CEO Talk | Steven Kolb, Chief Executive Officer, Council of Fashion Designers of America

Steven Kolb | Photo: Carly Otness/

Steven Kolb | Photo: Carly Otness/

PARIS, France — The fashion world is in a tizzy. Ever since the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI) laid down the gauntlet, scheduling next autumn’s Milan Fashion Week from September 19th to 24th, a massive rift has emerged amongst the fashion fraternity.

New York Fashion Week, organised by the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), is scheduled to start on the 13th of September and conclude on the 20th. London Fashion Week, organised by the British Fashion Council (BFC), is supposed to run from the 21st to the 24th. But based on the dates currently being proposed for Milan Fashion Week, which the CNMI insist were communicated back in 2010, Milan would not only conflict with the end of New York Fashion Week, but completely overlap with London. Paris Fashion Week, organised by the Fédération française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (known informally as the Chambre Syndicale), would follow Milan, and begin on the 25th. In short, it’s a jumble of acronyms and national organisations trying to oversee what is effectively a fashion month for a global industry.

In response to this serious scheduling problem, Jonathan Newhouse, Chairman of Condé Nast International issued a statement: “We at Condé Nast do not want the schedule to be changed. We very much oppose moving the Milan shows earlier so that they overlap or conflict with the London fashion shows — or with the New York fashion shows or those of any market,” he said, adding that various international editors of Vogue would not attend a Milan Fashion Week that conflicted with its counterparts. Milan has not budged on the 2012 dates, but they have proposed to discuss the 2013 dates.

Contrast this dispute with my surroundings as I sat down for tea with Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, on a park bench in Paris’ Palais-Royal, surrounded by stores from fashion brands from all over the world. It was clear proof of the global nature of our industry, as CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg articulated a few days ago in an open letter to the fashion community. “We share the same goals as Milan, Paris, and London,” she wrote. In other words, pitting fashion weeks against each other is like the fashion industry feeding upon itself.

Mr. Kolb was in town for “Americans in Paris,” inspired by the British Fashion Council’s “London Showrooms” concept, a perfect example of how fashion weeks can learn from each other. It’s the latest in a slew of CFDA initiatives designed to support America’s burgeoning young fashion talents, including Prabal Gurung (Nepali), Sophie Theallet (French) and Simon Spurr (British), all of whom came to America from other countries. It’s an international fashion world after all.

I met with Mr. Kolb while all this fashion week in-fighting was only just simmering, and had yet to reach boiling point. But nonetheless, it became an important part of our conversation, along with the future of fashion week more generally and the prospects for young fashion designers in America.

BoF: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you first about the ongoing hubbub around fashion week scheduling. What is the status of the discussions with other fashion weeks, and what do you think the resolution will be?

SK: No one agreed to a short term [agreement], why would we? Since we negotiated the second Thursday start, the idea was to get it as far away from Labour day as possible. 2012 is the first year that we actually benefited from [NYFW] not being the Thursday after Labour day, but the following Thursday.

So, we are pretty clear on that. I know that the Brits are really clear on that. I feel that 20 years ago, Milan and Europe could really dictate and New York had to follow, but I feel like it’s time for us to stake what’s important to us. We have enough strength; we have a strong market; we have a lot of really talented designers. Milan might be surprised where editors and buyers decide to go.

BoF: Why?

SK: I think a lot of them would go to London and New York over Milan. I think every city has it’s own creativity, it’s own innovation, it’s own family of designers, but I think that London has invested a lot of energy into fashion week and put a lot of effort into promoting something interesting. I think London and New York are very similar in their approach to supporting the industry and particularly young designers.

Fashion is global and we can’t just plan within our borders. We hope we can all look at it as a fashion season and not individual fashion weeks. Diane and I have been working on [resolving] the conflict and want everyone to win. I can only believe there will be a solution.

BoF: You have taken a leaf out of London’s book and brought ten American designers here to Paris this week. Tell me about what prompted you to come here.

SK: We patterned this whole thing after the London Showrooms. The British Fashion Council is always coming up with new partners and new ways to support young talent and I think we’ve done a similar job of that in New York. It creates a lot of excitement around fashion week.

BoF: You spoke just now about supporting young designers. Everyone throws that phrase around a lot in the industry. In your view what is the single biggest challenge that a designer in New York City faces today? And how is the CFDA playing a part in helping them to address that challenge?

SK: I think you’re right. I do think it gets thrown around a lot and a lot of it is just marketing hype. There is an overabundance of ideas and programmes that are supporting young talent. But with CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund, there is a lot we do publicly [and] there is a lot that we don’t do publicly. You look at someone like Tommy [Hilfiger] — and who’s working with Tommy? Peter Som. That’s not accidental; that’s the Fashion Fund watching out for those designers. A lot of it is individualised, so I know just from the Fashion Fund that everyone has a very specific niche of what they need help with.

The one thing people say mostly, whether they are an emerging designer or not, is that they need an investor, they need money, they need capital. And so whether that’s private equity that actually invests in the company, or consulting work, or a capsule collection at Target — whatever it is, people want money, cash flow, and I think there are a lot of ways to make that happen, but that seems to be a big challenge.

BoF: I think it’s so great to see these designers here in Paris, as one of the impressions that I think people have about designers in New York is that they lack creativity. Why do you think that perception exists?

SK: New York has always been the commercial market. A funny thing happened [here in Paris]. Diane [von Furstenberg] and I were having lunch and we were shopping and there was this shop, and in the shop she saw these really fabulous little display ladders, and this beautiful metal chair, and she went in, and there was this French woman in there. Diane said, ‘I love this, where did you get it?’ and the woman said, ‘Well I made them myself.’ Diane said, ‘I love them, can I buy them?’ and the woman said, ‘No, I can’t sell them, I wouldn’t want anyone to have them as they are my personal pleasure. Plus, I know who you are and if you put them in your store everyone will know me.’ Diane said, if we were in the States she would have taken an order for a 1000 of those.

I think New York has always been about selling. But I think that has changed a lot, probably in the last twenty years. I think switching the New York shows from October to the front of the cycle was part of that shift — being first and not necessarily following ideas or trends and really being creative.

The American market was always about the brand. It was never about the designer — and you look at people like Bill Blass, who really started to step out from the backroom and become more upfront. Then you have Calvin, Donna and Ralph and it just continued. In the States, we are very entrepreneurial.

There are 250 shows on the calendar. Anybody can show that has an idea. I think that programs like the Fashion Fund and incubator and the relationships that the buyers or the editors have developed with designers encourages that creativity. Whether you’re an artist or a designer, to make something and not be able to let it go? What’s the point?

BoF: Couldn’t you also argue that you are diluting the week, because, frankly there is a lot of stuff that might not merit that kind of attention? Perhaps having a more curated week — like in London, like in Milan, like in Paris — where an organisation, whether it’s the CFDA or someone else, could play a role in upholding certain standards?

SK: We’ve been talking about that. The calendar is a challenge because we have that number of shows. You’ve got a show back to back with the designers, model call times, production, all of that. That is a big behind the scenes challenge.

But who is the voice of God? Who’s to say that the CFDA or some committee with an opinion should decide who has more talent than somebody else. I think there is a dog eat dog competitiveness that exists.

BoF: In a way it’s a quintessentially American approach. Let the market decide.

SK: Yes, I do believe that. We even talk about the fashion calendar, which frankly is a gated system. We’ve been looking at how you create a back-end system that PRs and designers can use as we do the puzzle of who goes where in the calendar. Then as you look at that, do we give priority to CFDA members? I just don’t think there is anything that can be done fairly. I think it’s just, let the market decide. I think you said it exactly the way it is.

We had a meeting, the summer before last, about the state of fashion week. Everybody has an opinion. I say to people ‘If you can figure it out, I am happy to make it happen. I’m good at executing things.’

BoF: The other issue with the show calendar is the timing of shows versus the timing of arrival of clothes. Everyone seems to have a point of view on it. Do you think a) there is a solution that’s out there? And b) given all the politics between the different fashion capitals, could anyone actually make a decision that would change the system?

SK: I think it takes someone brave like Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein when they switched over to September. I think it takes someone of that stature at this point [who] would be brave enough to do it. I think you can’t look at the shows alone, because a lot of the bigger designers are doing monthly deliveries anyway. The show has really turned into something less about a collection.

BoF: But the lag is still there. Whether the consumer sees the pre-collection images or the main collection, the clothes are still not available for four to five months. The big concern is the supply chain — you also need to be able to compress the supply chain. One suggestion Natalie Massenet made was to skip a season. Instead of doing shows, designers could do small private presentations for the industry, then you do the show when the clothes are actually ready.

SK: So it’s about skipping a season and maybe that’s a nice vacation break for people, but I think that it’s logistically complicated. I don’t know, it could happen one day. It requires someone big enough and powerful enough and influential enough to make that statement.

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by BoF founder and editor-in-chief, Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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  1. I think the problem with this GLOBAL view on fashion week is being influenced unnecessarily by an American holiday. I think that every American designer and PR deserve to have enough time to finish their collections, but does the fashion weeks of other cities have to be affected by the American need to have a 3-Day weekend? I’m an American fashion designer and that attitude is very ego-centric in a global world where we should all better learn to be considerate and learn how to work together. Please enough of in-fighting and learn how to make a schedule that works for ALL.

    RR from Zürich, 25, Switzerland
  2. Can someone clarify for me when Milan is going to show IF they were to follow the dates decided upon by NYC and London? Based on what I see, Milan has 0 days anyways. NYC, London, Paris are back to back. So is the agreement that NYC and London are touting that Milan will go after Paris? It looks like only Milan would be screwed in this scenario. Fashion must be a “nice industry” if the employers are so considerate to fight for a long weekend for their staff. Somehow, there must be more to it than a long weekend. Otherwise, its pretty unbelievable. I can’t imagine telling my boss that I need a long weekend 2 weeks ahead of one of the most important events of the year even if there is one.

    Also, are people really not going to attend Jil Sander, Prada, Armani etc? I think that would be risky for the smaller NYC and London designers.

    niche from Canada
  3. It is not about a 3 day week end. Designers and staff will be working no matter the dates. Sincce Italy closes all of August and many American designers get fabric from Italian mills the extra days give the needed time to receive the fabris and complete the collections.

    Jay from New York, NY, United States
  4. Basically the Americans and the French and English made a three year agreement ending in 2011 and don’t want to stick to it. Well…a deal is a deal. That is an American sensibility. They can renegotiate for 2012 -2015 in their favor going forward.

    Barbara416 from Toronto, ON, Canada
  5. Steven Kolb isn’t talking about Italian mills being closed when he as CEO of CFDA says, “Since we negotiated the second Thursday start, the idea was to get it as far away from Labour day as possible.” I believe that designers who sew and other workers will work nonstop til the collection is done, but the business people who are not part of the creative process want their last summer holiday.

    RR from Zürich, 25, Switzerland
  6. If New York wants to solve the problem, why don’t we go after Paris….that will give the American designers all the time they need anyway right? and then just give the slot to London and there will be only 1 day of overlapping….you just now have to negotiate new delivery dates at least for the American designers