Fashion Forward : Fern Mallis

Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York exists thanks, in large part, to the work of Fern Mallis. As Senior Vice President of IMG Fashion, her sights are now set on bringing fashion weeks to places around the globe not yet deemed, well, fashionable

By Stephanie Wilson
Photography by Stephen Ladner


 Just one year after joining the CFDA, Mallis had the opportunity to showcase her plethora of skills to the world.

Nothing says glamour and sophistication quite like a fashion show. Nothing is more haute than couture. When it comes to the world of exclusivity and beauty that is created during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week New York, the velvet ropes indicate more than just a barricade keeping the riffraff out; they partition off a world of beauty and intrigue, a world where anything goes and everything is possible. It is a world that has captured the hearts and imaginations of American society as a whole, an industry that as little as 15 years ago did not truly exist. Then, on 7th Avenue, the fashion gods created Fern Mallis.

To be fair, the origins of New York Fashion Week can be traced to 1943 when Eleanor Lambert, a woman called by some ‘the mother of American fashion publicity,’ organized the first ever Press Week in New York City. The event showcased American designers, thus bringing the likes of Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene onto the pages of fashion rags like Harper’s Bazaar, a publication that had before been filled with mainly French and Italian designers. American fashion was in Vogue.

But it took years to become organized. While fashion shows and press weeks became increasingly popular, the entire experience was disorganized and disconcerting for all involved. Even with the founding of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA) in 1962, there was no real governing body that brought the industry together. Fern Mallis came to the CFDA in 1991, where she took on the role of executive director. She was able to put her background in AIDS fundraising, special event planning, public relations, and marketing to good use. At the time, the CFDA was a small company, the office literally comprised of a desk and a chair; by the time she left more than 10 years later, they had grown to be an office of 40. Her role in the CFDA was broad; she went to work redesigning the logo, organizing a 7th on Sale event as well as the CFDA Fashion Awards, which are essentially the Oscars of the fashion world. But her job did not entail the organization of the industry as a whole.

Prior to Mallis’ entrance onto the CFDA-scene, fashion shows were held in a variety of spaces all over the city, often taking place in locations that weren’t fit to be showcasing the new line for Kids”R”Us, nonetheless for designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. “In March of 1991,” Fern Mallis explains, “there was a Fashion Week going on, which at that point was like a Market Week, and there were 50 different fashion shows in 50 different locations… Michael Kors had a fashion show at his showroom on 24th Street. When they put the bass music on, which is usually quite loud and shakes your bones, it shook the ceiling.” Chunks came floating down, landing on the shoulders of the one-name supermodels like Cindy, Naomi, Linda, and Claudia. The girls understood that the show must go on; they brushed off the plaster and kept on strutting. Unfortunately, the ceiling also landed in the laps of Suzy Menkes from the International Herald Tribune and the late Carrie Donovan from The New York Times. Mallis says, “The next day’s fashion press wrote, ‘We live for fashion. We don’t want to die for it.’ And that was the shot heard round the world, and I said, ‘Oh, I think my job description just changed.'”

From that moment on, it became Mallis’ mission to find safe, sound locales to produce fashion shows. “It fell into the objective of promoting American designers-giving them their due worldwide,” she explains. She began an organization called 7th on Sixth (derived from 7th Avenue, home to New York’s fashion industry, and 6th Avenue, home to Bryant Park, where the huge tents that house the fashion shows become the most exclusive locales in New York City two times a year), which was an arm of the CFDA with a separate goal, namely the organization and centralization of the New York Fashion Week through the offering of state-of-the-art venues, an experienced production team, and maximum exposure through a wide variety of marketing benefits and advertising opportunities.

Just one year after joining the CFDA, Mallis had the opportunity to showcase her plethora of skills to the world. The summer of 1992 saw the Democratic National Convention taking place in New York, turning the eyes of the media and the nation on the city. “We put on a fashion show,” exclaims Mallis. “We produced a spectacular show in Central Park which had about a thousand people there. The show had a look or two from every designer-looks from Calvin, Donna, Ralph, Oscar, and Bill to Diane, Anna, Todd, Isaac, Joseph, and you just name it! It went on and on. At the end, everyone came out and took their bows and walked down the runway. They were all standing on the lawn in Central Park. I’ll never forget all the designers standing with me, and Stan Herman saying, “Now I get it. This is what you mean. This really works.”

The rest is history. Fashion Week in New York City was born, and each year became better than the last. “This really changed the whole fashion landscape by equalizing what was going on in the world between Paris, Milan, and London. New York took its rightful place, and that really helped launch many, many design brands worldwide, because now we had a place to invite the international buyers to come and see an organized schedule, registered press list, a whole machinery that we created from need and common sense. We put the whole project together. I am extremely proud of what that meant for the industry and what that did for New York City and fashion in general.”

The powers that be in fashion and the city of New York are proud of her as well. She received an award from the Fashion Group International at their annual ‘Night of Stars’ for helping change the face of fashion, and she was honored in December 2006 by NYC & Co. with their “Leadership in Tourism Award,” for helping place NYC firmly on the global fashion map. Due to her ongoing efforts, IMG Fashion estimates that “several thousand buyers, retailers, and members of the national and international press from 32 countries attend the shows each season, generating thousands of articles and hundreds of hours of television coverage.”

And it all just came naturally to Mallis. Her role in the fashion world seemed fated since she stepped out of her home in Brooklyn as a well-dressed child. Her father was a salesman in the women’s accessory business and she grew up immersed in the world of fashion, even being named ‘Best Dressed’ in her graduating class. “I actually grew up kind of in a pile of scarves,” she laughs. “As a young girl, I knew how to tie a scarf in probably a hundred different ways!” Upon completing her studies at the University of Buffalo, she was selected as 1 of 20 guest editors out of hundreds of applicants for Mademoiselle’s September College issue. After six years at the magazine, she moved into the wholesale end of the fashion business before starting her own PR company that repped the likes of Knoll International, Jack Lenor Larsen, Stendig International, and others, most of whom had (or have, as the case may be) a hand in design and fashion. It was then that she found herself in the running for the executive director of CFDA, where her experiences in all of these industries combined to make a woman who almost single-handedly turned a discombobulated mess into a global enterprise.

In 2001, IMG, the global marketing and management firm, purchased 7th on Sixth from the CFDA for an undisclosed price. Mallis moved to IMG with 7th on Sixth, now serving as the senior vice president of IMG Fashion. Under the umbrella of IMG Fashion, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City has hit the map, bringing in more than $253 million to the city each season, with more than 100,000 attendees, including 3,000 media personnel who showcase NYC to the world.

“Since IMG’s acquisition of 7th on Sixth, we are pretty much now called IMG Fashion,” explains Mallis. Under IMG Fashion’s control is Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles, and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Miami Swim. The list doesn’t stop there; IMG Fashion has become an international player, bringing their expertise to virtually every corner of the globe. “In addition, we now produce Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai twice a year, we have Fashion Week in Moscow,” she explains. “We have Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin… We’re doing our first MasterCard Luxury Week Hong Kong at the beginning of September. We now produce Rosemont Australian Fashion Week in Sydney, and produce the Singapore Fashion Festival. There’s also a new event coming up next season in Kuala Lumpur; it’s going to be eco-chic. Our team there is going to be producing Pakistan Fashion Week for the first time. We also produce Fashion Fringe once a year in London that is part of the London Fashion Week. Last season, we did FashionWeekLive, which was our first big consumer fashion show in the US… It’s very exciting to see the world from this global perspective,” she explains, “and to see how it’s changing, and how fashion is connected around the world.”

There is no doubt that the current global impact of fashion is thanks to Mallis’ dedication and drive. With her behind the reigns at IMG Fashion, it seems there is no limit to where fashion weeks can crop up. As she says, “Fashion plays such an important part in our lives. It’s a tool that’s so much of everybody.” So whether you live in New York or Pakistan, in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, what you see on the runway, and therefore in the stores and on the streets, is thanks to Fern Mallis’ vision for a global fashion market.