CEO of the CFDA Steven Kolb on New York Fashion Week: Men’s, the Difference Between Fashion and Art, and Getting Used to Athleisure
Fashion week, at the risk of explaining what you already know, is when our buyers fly to Paris, Milan, London and New York for the purpose of previewing collections and placing orders. After careful consideration during runway shows and in private showrooms, they make decisions about what you’ll see eight months later as our designer selection.
With the European fashion weeks just finished, right now all eyes are on New York Fashion Week: Men’s—the new kid on the block as far as standalone men’s weeks, in its fifth season. We’re hyped to bring you on-the-ground coverage of shows, presentations and events. And to set it off, an interview with Steven Kolb.
Kolb is the CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which maintains the schedule for NYFW:M. Few people think about fashion at such a high level, and he’s always great to connect with about the big picture.
SHOP: Men’s Designer
How would you characterize the energy surrounding NYFW: Men’s this year?
We’re in our fifth season, season five, so if you put it in terms of education we’ve graduated high school and we’re in our freshman year of college. This season is a refinement. We’ve worked hard to build a roster of designers. Some have stepped in, some have stepped out, some have stayed consistent. But we have a refined group of designers that bring creativity and value to the week, and also see the value that comes out of the week.
What is the role of NYFW: Men’s? Whom does it serve?
Certainly fashion week has been a market week. That’s true today. The idea of doing fashion week in New York was to align market week with shows. Menswear used to show on the women’s schedule in September, but actually market week is now. So buyers wrote orders and business was accomplished, and the shows were a bit after the fact. It’s more aligned now and still serves that purpose of bringing collections to market for retailers and editors. In current times, all fashion weeks have become of interest to a broader audience, made easy by social media and instantaneous content that’s created. So I’d be not telling the truth if I said we didn’t have a focus on content creation, so that we’re able to amplify CFDA members’ works for potential consumers who aren’t going to be at the show. So still, trade, market, but with a broader consumer reach.
For men in America, how does NYFW:M compare to other fashion events during the year?
The magazines all have great programs: Esquire, GQ, VMAN and others are all at the forefront of supporting American talent. Many events throughout the year support men’s fashion. What’s unique about New York Fashion Week: Men’s is that we’re agnostic. All the magazines are involved and supportive. All the retailers are involved and supportive. So it’s really a collective of the industry.
What are some of the shows or presentations you’re looking forward to this year?
There are staples, brands that have been with us from the beginning, like Todd Snyder and Ovadia. We’re really excited that Raf Simons is showing his namesake collection for the second time in New York. That’s a highlight of the week. But we’ve been working to support young talent—we have about 10 young brands this year—and there’s three in particular I think are going to have a great impact. One is Bode, a woman named Emily Bode, a philosophy student at Parsons, who uses vintage and recycled fabrics. The lens of sustainability is very relevant. Another would be a brand called Sanchez-Kane, also run by a woman, Barbara Sanchez-Kane. She’s from Mexico, studied in Italy, was part of the VFILES show last year and just is very fresh. And the last one would be Raul Lopez, and his brand Luar. He’s Dominican-American and makes streetwear very influenced by LGBTQ and Latin-American communities. He was formerly part of the Hood By Air team, and is out on his own now. These designers complement established brands like Todd Snyder and Ovadia & Sons, and of course Raf Simons sits on top of all that.
You’ve said before that fashion is not art—it’s commerce.
I say that all the time. I don’t mean to be taken literally. It’s more to highlight the intention of fashion. If you’re approaching—and this is Steven’s personal opinion—fashion from an artistic point of view—and a lot of creative people do—that’s art. You’re focused on the item, there’s no commerce strategy, and it’s about creation only: That’s art. But creating with the intention for the product to be seen by buyers, sold to consumers, and seen on the backs of people—that’s commerce. It’s not a dirty word: Commerce doesn’t negate creativity. But without an intention to sell, that’s art. With New York Fashion Week: Men’s, there’s a real eye on creativity, with the intention of commerce.
Do you think designers and brands show more straightforward clothes in New York than in Paris, London or Milan?
In some ways. I think there’s a practicality that exists in American culture. And remember, New York is a very young fashion city compared to those cities. Our history is much shorter. You see decades of influence internationally. You see less of that here.
Fashionista recently published an article asking why there were no fashion conglomerates in the U.S., like Kering or LVMH in Europe. The writer Maura Brannigan said factories are spread out here, which is inconvenient. But she also posited potential American fashion conglomerates as COACH, and maybe CFDA itself. It struck me as interesting.
That’s true, and COACH is a good example of that idea. You also see investors and individuals who have equity in fashion brands. Andrew Rosen, the founder of Theory, is a good example of that. He has investment in Theory, Proenza Schouler, rag & bone, alice + olivia, among many others. It’s not necessarily a corporate entity. But there are a lot of individuals who touch many brands. COACH is a good example. Also, COACH, having deep pockets, can acquire brands and add them to the family. With CFDA, remember, we’re a membership organization. We represent the designers, not the businesses. In Europe, the organizations similar to the CFDA are representing businesses. Our eye is really on the talent. That’s where you get the mix of men’s, women’s, accessories and jewelry. That’s where you get the big names like Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, to younger talent like Gypsy Sport, who are all part of the organization. That makes us unique. You’re right: We touch a lot of designers and levels of creativity.
What was the last major trend in menswear? What’s the next one?
I’m so bad on trends. But I would say athleisure is a very solid, strong trend that’s not going anywhere. Perhaps the evolution of athleisure is that it’s becoming more sophisticated, in shape and color and print. I don’t see that going away, at all. In men’s and women’s, we’ll continue to see fabric influence design. Unique fabrics, or tech-driven fabrics. That’s a trend that will become more prominent in the creative process. Beyond that, I can’t say, “Guys are wearing Hawaiian shirts” or “Suit jackets are boxy.” I’ll leave that to the editors. But I would say more sophisticated athleisure and tech-influenced fabric.
What advice would you give to those hoping to start a new menswear company in America? What’s the future of that entrepreneurial mindset?
Well, I think men in general continue to be more interested in their appearance and how they dress. I think men are lucky and have access to fashion more than ever, particularly with stores like Nordstrom and what the buying team is doing there, bringing products to guys all over the country. But if I were a menswear designer starting now, I would probably really think hard about it before I made that decision. It’s not easy to start a brand, especially a fashion brand, and it’s a 180% commitment of your time to succeed. I would say what’s really important is figuring out what your core item is. Whether it’s the blue shirt, or the perfect trouser, or the blazer—whatever that is, figure that out and perfect it, and keep it as part of your business. Build on that. Get success with a core item and build from there. The second aspect is to explore production locally. There’s so much in New York that we’ve been involved with at CFDA, supporting factories and local means of production. At cfda.com there’s a database of New York factories sortable by what they do. So if you need bonding, or pleating, or sewing or whatever, you’ll be able to find that. It’s pretty comprehensive. And we’re finishing up the fieldwork for the Los Angeles edition of the same thing, so you’ll be able to find all that, too. Those are the two big hubs of Made In USA, New York and Los Angeles. The closeness to factories really helps on quality and also on budget. And needless to say, the production runs can be more limited. But you don’t have to be in New York or L.A. If you’re in St. Louis, there’s a group of industry people organized and ready to help you, the St. Louis Fashion Incubator. And if you’re in Nashville, there’s the Nashville Fashion Alliance. In many cities there are people you can reach out to who will help connect you. I would also say: Have a lens for sustainability. This is a buzzword, but it’s also an important component of design both ethically and to the consumer. And finally, the more you can engage the consumer directly through social media, the better.