Words from the Top

An interview with CFDA President and CEO Steven Kolb


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Enduring USA-Italy ties have marked Polimoda’s method since its founding days. Geared towards encouraging the exchange of Italian heritage and American expertise, the school recently welcomed President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Steven Kolb among the judges of its end-of-year fashion show, seizing the day to discuss the ever-changing industry and future of the CFDA.

As chief of the renowned American group, Kolb oversees all operations and activities, managing its membership, trade association activities and long-standing philanthropic initiatives. Among his standout contributions to American fashion, Kolb has led the cultivation of the next wave of emerging fashion talents: programs such as the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, where he serves as a judge, and the CFDA {Fashion Incubator} have paved the way for rising creatives, giving visibility and new opportunities to young designers seeking to find relevance in today’s tough-to-navigate world.

As CFDA leader, Kolb also led the organization in the acquisition of the Fashion Calendar, established the Strategic Partnerships Group (SPG) and heralded the CFDA’s Health Initiative and Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, among other industry-shaping projects.

American fashion leaders on Polimoda grounds, among which mentors Sara Kozlowski, CFDA Director of Education and Professional Development, and award-winning CFDA member Keanan Duffty, are part of the school’s larger educational mission to foster international links. Through its long-standing ties with the stars and stripes, Polimoda gives students a global outlook on the changing nature of the industry, ushering them towards a well-rounded professional perspective.

Turning to experts to decode fashion today, we chatted with Kolb to uncover more about big news in the industry, probing the issues of education, fashion week and how to keep up with changing times.

Giving the CFDA Award for Menswear Designer of the Year to Supreme is a statement on the changing nature of fashion design. Could you comment on that?

The traditional fashion landscape is changing and we see different types of business models making a mark on our industry. Supreme received the most votes cast by our CFDA Fashion Awards Guild, our invitation-only network made up of the 500+ members of the CFDA, along with top fashion retailers, journalists, stylists and influencers. The award speaks to the power of product drops, and a rotation of strong collaborations, as well as the influence of social media and street wear.

What are the most drastic shifts you have observed in the fashion industry on a global level in the past several years?

Designers are increasingly doing what is best for them and their business model, from staging see-now, buy-now shows to showing in different cities, to opting to spend their marketing dollars in different ways. Some are rethinking their delivery cadence and incorporating frequent product drops to maintain excitement, interest and demand in their brands.

On the luxury level, creatives have long looked to the street for inspiration, but street style has come into its own as a category to contend with, from Kith and Supreme to Hypebeast and the enormous market for limited edition sneaker styles. We are seeing the effects of this on the luxury tier – Virgil Abloh’s hire at Louis Vuitton being the prime indicator of this.

How is power distributed among the world’s fashion capitals today? Is there a greater tendency for cooperation or is it more about competition?

New York, London, Milan and Paris each have their own characteristics and our cooperation enhances global fashion. If there was a time when the fashion capitals competed with one another, I don’t see that anymore. We respect and celebrate each other for our differences.

In the age of social media, designer visibility goes beyond showing clothing on the runway. In your opinion, how will fashion week evolve with this shifting climate?

Where once the intent of the fashion show was to unveil collections to the trade, as in editors and buyers, the advent of social media and powerful digital platforms has completely changed everything – in a great, democratizing way. Now, everyone has access to fashion week and can watch the clothes come down the runway in real time. I think we will see more and more designers try new ways of presenting their collections.

At the CFDA you dedicate a lot of effort to talent development. From your experience, in which aspects do young talents require particular support now?

Our esteemed Chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg always tells our members how fashion today is a lot like navigating a tsunami. Designers at all levels of the industry are challenged to find ways to transform, adapt, and survive in the new business realities. At the CFDA, we help designers at all levels of their brand lifecycle through our extensive programming.

What skills and traits should fashion designers possess today?

More so than ever, you must be nimble and easily and quickly adapt to changes.
Responsibility is a word we take very seriously, and we believe that the next generation’s designer will be mindful of sustainability, diversity, gender identity and equality.

For young designers, what are the benefits of choosing New York Fashion Week for presenting a collection?

New York Fashion Week has established itself as a great launchpad for young designers, from Proenza Schouler to Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra and Brandon Maxwell. There is an openness that is unique and beneficial to young talents. New York Fashion can offer them freedom, creative control and exposure.

Separate Collection - The Jury

The theme of the Polimoda fashion show this year was Separate Collection, which implies that overconsumption is generated by the lack of identity. Do you agree with the statement?

It’s a fascinating theme that is sure to make everyone think and take notice. Clothes are an important tool in a person’s self-discovery and lack of identity can prolong that process.

In your opinion, what should the role of an educational institution be in the development of sustainability in the fashion industry?

It should play a key role. Fashion design students should first and foremost be made aware of the importance of sustainability by the way in which the school practices it, and there should be a series of mandatory courses that focus on sustainability. I have no doubt in my mind that a sustainable and social conscience will shape the future of fashion.

In fashion, 2017 was a powerful year for addressing social change and inclusivity. What are the current priorities for the CFDA in regards to social awareness and civic initiatives?

At the CFDA, civic responsibilities became its own pillar in 2017, and have created initiatives around issues that are important to our membership. We partnered with FWD.us around immigration, and Planned Parenthood and the ACLU for fashion week. This year, we worked with Glamour magazine and released a joint report on gender equality and women in fashion called The Glass Runway. We are also working on programs to move towards a diverse and inclusive American fashion industry.