be more businesslike with it. 

Is that what you'd say your impact on the CDFA has been?

I think growing the organization. We're 470 members now, and we used to be 280. [We spent time looking] at the criteria for membership and expanding that. And that was a change. The designers that became members were typically the designers that had their name on a label, and maybe we added 11 a year. But if you look back, how someone designed 30 years ago isn't how someone designs now. You have creative directors at brands that are very significant contributors to fashion and maybe they wouldn't have gotten in 20 years ago, but now it's more inclusive, so we're adding 30 or so members a year. 

We've gone from seven staff people to 25 staff people. We've gone from a budget of $2.5 million to a $20 million budget. I mean, the one thing that didn't work that we did fix was the scheduling of fashion week. It's not fair to say that it didn't work. It needed to work differently, and that took some time, but as you know we bought the Fashion Calendar last year and we made some significant changes there. The acquisition of the fashion calendar and the establishment of New York Fashion Week: Men's, were two key things that have had great impact. 

What's the most frustrating part of your job?

There are little things that are frustrating. Shuffling show schedules, bureaucracy, there's all that kind of stuff that can be frustrating on a day to day basis, but everything always works out if you just stay on it. 

Look, I think fashion can sometimes be perceived as superficial or in a way that is fake, and that's frustrating sometimes. I think of what we've done around the CFDA Health Initiative, which we've done a really good job on. Early on when we started it — from a very sincere place of caring — we got beat up a lot by eating disorder organizations [who said] that our work was not real or that it was insincere when it was in fact very sincere. And we stayed with it. I think we have changed the runway in New York. There aren't many girls under the age of 16, if any, that walk on a runway anymore, and that's one of our big recommendations. We monitor that. 

It's frustrating sometimes when people just see negativity and they don't see the value of the industry. It's a $350 billion industry, so you've got a lot of people employed in fashion. It is the second largest industry in New York after finance, and it's not just the designers, but it's pattern-makers, the people who work in factories, the people who work in retail, in publishing. It can be frustrating sometimes when people don't see the total impact of fashion and can only focus on the superficial, or what they think is superficial and insincere.

I was going to ask about the Health Initiative. What's the state of the union on that now?

We're pretty consistent. We have a great relationship with Dig Inn, which helps us provide really healthy, delicious food backstage at the shows. We continue to share the guidelines and every season Diane and I do a letter, which has always had great impact, reminding people [of the guidelines]. 

There's a group called the Model Alliance, and I give them a lot of credit for working with the council here on protecting working condition rights for underage models. There are certain laws that a child actor is protected under, and the Model Alliance worked with the legislative body here in New York and were able to pass protection for underage models. Now, it's a good law, but the challenge with the law is that it mirrors that of a child actor, and the way a child actor works is much different from the way an underage model works. You can't just transfer that set of requirements to modeling. For example, the employer is often responsible for the on-set obligation to the actor/model/performer, and in the instance of film or television, they're pretty much on the same set for three months. Whereas in modeling, and here during fashion week, you might be on six different sets in one day. We've been working now with New York State Senator Diane Savino. We met with her office recently and we convened a group of industry people — casting people, production people, Sara Ziff [the founder of the Model Alliance], designers — to help her understand the differences between a model and an actor to see if there's room to make the law more effective based on what it stands for and also better for the industry to comply to. 

[Ed note: at the time of publication, the meeting with Savino had yet to take place.]

What do you still want to accomplish at the CFDA?

In 2012, we were 50 years old and we did a great book and an exhibit at the Museum at FIT. Diane and I usually get together in Paris during fashion week and we go for a walk or get a tea, and we decided that year that we wanted to do a strategic initiative plan, a three to five year plan. We ended up working with the Boston Consulting Group. It's an amazing organization, and they interviewed many members of the industry. We identified four pillars of focus: education, manufacturing, fashion week and corporate partnerships. So we continue to focus on all of those, and when I look at each column I see a lot of work that we've done. 

It's really just fine-tuning those, and maybe [taking] more of a global and broader lens. We recently did something during Singapore Fashion Week, and having more opportunity for members of the industry outside of the American market. 

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the meeting with New York State Senator Diane Savino had yet to take place at the time of publication.