Q&A: Steven Kolb on American Success Stories and the World of Fashion
Steven Kolb, perhaps owing to 15 tireless years at the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, appears entirely unmoved by glamour and unimpressed by pretension. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a CEO, even a fashion CEO. Newly promoted to the role at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the self-described “accidental fashion drone” (with a 1,000-strong collection of owl memorabilia to support the claim) works side-by-side with the CFDA’s President — and designer, of course — Diane von Furstenberg. And while Kolb may now have a corner office in shiny new headquarters, the New Jersey-native is hardly letting it go to his head, as I learned on a recent trip to the Bleecker Street digs.
I like the no-fuss vibe here. It feels like a drama-free zone. Sometimes fashion offices can be intimidating.
I think it’s my personality. I’m very calm and balanced. I’m a Libra. But that’s not to say we don’t have drama. We have our moments.
What’s the biggest drama? Fashion Week scheduling? You know how Milan will move its dates, then London has to…
Scheduling is not fun, I have to say. There’s also drama sometimes when a designer plops in a slot on top of somebody else, or a designer has too long a model call that keeps models from going to another show. That kind of drama is not fun.
That’s pretty granular for the CFDA to be involved with.
I describe it as air traffic control. So, we’re not actually flying any planes, but I’m making sure all the planes land safely. Ruth Finley at Fashion Calendar, she flies a plane, IMG flies a plane, all the independent designers in offsite venues, they fly a plane. I just make sure that they all…
That they don’t crash into each other.
I do get involved if I have to, if we have to.
Are you also involved in high-level discussions? For example, Alexander Wang going to Balenciaga?
I was not involved in the Balenciaga conversation. Am I involved in conversations with designers about their next step, their work, things that they’re considering? Yes, all the time. It really depends upon the designer. Some designers I have closer relationships with, so they’ll come to me. But what we do here, our job, is customer service to designers. I’ll talk to them about potential opportunities, new jobs, or collaborations.
Do you make designer recommendations, as Anna Wintour has been known to do?
Well, we’re facilitators. We help people maneuver their careers and their work. So yeah, I would personally make a recommendation for someone, and I would personally lobby for someone to get a job. People have asked me to help them do that.
Can you give an example?
It’s not my place to talk about that. I’ll give you examples of CFDA programs. There’s a partner we have, Melissa. It’s a Brazilian company. They have those really cool jelly shoes. They’ve done a lot of collaborations with designers, but they had never done one with an American designer. So we connected them with Jason Wu. He’s got his fourth or fifth collection with them now.
Jason Wu is a great American success story, with a little First Lady luck. I think it’s more difficult now, and maybe you can speak to this, for young designers to make it.
I agree. I think there are a lot of great American success stories, from a lot of different directions. You can be a Diane von Furstenberg, not necessarily a trained designer, and build a big American brand and become the President of the CFDA. Or you can be like Jason Wu, go to school at Parsons, found a brand and make dolls on the side. And there’s always a bit of luck thrown in, but the luck is only as good as the talent that exists to begin with. So I do think he’s a good example. It isn’t easy when everyone wants to be a designer, now that fashion is pop culture.
I definitely would not.
A lot of people do. It’s risen to pop-culture status thanks to film and music. Because of that, it’s very accessible. But the reality of what it means to be a designer or to work in fashion isn’t necessarily clear to them. Just because you have an idea or you can sketch doesn’t make you a designer. And if you want to be a designer, you had better be ready to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It can’t be a hobby.
How would you describe what you and Diane [von Furstenberg] do at the CFDA?
I started seven years ago in January of 2006, and Diane started six months after me. So we pretty much started at the same time. We’re focused on advancing the CFDA as two organizations. We’re the CFDA Foundation, which is the charitable arm, where we do our philanthropy, and we’re a trade organization. The focus is really on the trade part. Philanthropy is great, and it’s important. It’s at the core of who we are, and who I am as a person. But our real work is on the trade side. It’s about jobs, it’s about work opportunities, it’s about partnerships, and it’s about benefits.
Where do you fall on the art versus commerce spectrum?
I think fashion is not art. It’s clothes and business. I think what Americans are good at is selling and making money. If you’re going to make something really beautiful, to have it exist in a closet and not on the back of someone, what’s the point, right? That’s really the end result. Maybe that’s true with art, you want to paint something that just hangs in your studio or that no one sees. I don’t know if an artist thinks that way or not. With clothes, the real success comes when they sell. Fashion is a business.
Sometimes huge business. I read that Michael Kors, the company, is now worth ten billion dollars.
Ten billion? Pretty good. There’s a guy who figured it out. I think he’s a huge fashion success story of 2012. Now everybody wants their own IPO, to recreate that success on their own, but Michael’s a pro. He’s as quick and funny and insightful as he is on TV.
Also he’s genuinely interested in what women want. He’s always at his trunk shows, talking to clients one on one.
I think that any designer who doesn’t have that interface with the woman who wears his clothes is not really committed. I think successful designers, especially early on, need to do those trunk shows and travel around the country, getting to know those women.
What can we look forward to from the CFDA in 2013?
We’ve moved here to a new office, so it’s a new beginning. We’re just about to end our 50th anniversary and start our 51st year in January. We’ve grown a lot, we’ve changed a lot. We’ve evolved as fashion has evolved. We’re looking more long-term, and we’re doing more work on global programming for American designers. We’ve gone back to China as part of the China Exchange that we did, and we’re going back to Paris with Americans in Paris. We also just started a new sustainability committee, and I see that as something that we’ll continue to invest time in. I think sustainability is about to turn a corner. And of course we’ll see a lot more collaborations like Jason Wu and Melissa, and Narciso [Rodriguez] at Kohl’s, as well as the Target and Neiman Marcus collection. Basically, the kinds of things that make people come to the CFDA, because they know we’re connected to the talent, talent that trusts us when we bring them opportunities.
Sounds like you’re into fashion more than you let on.
I do love it. I feel lucky to be in it, but when it’s over, it’s over. I came from going to no fashion shows ever, maybe once to a Bob Mackie show 15 years ago, to the front row. So what do I know?
Finally, what’s it like to be on the Out 100 list?
I don’t know, it’s nice. Although it said I was a former football player. I once jokingly said that on a panel. The point wasn’t that I played football in high school, because I really didn’t. I was on freshman football for a little bit, but I quit to be in the drama club. What I was saying was that I was friends with all the cheerleaders. But I know Out magazine from when it started and it was nice to be photographed with Francisco [Costa], Antonio [Azzuolo], Alejandro [Ingelmo], and Philip [Crangi] — all people I like very much.