NEW YORK, United States — New York Fashion Week isn’t quite what it was. Talents like Proenza Schouler, Thom Browne, Joseph Altuzarra and Rodarte have decamped to Paris. Tommy Hilfiger is showing in London. Rag & Bone is simply not showing at all. But Steven Kolb and Diane von Furstenberg — chief executive and chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, whose stated mission is “to strengthen the impact of American fashion in the global economy” — are unfazed.
“When Steven and I started together at the CFDA, the first thing we said is that we wanted to make it a family,” says Von Furstenberg, sitting on a couch in her office next to Kolb, with whom she has worked at the American trade organisation since 2006. “As the parents of this family of designers, each one of them being absolutely different, you try to give them support. But the greatest support you can give is telling them to do what is right for them.”
When it comes to fashion week, Von Furstenberg and Kolb both firmly believe in one of the key findings of a March 2016 Boston Consulting Group report commissioned by the CFDA: that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to presenting a collection. They also recognise that amidst market turbulence, driven by everything from the internet to shifting consumer values, the fashion industry is facing pressure and American designers at every size and stage are looking for the CFDA’s help.
In recent years, however, the not-for-profit trade organisation has been criticised — often in private — for not doing enough to support members at every stage in their trajectory. Instead, the CFDA is primarily known for its efforts supporting two categories of designers: the established stars celebrated at the CFDA Fashion Awards, and the nascent designers who are also recognised at the Awards, but receive additional support through programmes including the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an annual competition for emerging designers, and a programme that awards scholarships to fashion design students at leading American universities.
Over the past two months, BoF has spoken with fashion designers, business executives and marketers — the majority of whom wish to remain anonymous because of their relationship with the CFDA — expressing reservations about the organisation’s role in the trajectory of designers who do not currently fit into these two buckets. In some ways, the industry’s reluctance to speak publicly regarding what they’d like to change about the CFDA underscores how important the organisation remains.
In 2016, the CFDA generated nearly $17 million in revenue, up from under $12 million in 2015. That includes $1.4 million collected from membership dues — determined on a sliding scale — as well as nearly $8 million generated by educational and professional development programmes, with the remaining coming from philanthropy ($4.4 million), special events (net $343,000) and other projects ($1.4 million), as well as a net $1.1 million on investment return.
The organisation spent nearly $14 million last year, 93 percent of which went to support programmes, which encompass everything from hosting panel discussions to launching a branded shop-in-shop at the new Fred Segal store in Los Angeles, where designs by CFDA members are showcased. Along with the work Kolb and his team implement on a day-to-day basis, Von Furstenberg’s hands-on support — and global influence — is also a boon. She often refers opportunities not right for DvF to other members.
And yet, many members say the CFDA could take a more proactive role in shaping the industry's future in a turbulent market context.
How are they helping members transition from a strictly wholesale formula and platform to an omnichannel platform?
“I’d love to know what they’re doing to adapt to the times,” says Gary Wassner, chief executive of Hilldun, a financial factor. Wassner is also the co-chairman and InterLuxe, an investment firm that owns stakes in Jason Wu, A.L.C. and Mackage. “How are they helping members transition from a strictly wholesale formula and platform to an omnichannel platform?”
“They have a ton of programming that is very helpful for many designers, but sometimes there is a misunderstanding of the issues that we are facing at a moment when the industry has never been so volatile,” says one member. “We’re often encouraged down paths that are unsustainable for our own businesses. They are maybe missing an opportunity to be more constructive.”
Kolb acknowledges the feedback and says the organisation is continuously upping its efforts to support members. “We are there to support them, to give them exposure, to give them advice. And, you know, to help them make money,” added Von Furstenberg. “When things are tough, they say, ‘They don't do anything for us.’ But overall, for the industry, Steven and team do so much.”
Indeed, “many of these brands who are seeking out their support and services see them as a lifeline that they aren’t or that they shouldn’t be,” one member acknowledges. “They need to make to clear their own role, the purpose they serve and what they are actually able to do for their members.”
In order to maximise its impact and better serve its members, the organisation has introduced several new initiatives and refined established programs. (It will also announce two new board members this autumn.) “Our job is to promote American designers. We adapt with our time, and we adapt with their needs,” says Von Furstenberg.
Here's what the CFDA has planned.
Revamping the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund
The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is an annual, four-month-long competition for emerging designers launched in 2003. It currently offers the winner $400,000, while two runners up receive $150,000. The cash also comes with mentorship from industry experts.
But the Fashion Fund has faced recent challenges. This summer, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour stepped down from the judging panel, while several former participants have said the time and cost associated with entering the competition outweighed the benefits, citing portfolios of their work created for the review of the judging panel which, in some cases, cost several thousand dollars to put together.
“The key thing for us with the Fashion Fund is going back to basics,” Kolb says of the annual design competition, now in its 14th year. This means abandoning the television docu-series “The Fashion Fund” — a high-brow “Project Runway”-like show the CFDA launched alongside the competition — which proved to be a deterrent for many designers to enter. “We said, let's really not be about a TV show or about a marketing challenge,” explains Kolb. “Let’s be about the business and talent.”
From Fashion Incubator to 'Network'
Since its 2009 conception as a small-business accelerator in the vein of Y Combinator, the CFDA's two-year Fashion Incubator programme has offered young labels mentoring and business advice, as well as subsidised studio space off 7th Avenue in New York City.
Many past participants say the mentoring and sense of network created within the incubator — with designers sharing information and resources — was invaluable. But the cost of the studio space — which is $1,800 to $3,000 a month, depending on square footage — can be a significant expense for some young designers. Others have suggested that the CFDA could improve the programme by partnering with a technology accelerator — such as Techstars — so that designers can learn more about new selling and marketing methods.
We are kind of like 1-800-Fashion customer service for the industry.
Now, the CFDA is rebooting its Fashion Incubator program, closing its studio space and replacing its current approach with a digital platform — internally referred to as “The Network” — that will be open to active CFDA members. There, they’ll be able to ask questions, share information about staffing, sourcing and best practices and connect with mentors. "It’s a little bit of a cliché, but we are kind of like 1-800-Fashion customer service for the industry,” Kolb says. “People call us all the time.”
Categories of businesses represented in “The Network” will include: business strategy; digital/social communications; distribution; finance; human resources; innovation; investors; legal; marketing; merchandising; operations; production; retail/sales; sustainability; technology. Alongside the new platform, the CFDA will continue to host members-only panel discussions, and open up its “pitch day” — where designers have traditionally presented their plans to investors — to a wider audience.
New Business Development Programmes
The CFDA has also partnered with another American trade organisation, the Accessories Council, to create the Elaine Gold Launch Pad, a six-month “virtual residency” for brands three years or younger with ambitions to develop new business models. Along with mentorship, selected participants can receive up to $175,000 in micro-awards, which are delivered every time their business meets an established goal in realising their concept.
This autumn, the CFDA will also launch “Next Step”, a programme that will advise young designers on whether or not to show at New York Fashion Week and how to manage the process and maximise the return on investment. The trade organisation also works with financial services company CBIZ to offer members assistance with bookkeeping, a programme it intends to keep.
A More Varied Fashion Awards
While the CFDA has more than 500 active members, the organisation’s Fashion Awards, which take place every June, repeatedly recognise the same well-known names, who tend to produce high-end ready-to-wear. While both the nominations and awards are determined by vote — open to the 1,500-plus members of the CFDA Fashion Awards Guild that includes industry executives, journalists and other influencers — several active members have suggested that the organisation should establish a wider variety of award categories, going further to recognise different price points and business models. This, in turn, may compel more members to buy a ticket, with prices starting at $4,000 per person. (Many young designers do attend as guests of major brands, which pay $10,000 a ticket and often sponsor entire tables.)
Kolb and Von Furstenberg say they have already begun to address criticisms of the existing Fashion Awards by streamlining the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent — recognising one brand instead of brands across men’s, women’s and accessories categories — and adding the Swarovski Award for Positive Change, which recognises a member of the American fashion industry for advocating social change.
There are also plans to reduce the cost of an individual member ticket for the 2018 Awards, which will take place next June.
A Supply Chain White Paper
As billion-dollar brands and retailers look to upgrade their supply chains, smaller designers wonder how they can apply similar upgrades to their nascent businesses. This autumn, the CFDA will release a white paper — sponsored by DHL and led by consulting firm Accenture/Fjord — that is meant to serve as a “playbook” on sourcing, customs, sampling, e-commerce logistics and more. The CFDA will host panel discussions in New York and Los Angeles to communicate the study’s findings to its members.
More Retail Showcases
The CFDA has a branded shop-in-shop featuring the designs of members at the new Fred Segal store in Los Angeles. It has also launched one-off partnerships with the likes of Intermix and Banana Republic. Now, the organisation is set to announce a new retail partnership with a San Francisco-based online retailer that will consist of a new “luxe” section on its site showcasing the designs of CFDA members.
‘A Civic Voice’
In the months following the presidential election, the CFDA has also upped its civic programs, introducing Fashion Stands with Planned Parenthood and Fashion for ACLU and releasing a white paper outlining fashion’s relationship with the current immigration system and how immigration reform may impact the industry. “Our core work is still about supporting the business of designers,” Kolb says. “But we need to have a civic voice.”
As the CFDA looks to 2018, Kolb and Von Furstenberg are simply eager to keep building on these programmes, and welcome members to offer them the straightforward feedback so many are afraid to share.
“Sometimes someone on staff will say, ‘Well, people are complaining about this and that,’ and I always say, ‘Who are they?’” Kolb says. “Unless we know what people want us to do and get that feedback, then we can't really address it or help.”