Fern Mallis on Leaving NYFW, Sustainable Fashion and the Biggest Changes in the Industry

The "Fashion Icons" host finally took the hot seat for her longtime interview series at New York City’s 92Y.
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Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

Since the 2011 launch of "Fashion Icons," an intimate interview series with some of the fashion industry's biggest luminaries, host Fern Mallis has taken the stage at New York City's 92nd Street Y (also known as 92Y) to chat with icons like Bill Cunningham, Lauren Hutton and Andre Leon Talley. On Tuesday night, however, Mallis finally flipped the switch and took the hot seat herself — on her birthday, no less!

In conversation with television and radio host Bevy Smith, Mallis took the audience all the way back to her Brooklyn roots and growing up with her father's business in the Garment District, as well as through her storied career in fashion, from her first job out of college at Mademoiselle magazine to being hired as the executive director of the CFDA in 1991 and creating 7th on Sixth — New York's first-ever Fashion Week — in Bryant Park a few years later.

Fashion, of course, was quite different from what it is today, but that hasn't stopped Mallis from keeping up with it. While speaking with Smith and taking questions from the audience, the industry guru had a lot to say about some of today's hot topics, along with some useful advice for those still looking to get their big break in fashion. Read on for highlights from Mallis and Smith's conversation.

On stepping away from New York Fashion Week

Ultimately, Mallis knew her time with New York Fashion Week had come to an end once the major cultural event became a full-fledged business. "I respect that it's a business, but in the last two years of my tenure there, the only word you heard was EBITDA [meaning 'earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization'] and not hemline, so it was time for a change," she recalls. "Gift bags that used to go to the media were now going to sponsors' guests. Everything was about sponsors. How do we make sponsors happy? Sponsors, sponsors, sponsors."

But Mallis is well aware of the impact she's made with NYFW. For several years with IMG, which acquired NYFW in 2001, she traveled around the world — Mumbai, Moscow, Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin, Mexico City, Toronto, Singapore, Dubai, Tokyo, among others — to help start up a slew of international fashion weeks.

Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

On standing out in a saturated market

While Mallis has come across nearly every creative professional in New York City, it's hard for her to really explain exactly what it takes to stand out in the saturated fashion space. The key to success, according to her, is finding your voice and using your platform to share it.

"A good idea is a good idea, and somebody who is really clever with a good idea will still rise to the top of the internet, Instagram, anything," says Mallis. "You've got to find that voice or personal wave that makes it unique to you and different than anything else you're seeing out there. And it's shocking to me that people find it, they buy it, and it floods…. You don't need to be in a store, you don't need to be in brick-and-mortar. You don't need any of that. You can do it from a phone if you're clever. And I can't tell you how to be clever. You have to be clever yourself."

On sustainable fashion

"Sustainable fashion is the new black," says Mallis. "I think it's the most important thing happening in the whole universe of fashion and the whole world right now. We all have an obligation to try and protect this planet and live on it as long as possible." She admires how the industry is finally, truly taking serious steps and even shouted out the CFDA's efforts in educating designers on sustainability.

"It's not an easy solution or answer but there are steps along the way — thousands of them — that companies and designers can take," says Mallis. "I urge everybody in the industry to ask the questions and try to be sustainable. It's important."

Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

Fern Mallis and Bevy Smith at 92Y. Photo: Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography/Courtesy of 92Y

On being nice in the industry

Running a tight ship like NYFW shouldn't stop you from being nice to everyone. And Mallis knows the value of being polite throughout her career, because the industry is so small, you never know who you might be running into — or even working with — one day.

"I don't think [fashion] should be elitist or exclusive but I also think there's a barrier at some point," says Mallis. "But it's so much easier to be nice to people."

On the biggest changes in fashion

According to Mallis, online has changed everything about fashion, from how it's perceived to how it's purchased. "Also, the casualization of fashion has changed," she adds, bringing up the rise of sneakers and hoodies as luxury items. "Go to an office today. Mark Zuckerberg changed the office dress code. It's crazy."

Mallis also mentions that the idea of "real trends and looks each season" that made you want to buy something new is missing in the industry now. "Fashion is something that makes you feel great and makes you feel good, and you think the world's going to change if you buy something. I don't feel that stuff so much anymore. There's so much out there. There's too much," says Mallis. "But I can't play God and say, 'You shouldn't be designing. You shouldn't be in business.' A lot of people shouldn't be in business. There's a lot of people who shouldn't be putting on runway shows who do."

To which Smith replied, "Are you talking about your friend Kanye West? What was that brouhaha about it?"

"Google it," quipped Mallis.

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