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So What Do You Do, Fern Mallis, Senior Vice President IMG Fashion?

A Brooklyn gal-turned-fashion star discusses going from the garment district to the CDFA and beyond

By Diane Clehane - February 6, 2008
Backstabbing and bitchiness are the stock and trade of the characters that populate fashionista favorites Project Runway and Ugly Betty, but to hear Fern Mallis tell it, real life doesn't imitate television. When reality show producers declared her "too nice" for her own series last year, IMG's senior vice president of fashion saw it as more of a validation than a rejection. "In the conversations it just became obvious I just wasn't bitchy enough, which I thought was an okay thing," she says.

In her decades long career in fashion, Mallis has become one of its most tireless and visible champions. In 1993, as the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she organized the industry's first "Fashion Week" -- then called 7th on Sixth -- and took on the unenviable task of getting notoriously prickly designers to play nice and produce their runway shows in one central location. Today, she presides over Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York twice a year when the industry's biggest names pitch their tents in Bryant Park with her characteristic good-natured calm while making sure the hissy fits are kept to a minimum and Jessica, Demi, and Beyoncé get to their front row seats without too much hassle from the paparazzi. Mallis has also proven there's plenty of substance behind all that style. According to industry sources, the event generates over $235 million for the city each season. Perhaps that's why Mallis is logging plenty of frequent flyer miles traveling as far as India to help foreign fashionistas stage their own headline-grabbing shows.

For the Brooklyn-born girl who graduated from James Madison High School having won both the "fashion design" award and kudos from her classmates as "best dressed," it's a dream come true. "I still get goose bumps when the lights go down, the music starts and those first shows start," says Mallis. "It's thrilling."

Name: Fern Mallis
Position: Senior vice president, IMG Fashion
Resume: Before assuming her current position when IMG acquired 7th on Sixth in 2001, served as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for 10 years; served as a consultant for the fashion and interior design industries and worked as vice president of marketing and communications for the International Design Center, New York (IDCNY); principal of Fern Mallis Public Relations; began her career in fashion after winning Mademoiselle's "Guest editor" competition; spent several years as a merchandising editor for the magazine
Birthdate: March 26
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Education: University of Buffalo, BFA
Marital status: Single
First section of The Sunday Times: "I have to admit I read the Style section first."
Favorite television show: "I watch Project Runway and I've been watching Cashmere Mafia. I think it's amusing. It will be interesting to see how Lipstick Jungle shapes up. I love Boston Legal. I was a Grey's Anatomy fan -- a little less so now. Most of this is on DVR and watched at one o'clock in the morning. I tape Oprah. I check what the subject matter is and if it's interesting, I watch it later when I'm up at night and can't sleep."
Guilty pleasure: "Eating"
Last book read: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

How did Fashion Week in its current incarnation come about?
The short version is it was an accident. There was a ceiling crash in 1991 at Michael Kors in a loft downtown in the kind of raw, rough space designers love to do fashion shows in. Once the music started playing, pieces of the ceiling plaster started to fall down on the runway hitting the shoulders of the super models -- Linda, Naomi, Cindy. They just kind of brushed off their shoulders and kept walking but then plaster landed in Suzy Menkes' and Carrie Donovan's lap. They didn't take kindly to that. The next day's headlines pretty much read ,"We live for fashion; we don't want to die for it." It took the American fashion industry to task for all the unsafe spaces designers would show in. I had just been hired and hadn't started yet as executive director of the CFDA. At that moment I said, "I think my job description just changed." If there were 50 shows, there were 50 locations and very few people spoke to each other about you being uptown and I'm downtown. The mantra was "Organize, centralize, modernize" the runway shows.

The first shows were organized in 1993 at the Tents in Bryant Park. In 1992, we were asked by CFDA to come up with an idea for the Democratic National Convention. We got a group together and put on a fashion show. We put up this big tent in Central Park for 1200 delegates and guests. Every single designer was there -- Calvin, Donna, Oscar, Diane, Isaac, and Tom. Everybody you could possibly think of participated. At the end they all walked down the runway with their models. They all looked at me like, "So this is what you're talking about?" It was the reality of seeing it that really cemented the concept. I went to Paris and Milan the following season to see everything and came back with a full report. The next season, we made our deal with Bryant Park. It just kept growing and has just evolved into this massive company. Nobody ever thought 10 designers would ever work together in the same place. Then we began registering media from around the world. We now have 4,000 registered outlets that come to cover fashion week.

The convergence of fashion and celebrity over the last 10 years has just been phenomenal. I credit Joan Rivers with a lot of that.

Any idea how many shows you've been to since taking this job?

For you, prepping for Fashion Week must be like getting ready to run a marathon. What do you do to prepare?
There's no time. I just came back from India. I was there for some licensing meetings and some meetings for Fashion Week. Since IMG bought 7th on Sixth in 2001, we've expanded. Now we have Mercedes Benz Fashion Week twice a year in New York, twice a year in Los Angeles, once a year in Miami, twice a year in Berlin. We've also purchased a company in Australia so we have Rosemont Fashion Week in Sydney. We do Kuala Lumpur. We consult in Mexico City. We represent Milan Fashion Week for commercial sales. We do Fashion Fringe events in London. We just signed Istanbul Fashion Week. We're also involved with Fashion Week in Moscow.

Is that the major difference in your job -- its international scope -- since Seventh on Sixth was acquired by IGM?
It's certainly much more global. Before that CFDA was doing Fashion Week plus the awards galas, the membership and scholarship programs and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. When we got here, we saw the opportunity and the interest in Fashion Week expanding around the world. The company is a much more synergistic company with media opportunities, licensing, and all the different divisions that IMG brings to the table that we're able to leverage for the fashion industry.

Fashion Week can certainly be credited with making fashion a much bigger part of the pop culture landscape. What has that meant in the big picture sense for the industry? It's meant better business for them. The convergence of fashion and celebrity over the last 10 years has just been phenomenal. I credit Joan Rivers with a lot of that. She was the first person who covered the red carpet and asked people what they were wearing. Before that you had to guess. That was not the primary conversation -- nobody would dare ask, "Are those your diamonds? Whose shoes are those?" She changed that dialogue forever. I think that has put fashion squarely at the center of pop culture. You can't look at a red carpet event without having 20 or 30 designers names associated with it and that's been great for the industry.

This year's Oscars -- if it comes off -- will have a pretty high glamour quotient. What would it mean to the fashion industry if there's no red carpet this year?
It would be a disaster. That, coupled with today's stock market news is just going to contribute to the downward spiral I'd rather not think about. We all need this Oscar. I hope that sanity and common sense prevail and people are able to negotiate their way forward.

I once got trampled by a photographer – he literally held me down on the ground under his boot -- when Beyoncé showed up at an Oscar de la Renta show. The melee made the papers because Suzy Menkes, who always seems to be in harm's way, got caught in the fray. The presence of celebrities at shows seems to be a double-edged sword. What's your take on having them at the shows?
It is a double-edged sword in some respects, but the majority of the celebrities who show up are bonafide clients and friends of the designers. They depend on each other a great deal. That dress will get that celebrity in the media and it's that coverage in one of 15 celebrity-driven magazines or Web sites that gets that designer's name out there. That is money in the bank for them. The celebrities add a marvelous element to the shows when kept in context and in proportion. We try very hard with our security and our public relations staff to manage that as best as possible. There are always a few overeager photographers. Over the years we have really worked to create several levels of credentials. There's that tap dance that goes on for twenty minutes while people are getting to their seats -- people go up and down the front row and shoot and get their interviews because the story and the news of Fashion Weeks is not just the collections. It's the whole environment in the tents.

When celebrities are there, sometimes the press is favorable and sometimes it's not. If there are too many celebrities, the press will say, "This is ridiculous." The next season, there's no celebrities and you get beat up the shows are lackluster because there's no stars. It's an absolutely a no-win situation.

Which celebrities have caused the greatest uproar by their presence at a show?
Several years ago when we were doing separate men's show I'd say Pamela Anderson caused a stir the likes of which were shocking. Beyoncé gets a crowd. Last season we had Clive Owen, Demi Moore, and Lucy Liu at Miss Sixty.

There were a lot of rumors flying around that the company paid all those stars to sit in that front row. What do you think of that practice? Are you aware of that happening a lot?
I know it's been much more prevalent in Europe where they fly people in, put them up, and give them clothes. For the most part, with the designer brands who work in New York and show in the tents, I'm not aware of them hardly ever paying anyone to be there. There are some names and brands that are new on the schedule and if they've got some money to do it and celebrities show up and get them press coverage, it's probably an investment that was worthwhile. I don't think it's for me to condone or criticize how people spend their money. I'm sure there are a lot of young designers who could afford to do that.

Celebrities have long replaced models on the covers of fashion magazines. Do you see that practice continuing?
I think it kind of goes in and out of favor every so often. Models are the mainstay of our industry and are really the people who sell a dress and a look.

On the runway that's certainly true, but on magazine covers it seems like celebrities rule. Someone once said to me now if you see a magazine cover with a face on it you don't recognize it seems rather jarring.
I think that's too bad. I wish there were more models on the covers of magazines again.

Maybe this is too strong a word, but do you think there is any resentment on the part of designers for having to play the celebrity game? There's really no way around it these days, is there?
Some people don't play it and they're fine. Somebody like Ralph Rucci just says that's not my shtick. He's just stayed true to his work ethic and he's developed a completely other kind of celebrity now -- the social client who buys his things. He doesn't have to give clothes away. I think designers have to stay true to their instinct. I don't think fashion is the culprit here. It's the media. I remember when we had shows and Paris Hilton and her sister would come and they'd be guests like anybody else. Now they create this media frenzy when they show up and I'm not sure I understand that.

Are there celebrities that you wish would just go away. Has anyone been banned from the tents?
There's not celebrity that I can think of that we've had that kind of an issue with. There are photographers I can say that about and a few editors ...

Editors! Come on Fern, name names!
There are a few fashionistas -- for lack of a better name -- who are marginally involved in the industry who seem to suck out a lot of air and we can never quite figure out how to get them out. There are some names for them like "lobby fleas." If something is not nailed down, it seems to walk. They're always carrying the biggest tote bags. They live and breathe and love being there. It's their life.

I've stood in the back on the bleachers at shows and thought, if there's an emergency of any kind, I'm toast. I think that the neighbor of the cousin of the dry cleaner has no business being there. It's really annoying to people who have to be there and are thrown together with these hangers on.
Mind you, these people have an invitation that says "standing" that they get from the designer and that public relations firm. We don't let people into those spaces without an invitation. So they have an invitation for one or two or three shows and then they get on the standing room line for another show. Generally they are vetted by those PR firms and those houses. Everybody over-invites because there are very bad manners in our industry about the number of people who actually rsvp so there's always some padding.

There's always some front row drama. Last season it was Marc Jacobs feuding with everyone in that explosive WWD interview after people complained about the very late starting time for his show. Any predictions about this season?
Well, Marc has changed his show date to the last Friday of the week so I know that changed a lot of people's schedules and caused a little bit of shuffling. I never can predict what will be the issue of Fashion Week but I can guarantee you there always is one.

Shows like Project Runway, which you've been on, hype the bitchiness factor of the industry. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I just think it's television. When I did my first appearance two seasons ago, the finalists came to our offices and the advice I gave to them was to be nice. I can't tell you how much feedback I got from that. People said, "Thank you for saying that you don't have to be a bitch to succeed in fashion."

Did you always want to be in fashion and know you'd wind up there?
I think so. My dad was in the industry -- he sold women's scarves and accessories -- and all my uncles were in the garment center. I used to always come into work with my dad. I was thrilled to see all the carts up and down the streets on Broadway and seeing the energy of that old garment center. I would always have lunch with him and his buyers and fashion directors from stores and that was very empowering seeing women in those jobs. I saw that was a career path. I loved clothing and all that came with that. All my summer jobs were fashion-related and I won a fashion design medal in high school.

I was at a dinner in India where somebody was taking pictures and I said, "If this shows up on somebody's Facebook you're all toast!"

And you were voted best dressed in your high school class. What's in your closet these days?
Too much of everything. If I could do one thing, it would be to take some time off to just edit my closet. But it's all good stuff that I love. I'm so attached to every single thing I buy.

You started your fashion career at Mademoiselle as a winner of their guest editor competition. Any lessons you learned there that still resonate today?
Today the guest editorship would have involved having a television camera follow you around. You learn a lot. You learn something every step of the way. I've never had a five-year plan. I've always just believed in doing your very best whereever you can and being completely passionate about it and the right things evolve and unfold.

That's an interesting point you made about in today's climate there would be camera tracking a guest editor a la Miss Seventeen on MTV. Have you ever been approached to do a reality show?
I was -- a year ago after Project Runway and there were quite a few meetings. They really wanted somebody who was a screamer and would make people nuts. That's not how I operate. I tried to say I think you can get just as much accomplished just by looking at somebody cross. One of the examples put forth to me was there would be three apprentice types who would come into your office and serve you coffee and spill it all over your desk. How would you react? I said it was more important to me to see how quickly they recovered and cleaned up it because obviously nobody does that on purpose.

What are the qualities one needs to succeed in fashion today?
They're similar to those in almost every industry. You need to be smart, be aware. You need to have a point of view, read as much as you can, absorb as much as you can. You need to travel and see movies and work on charities. All those things that round you out as a better person make you a better professional. In fashion, it's so much a part of all of those elements. It's everywhere. I find that I get more accomplished on many days from being at lunch at Michael's or going to one or two receptions or cocktail parties after work because you run into people and see people that you can't get on the phone. I have a hard time conveying that to our younger staff who don't go to anything. I'm forever trying to shuffle invitations around and most of them are too tired.

Is it harder to break into the business now than it was say even five years ago?
It depends on in what capacity. I think there are so many opportunities for young designers now. There are so many companies and sponsors that we work with that are constantly looking to support the talent. Our industry is filled with people who sniff out truffles -- they can find talent anywhere, get behind it and help it. What our schools need are more creative business people who can help. I think there are way more media opportunities and a lot more of everything. You just have to be smart and not walk in the door chewing gum.

How has the Internet affected the business?
It's opened up unbelievable opportunities for people. I'm still not sure who it is searching all these sites and blogs. That in and of itself is a full-time job. The immediacy of the information is kind of scary. It impacts more of our loyal print publications even Women's Wear Daily and The New York Times who you go to for breaking news -- seldom are they breaking the news because the minute somebody hears it, it's out there. I was at a dinner in India where somebody was taking pictures and I said, "If this shows up on somebody's Facebook you're all toast!" With cell phone cameras it's a little too much out there. There are no policemen on the Internet.

So many of these renegade fashion sites get more hits -- certainly a lot more buzz -- than the more established sites. They're often not very informed about the business and have very little context. I think it's harmful to credible fashion journalism.
I agree with you. It just makes it harder for us to decipher it and read through it and come to our own opinions. I think it makes you want to be more loyal to the people you do trust and read. Hopefully, they will remain at the top of their game. It makes you look more towards those people to help you navigate this.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
That I'm still standing and doing this. I'm very proud of a lot of things I've accomplished in my career. Being of DIFFA's board for 10 years raising millions of dollars for AIDs. Certainly helping to give the CFDA its voice and identity over the 10 years I was there with everything from Fashion Targets Breast Cancer to creating the initiative to organize the fashion shows. I'm extremely proud of something that I know has absolutely changed the face of fashion and has made a huge difference in people's careers. I think at every step of the way I've been proud of the work I've accomplished. I'm glad that I'm still here and I still enjoy it.

What about your biggest disappointment?
I'd rather not think about that.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
By putting one foot in front of the other. I really care about the industry and the people in it. I get behind everything I do because I think it's the right thing to do and I always hope there is somebody at my side because we're going to make money at it. For me, the motivating factor for doing the work I do is I know it's helping people and it's making a difference in people's lives.

Do you have a motto? One of the lines I quote a lot especially during fashion week is something my dad always said when we were growing up and it's so true -- "No two people should ever have to worry about the same thing." That is very good motto to get through work -- if someone else is worrying about something, you don't have to. And also -- "A good idea with a stupid person is not as powerful as a bad idea with a smart person."

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

Photo courtesy of Timothy Greenfield Sanders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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