Fern Mallis, BFA ’69, was responsible for making Fashion Week—that extravaganza of designers, models, paparazzi and social influencers that descend on the city twice a year—the global event it is today.
Fern Mallis is nearing the end of a conversation about her life in the New York fashion scene when she’s asked if she ever wanted to walk a runway herself. Oh, no, she demurs. “The closest I ever came was that,” she says, gesturing to a photograph on the wall of her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
In the photo, a younger Mallis is standing on a runway with the iconic American designer Calvin Klein, lit up by the flashes from a throng of photographers. Nearby is a framed New York magazine article from 2010, naming Mallis its “most photographed face” of the year. “It was kind of freaky,” she allows, “because Anna Wintour was number two.”
Mallis’ laconic manner prevents her from spelling it out directly, but for decades she was one of the most important figures in fashion—arguably as influential as Calvin Klein or longtime Vogue editor Anna Wintour. As executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) from 1991 to 2001, and senior vice president of IMG Fashion from 2001 to 2010, Mallis was responsible for making New York Fashion Week—that extravaganza of designers, models, paparazzi and, now, social influencers that descends on the city twice a year—the global event it is today.
Sitting on a sofa in her cozy living room, dressed in a soft cream sweater, black pants and her signature dark-rimmed glasses, Mallis, 70, describes her career with the awe of someone who never lost her outsider’s amazement at the fashion scene, even when she was the ultimate insider. As she describes it, the majority of her experiences were “heady” or “fabulous.”
Growing up in the Mill Basin neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mallis got early exposure to the industry thanks to her father, Mac, a salesman for an accessories company in Manhattan, who specialized in silk scarves and passed along his copies of Women’s Wear Daily to his daughter. Her mother, Vera, was a homemaker with a flair for crafting. Both parents were painters; her father also wrote poetry, and Mallis and her two sisters inherited the family bent toward creativity. Her older sister, Stephanie, became an architect, while her younger sister, Joanne, who died in 2017, was an artist.
Mallis was drawn to fashion, winning the “best dressed” accolade and a fashion design award at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, where being best dressed was no small achievement. “There were a lot of kids who had a lot of money,” she says. “I was more clever. I knew how to tie a scarf better than anybody. If it had been the days of social media I would’ve had a YouTube tutorial on scarves.”
There were a lot of kids who had a lot of money. I was more clever. I knew how to tie a scarf better than anybody. If it had been the days of social media, I would've had a YouTube tutorial on scarves."
For college, Mallis had her sights set on FIT, but her father had other plans. “Fashion later,” he told his daughter. “First get a good liberal arts education.” It was a dictate his daughter later came to appreciate. Mallis enrolled at UB, where she studied fine art focusing on graphics and communications—practical applications she thought might lead to a career in advertising. She designed playbills and sets for the drama department and became friends with Ron Silver (BA ’67), who would go on to become a famous actor, and future celebrated commercial director Rob Lieberman (BA ’71).
Mallis remembers her years at the university fondly, as much for her extracurriculars as her classes. “It was a lot of fun, and it was also a heady time,” she says. In those days, protest movements over the Vietnam War and other civil rights issues were raging on college campuses—and she participated fully. “UB was considered the Berkeley of the East then,” she recalls. “There were a lot of political and intellectual heavy hitters there. You couldn’t think about a career in fashion. It seemed silly.”
But when she wasn’t protesting the war, Mallis was thinking about fashion. In her senior year, she entered a contest to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, a career-making internship with a star-studded list of alumnae, including poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (who wrote about the experience in “The Bell Jar”), actress Ali MacGraw and designer Betsey Johnson. Mallis won a spot, and, after graduating in 1969 with her BFA, spent the summer in Manhattan, living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women with 19 other winners and serving as art editor for the August/September issue of the magazine.
She went on to get a full-time job at Mademoiselle, recruiting other college students to apply for the guest editor contest. From there she worked in the merchandising department for several years, and then left the magazine to become fashion director at the now-defunct upscale Manhattan department store Gimbels East, overseeing the window displays and interior layouts of the store. When the store was bought out in 1986, she opened her own public relations company, Fern Mallis PR, representing design and lifestyle companies. Before long Mallis found herself at the center of New York’s 1980s party scene, becoming a regular at Studio 54 alongside designers, models and celebrities.
“Even back then, she was like an icon,” says Jane Hertzmark Hudis, Mallis’ first assistant in her PR firm, who is now group president at The Estée Lauder Companies. “She was this tall, gorgeous, tan, sexy person—the ideal of what a New York woman should be.” Then the recession hit, and people no longer had the money for lavish interiors and indulgent events.
There were 50 shows in 50 locations. The main designers were doing them in their showrooms. It was like a rave party moving around town."
Still a faithful subscriber to Women’s Wear Daily, Mallis read that the CFDA, the leading trade association for American designers, was looking for a new executive director. After several rounds of interviews she was invited to give a presentation to the board of directors on a day that happened to be her birthday. The board sent Mallis into another room while they deliberated. When they brought her back in, there was a cake and a roomful of A-list designers—Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Bill Blass—singing happy birthday to her.
She was in.
At that time, the biannual New York fashion shows were disjointed and disorganized. “There were 50 shows in 50 locations,” Mallis recalls. “The main designers were doing them in their showrooms. It was like a rave party moving around town.” The conditions were often cramped, poorly ventilated and sometimes hazardous. Freight elevators carrying guests to warehouse spaces got stuck between floors; fashion editors had to be pulled out by firemen.
At an Isaac Mizrahi show in Soho, a fuse blew and the audience sat in the stifling dark waiting for a generator to arrive, no one willing to leave and surrender a coveted seat. During a Michael Kors show in a loft space in Chelsea, vibrations from the bass music caused the ceiling to partially collapse, chunks of plaster landing on the runway and in people’s laps. After the Kors show, Mallis recalls, “I said, ‘I think my job description just changed.’” Her mission became finding a safe, sound venue for designers to come together and show their work.
The American fashion industry was not a particularly collaborative group at the time. When Mallis pitched the idea of convening in a single location, “all the designers looked at each other, like, ‘this is crazy,’” recalls designer and longtime friend Stan Herman, who was then president of the CFDA. Mallis pointed out that it was already being done in Europe. “They had tents in Paris, big venues in Milan,” she says. “Designers realized they had to check their egos and do this together to make the American fashion industry soar.”
Mallis secured Bryant Park as a location and in October 1993 oversaw the first centralized New York Fashion Week, rebranded as “7th on Sixth.” As she had predicted, the cooperation among designers allowed American fashion to soar, and 7th on Sixth soon became known as one of the “Big 4” fashion weeks in the world, alongside those in Paris, London and Milan.
In fact, the event grew so big that it was acquired by global media giant IMG in 2001. Mallis became the senior vice president of IMG Fashion and served as the company’s global ambassador, helping to launch fashion weeks in cities like Miami, Berlin and Moscow. Mallis was in her prime during this period, managing runway shows around the world and making frequent TV appearances on shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway.” She loved the work, but, she says, the business was slowly becoming less about fashion and more about business. Eventually she decided it was time to move on, and left IMG in 2010.
Thus began what she now calls the “coffee phase” of her life. She took time off, started a consulting firm and met a lot of people for coffee—“no one was interested in buying lunch or dinner, just coffee,” she jokes. But those meetings were fruitful, and over the next years she became a sort of professor emeritus of fashion. “She had to reinvent herself,” says Herman. And that she did, helming a popular ongoing interview series called “Fashion Icons” at the 92nd Street Y, hosting a show on Sirius XM Radio for three years, selling a line of jewelry on QVC, even appearing in an off-Broadway play.
A longtime supporter of humanitarian causes, Mallis integrates fashion into many philanthropic pursuits. She serves on a number of boards, including Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (of which she was a founding member) and The Partnership for the Homeless. She helped create charity fundraising initiatives including The Heart Truth’s Red Dress Initiative for Women’s Heart Disease and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. For her work in the industry Mallis has been recognized with a Fashion Industry Lifetime Achievement Award from Pratt Institute, FIT President’s Lifetime Achievement Award and a Woman of the Year Leadership Award from Concern Worldwide, among other accolades.
And yes, despite her still-packed schedule, she continues to attend the shows during Fashion Week, which moved from Bryant Park to an ill-fated tenure in Lincoln Center in 2010—just after Mallis stepped down—and now take place in several locations around Manhattan, an echo of the event’s decentralized origins. “It’s very disorganized now in many ways,” Mallis says. “It’s not as relevant. It used to be, you could recognize everyone in the front rows, and now it’s like, who are these people, what are they doing here?”
Still, she says, she finds herself going to more shows than she needs to, never tiring of looking for the next hot designer or great look. She may never have walked the runway herself, but to many fashion insiders,
Mallis remains the face of New York Fashion Week.