Ford will assume the role in June. As chairman, he wants to bring a more international perspective to the trade association, the designer told BoF.
"Coming back from Europe, what's stunning to me was the isolation I feel here. I feel that America is one of the most isolated countries in the world. We're very inward looking," Ford said. "What American fashion needs to become in order to be more relevant in the world is to think of itself as not just American but as international."
Ford, who is based in Los Angeles and has won seven CFDA awards throughout his career, will work closely with CFDA chief executive Steven Kolb, joining the ranks of American designer legends like Perry Ellis, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, who have all served as the face of the organisation throughout its 57-year history. During its three-year search for her successor, the CFDA had conversations with several designers about the role, including Michael Kors and Tory Burch.
“Given his experience working for large luxury brands like Gucci under Kering and having started his own business not so long ago, [Ford] has a wide range of experience that will be incredibly valuable,” Kolb said.
What American fashion needs to become in order to be more relevant in the world is to think of itself as not just American but as international.
Under Von Furstenberg, the CFDA faced the sizeable challenge of helping the American fashion industry navigate an era of dramatic change brought on by the rise of digital technology, rapid globalisation and shifting consumer behaviour. As chairman and former president, she was a mentor to up-and-comers in the industry and helped elevate the CFDA's profile within the market.
“She was the first chair to really look at membership more broadly. Historically, it’s the designer whose name is on the label that got into the CFDA … She really opened that up and made it more reflective of what creativity is in fashion and looked at design more broadly,” Kolb said. “She created this idea of an American family.”
Together, Kolb and Von Furstenberg tackled social issues such as gender parity, sustainability and diversity in the industry. When they first joined the organisation, it was raising $3 million a year. Now, that total has grown to be over $15 million.
"When I came in they needed a mother. Now they need a statesman," Von Furstenberg told BoF. "What I think is great about Tom, a designer that all designers respect and admire, is that he's a global person [who has helped build] large companies."
With a stated mission to “strengthen the impact of American fashion in the global economy,” the CFDA aims to foster designers through awards, scholarships, mentorship, networking opportunities and, most notably, a showcase for their work at New York Fashion Week.
In recent years, however, the CFDA has come under fire for not providing sufficient support to its 500-odd members, especially those who are mid-career. While it offers young labels high-profile awards such as the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund — which grants winners $400,000 and two runners up $150,000 every year — and numerous guides to running a business, the association falls short of providing adequate hands-on assistance, some say.
“It’s difficult to answer and acknowledge [an issue] if members aren’t comfortable with coming forward,” Kolb said in response to the complaint. “I’m open to hearing criticism but I can’t affect change if people aren’t talking to me about it.”
According to Ford, young designers today may benefit from working for larger companies before scrambling to start their own lines.
A lot of young designers jump into the business before they have the experience they need.
"When I first started you didn’t just start your own collection out of school. You worked for another company. A lot of young designers jump into the business before they have the experience they need," he said. "We forgot the value of learning and industry ... It’s not just the creative element, it’s everything else."
As the CFDA prepares for the upcoming season, Kolb added that the organisation is always assessing how it could edit fashion week to be more convenient for attendees.
“I’m beyond thinking that an American designer who’s not showing in New York is a bad thing. It’s supposed to be very fluid … and I would love to see some European brands come in to take advantage of our platform here in New York,” he said.
As for the fashion week calendar, Kolb said that shaving another day off of the schedule — still considered by some to be too long and drawn — is a possibility. “That is a Rubik's cube and I have never solved a Rubik's cube. We could always shorten it more."
This year, the CFDA will also introduce a slate of initiatives championing inclusivity and diversity in the industry, issues that have risen to the top of the agenda for some brands after the rise of online activism and shifting consumer attitudes amid a highly polarised political backdrop in the United States. The organisation will work with activist Bethann Hardison and Harlem’s Fashion Row on networking programmes and events.
CFDA membership has shrunk in recent years, with total dues decreasing from $1.4 million in 2016 to $1 million in 2017, according to the group’s latest annual report. Revenue also dipped, from $15.4 million in 2016 to $12.5 million in 2017.
The annual CFDA Fashion Awards will take place June 3. Nominees include Brandon Maxwell, Marc Jacobs, Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, Rosie Assoulin, and Sander Lak of Sies Marjan for Womenswear Designer of the Year; Mike Amiri of Amiri, Virgil Abloh of Off-White, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, Rick Owens, and Thom Browne for Menswear Designer; and Emily Adams Bode of Bode, Beth Bugdaycay of Foundrae, Heron Preston, Catherine Holstein of Khaite, and Sarah Staudinger and George Augusto of Staud for Emerging Designer of the Year.