A decade into his tenure as CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Steven Kolb has added another item to an impressive list of achievements: the establishment of New York City’s first menswear-focused fashion week. Beginning today, New York Fashion Week: Men’s promises to be a galvanizing force for the city’s fashion community. We chatted with Kolb about why such a week is necessary, the ever-elusive creative/commercial balance, social media, and the intellectual property issues facing designers. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
First, if you could, take us through the genesis of New York Fashion Week: Men’s, from initial impulse to reality.
It’s been a long process to get to this place. It had a lot of interest and a lot of people wanting it, but no foundation, so we had to build a foundation. We knew the structure we were going to build, but we didn’t have the foundation, and that’s what took so long.
I started at the CFDA ten years ago. When I started, I had many conversations with menswear designers, including John Varvatos, who always would say, “Why isn’t there a men’s fashion week?” There was always the question and the interest, but there was never really a groundswell to drive it and make it happen. About two years ago, I had a breakfast with Bruce Pask, who was at T Magazine at the time — now he’s at Bergdorf Goodman — and the question came up again. Because it was a fresh person asking the question, we pulled together a bunch of people — Jim Moore from GQ, Nick Sullivan from Esquire, Eric Jennings from Saks, Kevin Harder from Bloomingdales, and other men’s guys — and brainstormed and discussed if this was the time. They were all very passionate about it.
You cover the industry, so you know that the [labels] that were showing during September or February, they’d already done their market and sales, so that was a big disconnect in the business. It really was the industry — the designers, the editors, the buyers, the American designers, editors, and buyers — who asked for it. Being an organization that serves the industry, that’s how we started building it. When you have a project like this, it requires money, and everything we do is dependent on others paying for it and helping us do it. Very early on, Amazon bought into the idea and the vision as a partner. That’s all they bought into — they didn’t buy into any venue, they didn’t buy into any specific designers, they didn’t buy into dates. There was nothing specific. It was just an idea, and they saw that. By signing on early, they really pushed the planning and the progress forward to where we are today.
I know that Google also supports the CFDA’s manufacturing initiative. Why do you think these huge tech companies are taking such an interest in the fashion industry?
Intel is another tech company that’s a partner of the CFDA, as is eBay, among others. I think there’s two sides of it. Obviously for e-commerce and the ability to reach their customer with product that their customer wants, it makes sense to associate with the CFDA, because we represent American fashion and we know talent. That’s what we do. We identify talent and we represent talent. From a strictly commerce side, companies like Amazon, the association for them is being a good corporate citizen as they develop and expand their business around fashion.
The other side of it, the Googles and the Intels, they, as I see it, are sitting in Silicon Valley, driven by tech people that went to MIT or Stanford, and they’re charged with creating things that hopefully people want, but they don’t really have the design aesthetic, the eyes. They have the mechanical coolness of how to make something that people want to use and desire, but they might not have the language of aesthetics. On Seventh Avenue, you have the opposite. You have designers who have really cool ideas of how something can look, but they don’t really know how to build the function of something. As tech and fashion are getting closer and closer, you have two distinctive languages being spoken and one might not really understand the other, so when companies like Google or Intel come to us, we can help translate so both sides understand it and merge the two together.
The central venue for men’s fashion week is the Skylight Clarkson SQ. Do you think it’s important to have a central venue for fashion week?
They’re a huge partner. If it wasn’t for them, we might not be doing this in the next couple weeks. The High Line was a functioning railroad originally, and the trains used to end in that terminal, which is Skylight Clarkson SQ. That’s where they would unload shipments and cargo. It’s very authentic New York. It has a very raw feel to it, and to be in a centralized venue that’s so New York just connects everything together.
I think for this first time, the centralized venue really works because it allows designers who otherwise might not be ready or prepared to stand alone to be in a shared space. It also allows designers that are more established to support a shared space that creates a face for what we’re doing around menswear. Ultimately, in fashion weeks in general, do I think there need to be centralized venues? Not necessarily. We’re very committed to Skylight Clarkson SQ and imagine we’ll be there for a very, very long time, but we’re seeding something, right? We’ll have to see it grow, but the idea eventually would be for us to grow things so big that people could be all over the city.
Also, if you were to ask the same questions to an editor or a buyer, they like the centralized venues. They find it convenient. Have you ever been to London Collections, the men’s shows?
No, I haven’t, unfortunately.
I went last year and they don’t have a centralized venue, necessarily, but they have three venues that are basically in walking distance of each other. The proximity does matter in terms of managing one’s day.
You get a nice energy in a centralized space.
Yeah, you do. You have to be careful, though, and we’re very careful about what we’ve created at Skylight Clarkson SQ, because you don’t want to over-commercialize it and take away from its intent. If it feels like you’re going to a convention center trade show and people are hawking product, that’s not a pleasant experience. If you have an enhanced show experience where you actually can see collections and interact with designers, that’s a good thing. It’s a very fine line and I think sometimes centralized venues can jump the shark and commercialize it too much and forget the intent, so it becomes about sampling or corporate partners who have nothing to do with fashion and seem disconnected.
We were very thoughtful about the partners we brought on. Amazon: Seattle, Washington, American company. Shinola: designed and made in Detroit, American company. Cadillac: can’t get more America than that when it comes to a car. DreamWorks: Hollywood, California. Docker’s: part of the Gap out of San Francisco, American fashion brand. Axe Fragrance. They’re American companies. DreamWorks, of all of them, is maybe the one that seems the most outside the industry. All the others connect in a way and they are all providing a service or value or partner opportunity that helps [the fashion industry] as opposed to just exploits it.
The point you mad a minute ago about finding that balance between commercial interests and, I guess, the real spirit of the shows, that’s an interesting point to me, because ultimately, fashion is a commercial enterprise. At the end of the day, we’re selling clothing. How do you maintain that balance?
When I say that, I mean that in terms of partner and sponsor activation. I mean that if we let, say… I’m going to be really careful because I don’t want to put names out. If we did a program with a pet food company and they were promoting a new dog food and they had dogs in there and it was all about the dog food, it’s like, well, what does that have to do anything? That’s jumping the shark. When it comes to actual creativity around clothing and accessories and designs, that’s different.
Fashion, in my opinion, is not art. People can say, and I have these conversations a lot of times, “Oh, its so artistic. It’s so creative.” Sure, it has artistic flare and it definitely is a creative industry, but unless it has some commercial success, then I don’t think it has success. Making clothes just for the sake of making clothes that either hang on a rack or in someone’s closet but never actually end up on a consumer in a store, I don’t think that’s success. I think that the creativity and the commerce need to be together and I think that is something that American designers are not shy about. Fashion’s a business so you have to sell clothes. I think there’s no shame in being a commercial brand and being successful commercially.
I know lots of times runway is editorially-driven to get press and attention, but what the buyers are buying might not even be what’s on the runway. It might be the more commercial collection that buyers are going to to see in the showrooms or after shows, so you have to be creative in your business, but you have to be commercial to be successful.
Now that we’re fully immersed in the age of social media, do you think the purpose of the fashion week has changed?
Yes, I do. Even before social media, I think technology changed fashion week. If you go backwards, before Al Gore invented the internet, there was no access other than editors and buyers and photographers who took pictures and then it would show up in the magazines at the same time it was hitting stores. Not like the preview that fashion weeks are. Then you had the internet and it was easy for someone to rush back, develop a picture or upload a digital image, and put something online very quickly. That’s really where it changed, because the speed of exposure or access was made much quicker.
Now, with social media, it’s not even like you’ve got to rush back and develop it and upload something, it’s right there automatically. You can’t stop technology, and that’s true in fashion and in how we live our lives. It’s true in music. Maybe Taylor Swift can with Apple, but most of us, it just happens, so you have to adjust to that, and I think sites like yours are a good example of that. Publishing’s changed and you see traditional magazines with very robust and active social media accounts where a lot of content is being driven and also created for social media. It’s a good thing, if you go with it. If you fight it, you’re just going to be behind.
The bad thing about the instant exposure of something from a runway show has less to do with the retail or the customer, it has to really do with the intellectual property of a product. Someone’s showing a look on a runway and it’s photographed and it gets uploaded somewhere and it’s seen by people. If I’m some guy in Asia who makes copies, I can say, “Oh, look at that. I’m going to make that,” and make it fast and knock it off and sell it before the person who created it, the real designer who was behind it, gets it into production and gets it in stores. That’s been the a bit challenging.
I also think social media for all of us, the CFDA too, it’s a way for us to have direct conversation with an audience that’s interested in us. When designers can create their content and not have to rely on third parties or outside people to tell that story, they can tell the story exactly like they want to tell it and they can engage with a customer exactly how they want to. It’s not even so much about them telling the customer anymore, it’s the customer telling them what they want, and I think that’s a very positive thing. It creates a very direct relationship. Designers who have their own e-commerce, which is most designers, that’s controlling your inventory, controlling your deliveries, and another place to tell your story.
Yeah, we’re starting to see brands that don’t even wholesale anymore. They just run everything completely vertically through their own e-commerce.
Yeah, and I think that that’s probably a wave of fashion. If you were to look at fashion historically, for a long time the business of fashion was the wholesale business. Designers would make things and sell them to the big stores. Then you saw the shift to designers saying, “Okay, I’m still wholesaling but I’m going to start opening up my stores.” That really became a part of the business, and now I think the future is, “I’ve got my own stores, I’m going to do e-commerce, maybe wholesale is going down a little bit.” At some point in the future, maybe we’re just going to be buying online.
I want to jump back to a point you made a minute ago about the instantaneousness of access feeding into counterfeiting. This is obviously a huge issue for the industry and one case where I feel like technology is moving faster than the law can to keep up with it. What would you like to see happen to protect designers? How do you think we can better protect designers’ intellectual property?
We spent a lot of time over the last eight years fighting for copyright protection here in the United States for fashion design. It was a good fight. We didn’t win it in the end, but there is protection for fashion design in Europe. I think we’re the only developed country that doesn’t have some sort of protection. We lobbied in Washington. We went down there a lot. We went with Diane [von Furstenberg, President of the CFDA], and Tory Burch, and Prabal Gurung, and Jason Wu, and so many others. It’s a tough line, because people see clothing as a function more than as a unique creation. We didn’t win, but we definitely created awareness that maybe shifted how design departments approach development of products. I don’t know how you change it other than staying focused on your own ideas and not worrying so much about other people’s ideas, and just creating a culture of creativity and supporting that so people are being unique in their approach.