BoF Exclusive | CFDA Reveals New Strategy

Last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America tapped the Boston Consulting Group to help define its mission for the next half-decade. Today, BoF can exclusively reveal the key elements of the CFDA’s new strategy, built around education, partnerships, local manufacturing and, of course, revamping New York Fashion Week.

Jason Wu S/S 2014 at New York Fashion Week | Source: Nowfashion

NEW YORK, United States — It was the Fall of 2012, during Paris Fashion Week, and the CFDA’s chief executive Steven Kolb and president Diane von Furstenberg set off on their annual walk. “We generally discuss the year to come, but since 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the CFDA, there was a lot of reflection as well,” Kolb told BoF.

After all, the organisation has changed dramatically since he and von Furstenberg arrived in 2006. Membership has nearly doubled to about 450 designers, up from 250. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which was, then, still in its infancy, is now a high profile competition with its own cable television series. What’s more, in the intervening years, the CFDA has launched several scholarships, established the Fashion Incubator (a business development programme designed to support young designers in New York) and broadened the reach of the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative.

But von Furstenberg is thirsting for more. “It all goes so fast,” she told BoF. “The minute I’m proud of something, it’s already obsolete.” The legendary designer may have been being facetious, but she does raise an important question: what’s next for the CFDA and its members?

“When [Steven and I] first started, the first priority was to become a family,” von Furstenberg said. “We decided that it was time to go to professionals and put together a business plan.” Those professionals were a team from the elite management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which spent eight weeks last Spring interviewing the CFDA’s staff along with 82 industry leaders, including 20 designers and 16 chief executives, as well as publicists, editors and educators — everyone from Ralph Lauren to Anna Wintour to Mark Lee, chief executive of Barneys New York.

“[The] CFDA has brought fashion from an elite few in Paris and Milan to the American mass market,” said one chief executive-designer who was interviewed. “[The] CFDA fulfills its role of ensuring that young New York designers can actually succeed,” said another. But, of course, the feedback wasn’t all positive. “I need to push to hear from the CFDA. It should be the other way around,” said one chief executive. “CFDA helped raise the profile of fashion in the US. It is time to do so on a global scale,” a member added.

“[The mission] needed to be clarified,” said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, managing director at BCG. “We needed to paint a precise picture of what each member, and all of the stakeholders, get from the association.” Together, Kolb, von Furstenberg and BCG were able to distill the CFDA’s six-sentence mission statement, first cobbled together in the 1960s, into one clear line: “The mission of the CFDA is to strengthen the influence and success of American Fashion Designers in the global economy.” And to transform this mission into reality, the CFDA has decided to focus its initiatives on four strategic areas.

New York Fashion Week

Perhaps the most talked-about element to the CFDA’s new strategy will be their plan for revamping New York Fashion Week. Unlike in London, Paris and Milan, New York’s fashion week calendar lacks robust, centralised planning — industry veteran Ruth Finley still publishes the schedule, as she has been doing for almost 70 years — leading to a schedule which is overcrowded and challenging for industry professionals to navigate.

While the CFDA respects Finley’s role, it has, for the first time, become actively involved in scheduling and organising the event. “We have, over the last few seasons, very informally, been more involved in supporting her with the scheduling,” said Kolb. “This season, we have announced publicly that we have even tightened that relationship. We are collectively making decisions on where people are showing — we’re really in daily communication and conversation on that.”

This is in stark contrast to the hands-off approach that the CFDA has taken in the past. And while there are, undoubtedly, plans for the CFDA to eventually take full control of the calendar, Kolb insists that every designer will still have the right to show.

“I don’t think that will change, as long as you follow the rules and as long as you can find a spot that works and respects other people on the calendar,” he said. “It’s the entrepreneurial spirit of ‘anybody can make it.’” But there will be efforts to ensure things run more smoothly. “We can bring resources and knowledge and opportunity into the calendar.”

One big and currently missed opportunity is the simple act of distributing the calendar on the CFDA website, as well as via an app, which the CFDA says will enable users to sort by filters like neighbourhood and presentation format, and see the top 25 shows chosen each season by an anonymous group of editors and buyers.

The plan also calls for a more efficient physical experience. Currently, editors and buyers travel up and down the West Side Highway from Lincoln Center to Milk Studios, as well as to multiple offsite venues, without any official transportation. Taxis and private cars are expensive and slow, and most buses and trains don’t reach New York’s 10th and 11th Avenues, where many of the choice show venues are located. While there are no plans to launch a “fashion bus,” similar to those organised by European fashion weeks, there is talk of holding the shows at a more convenient and central location, like The Culture Shed at the Hudson Yards, along the Highline at 30th Street, which von Furstenberg wants to make the next “main hub” of fashion week, once it opens in 2017.

“What’s the value of a centralised venue? How do you make that meaningful to designers? That’s where Diane as an individual — and as the president of the CFDA and part of the Culture Shed board — comes in, and what the BCG study has helped us understand,” said Kolb. “We have been involved in advising and meeting with the architects and planners, so that they are already creating a venue and a facility that has elements that will lend themselves to a better fashion show.” That means things like making it easier to changeover a set and offer a better guest experience. “More efficiency will result in better execution,” added Kolb.

Education

In education, the CFDA plans to reinforce its existing scholarship initiatives, including the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, the Fashion Incubator and the Education Summit, a two-year-old program that brings together faculty from the 21 American fashion schools. “Our first group of Incubator designers — half of them hadn’t downloaded QuickBooks,” said CFDA executive director Lisa Smilor, who came to the organisation in 1996 from Parsons the New School for Design. Now, Incubator designers are equipped with a basic understanding of business via mandatory classes run by MBA candidates at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The CFDA also aims to make it easier for top design students to find jobs and succeed in what is a highly competitive global industry by connecting them with brands (via a database of 64 vetted graduates called CFDA+) and offering them “Avenue to Industry” portfolio reviews, as well as the opportunity to attend more seminars, professional development workshops and panel discussions, like the fashion-tech event the organisation hosted in December with blue-chip Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Finally, the CFDA is set to think more globally. In education, that means developing its relationships with international schools. “The students from Bunka have a different skill set than the students from [Central] Saint Martins than the knitters from Scotland,” said Smilor. “And everyone has said, it’s a global world, some of our American students are going to go abroad.” It also means the organisation will increase its efforts to generate international exposure for more established American designers in the vein of its existing “Americans in Paris” and “Americans in China” programs. “Asia is more and more important,” said Bellaiche. “And if Asian buyers see a strong business in Europe, they are more likely to take a chance on a brand. The more the CFDA can do to make you and upcoming designers more visible internationally, the better.”

Partnerships

The CFDA has a number of existing partnerships, but the organisation’s approach to these partnerships lacked a structured and strategic approach, the new plan reveals. “Some of the partnerships had been ad hoc because the CFDA was getting hit up every day with different offers,” said Sarah Willersdorf, principal at BCG. “We gave different suggestions on how to categorise [these partnerships], understand the value for the designers, how they should be priced and which should be strategic versus one-off.”

As part of the process with BCG, the organisation’s many partnerships — with companies ranging from Google to Kohl’s — were fully evaluated and in many instances, extended. “The simple fact is that some partnerships should be extended into longer partnerships just so that every year you’re not trying to hustle to close every contract,” said Adam Roth, the CFDA’s director of strategic partnerships, who joined the organisation in the summer of 2013. “It also helps you think longer-term about the goals of the company you’re working with.” Shop the Hangout, created in partnership with Google and launched in October 2013, was the first fresh initiative to be born from the new strategy.

The CFDA’s partnerships also extend to what the organisation calls its Business Service Network, which offers members discounts on car services, hotels, supplies and others products and services. “Especially for emerging members, cash is tight and every dollar counts,” said Willersdorf. “The CFDA had set up good packages for their members, but hadn’t spent enough time communicating them,” something Roth now aims to fix.

New York Manufacturing

The CFDA also plans to make it easier for designers — particularly New York-based emerging designers — to manufacture products locally, starting with the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, an investment fund led by Theory chief executive Andrew Rosen. “I call it Fashion Fund for factories,” said Kolb. The fund (which has raised $500,000 from Ralph Lauren, $500,000 from Rosen, and $1 million from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, as well as smaller amounts from supporters like Rag & Bone) will offer grants to New York-based production facilities, so that they can invest in new equipment and upgrade old equipment. “We going to work to help drive business,” said Kolb. “We want established designers to feel like they can get designer-level quality here.”

“It’s clear that one thing that hinders local production is the tariffs that designers pay on fabrics that are being imported to the country — particularly the Italian fabrics,” Kolb continued. “We’ve begun to look at what are those actual costs, how do they apply to the different tariffs, and whether or not there is an opportunity as an industry to work with [the US government in] Washington to have them reduced.”

Each of these key areas of focus — New York Fashion Week, education, partnerships, local manufacturing — will be core to the CFDA’s strategy over the next five years. But, fundamentally, they will all help the organisation deliver on one central goal: supporting a designer at every stage of his or her career. Indeed, the “lifecycle of a designer” is something the team discusses regularly now. Ultimately, the CFDA aims to offer designers support during their student years, when they land their first job, when they launch their own labels, when those labels experience accelerated growth, and, finally, if and when they manage to build established businesses.

“Working with BCG was like working with a therapist,” said von Furstenberg. “I’ve been around for a long time, so I’ve done this before. This one was a successful effort. This actually helped.”