Fern Mallis on New York Fashion Week (and How One Crumbling Ceiling Helped Create It)

The electricity went out during one of the runway shows. At another, the fashion editors got stuck in a broken elevator. But the last straw was when ceiling plaster came crumbling down on both the models on the catwalk and the press in the front row at one of the New York Market Week shows in 1991.

The models brushed the dust off their shoulders and kept walking, says Fern Mallis, who served as Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 1991 to 2001, but Suzy Menkes and Carrie Donovan, two of the top fashion editors in the world at the time, raised a fuss and basically said, “We live for fashion; we don’t want to die for it.”

That mini disaster was what spurred Mallis to create a cohesive, modern iteration of New York Fashion Week that would let the industry (safely) put its best foot forward. She says fashion’s Market Weeks in New York in the late 80s and very early 90s had shows scattered across the city in buildings that often weren’t up to code. The situation was untenable. Buyers and press had to scramble to get from show to show, and designers faced rising production costs and logistical nightmares. Mallis knew it was time to organize, and she says it was a business decision more than anything.

Here are some highlights from Mallis’s recent conversation with host Matt Rubel, which ranged from her time leading CFDA to the future of NYFW to the next big thing in American fashion:

On Creating NYFW as We Know It Today

“I tried to be diplomatic about it and pragmatic about it. It was a business decision that would drive business better. The cost of putting on a show would be reduced if we could amortize the costs, and people didn’t have to…reset up the chairs and bring in their own security and bring in lighting and sound and rigging and everything. This was an economic decision in many cases.”

On How NYFW Has Changed the American Fashion Industry

“It really put America on the map…it brought millions of dollars into the economy in New York. There were so many repercussions of that…look at Bryant Park now, look what’s built up around Bryant Park. All of that came out of the Fashion Week experience of the tents being there.…A new restaurant opens—they wait till Fashion Week. Every club opens when it’s Fashion Week. Every new opportunity. I mean, there’s so many things going on when Fashion Week happens.”

On Sustainability

“I think the thing that’s very interesting now is all of the designers who are focusing on sustainability. Trying to do something that will help save this planet…I think that that’s the most exciting thing to happen in many years in the fashion industry, to see how many companies, right from the top, from the Kering and their top brands and designers to young independents in Brooklyn and everywhere else who really are caring about that making a difference.”

To hear the rest of Mallis’s insights, including what she thinks of Mark Zuckerberg’s influence on workwear, listen to the full episode.