She’s the woman responsible for transforming and modernising American runways but Fern Mallis’ journey to becoming president of her own international fashion and design consultancy, Fern Mallis LLC, had small beginnings. She attributes her father and uncle to inciting her lifelong enthusiasm for fashion: both worked in the fashion industry and gave the young Fern her first real understanding of how a fashion business works.
“My father was a sales man for women’s scarves and accessories, so I grew up with the biggest scarf collection in the world and of course learnt how to tie a scarf a thousand ways,” she tells Collective Hub. “I used to go to work with him as a child and I soon became enamoured with all the energy and activity going on.”
At the height of the early 90s when Calvin Klein ruled the billboards, ‘fashion week’, as we know it now, didn’t exist.
“It was just a pink fashion calendar that people got listed on, but if there were 50, 60 or so shows, they were held in 50 or 60 locations. Nobody really paid attention [logistically speaking] to make it easy for the any of the guests attending [celebrities, buyers and editors ruled the front rows].”
When unsecured plastic from Michael Kors’ loft space showing in Chelsea ended in the lap of The New York Times fashion critic Suzy Menkes, Fern found her calling.
“I said, ‘I think my job description just changed,’” she explains. “It then became a mission of mine to organise, modernise and centralise the shows and that took a little while to get the industry on board, to understand a new way of doing it.”
When they launched the first centralised fashion event in 1993, Fern says it altered the fashion landscape “drastically”.
“This put New York on the map to level the playing field with Paris and Milan and we finally had an organised, centralised, focused Fashion Week. We raised some money from sponsorship opportunities and helped paid for it and it really pioneered the model that everybody subsequently followed.”
With Fern’s ‘common-sense’ approach, having worked previously in job organising interior furnishings in the architectural industry and running a big international Design Centre in New York – she understood the practicalities of getting things done. Her biggest challenge was to get the fashion industry together, working as one big conglomerate, functioning as part of an overall fashion eco-system, to create a new paradigm that ultimately served the greater good. First step: sponsorship.
Fern describes raising the dollars for her vision as a “fascinating moment” in her career.
“We had a very small office at the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and I had one and a half assistants there. I had a guy who was producing the shows literally at a desk inside the closet, it was the only place we could find for him to work and we were budgeting everything,” she admits. “The first money that came in was through a publisher friend of mine who hooked me up with a man who was the CEO of Evian water. They were looking for a new way to brand their water in America and this was way back when Evian and Perrier were the only two waters around, not 15 bottles on the shelf, and they were European high-end water so he loved the idea of associating with the fashion industry, he signed up right away!”
Then came the heavy hitters.
“The next one that came on-board was Anna Wintour and Vogue,” Fern says. “I called and explained what we were doing and she said, ‘How much do you need?’ and I said, ‘I think half a million dollars,’ and she said ‘let me get back to you’.”
Conde Nast ended up contributing US$100,000 and other companies that would benefit from the growing American fashion industry started to fall in like dominos. 7th on Sixth was born.
Fern’s company led the charge for New York Fashion Week until 2001, when IMG acquired 7th on Sixth and Fern took up her new role as Senior Vice President for IMG Fashion, leading new Fashion Weeks in Miami and Los Angeles, Berlin and Moscow. IMG Fashion eventually acquired Australian Fashion Week and she served as IMG’s ‘Ambassador’, travelling to international fashion capitals to provide her expertise in creating and organising fashion events as well as establishing international marketing and communications platforms.
She called it quits in 2010 and began a new chapter – hosting ‘Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis’. Here, she conducts 90-minute in-depth interviews with fashion luminaries like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Bill Cunningham, Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenberg and the late, Oscar de la Renta.
The show was the genesis to her new book, released last year: FASHION LIVES Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis published by Rizzoli.
But it’s not just fashion that Fern, a prominent philanthropist, has her hand in: she’s helped raise money for design scholarships, CDFA’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer program as well as fronting numerous other initiatives and charity events.
But undoubtedly, her innovative work in the fashion industry is her greatest, most enduring influence.