Fern Mallis may be the fashion world’s most important person you’ve never heard of. Until now. As the creator of “7th on Sixth” in 1993, Mallis, like a masterful ringmaster, managed to harness the leaders of American fashion under one main tent. The event—later called New York Fashion Week—would forever change the landscape of American fashion by centralizing and remodeling the way American fashion designers “show,” giving them a leg up, thereby enabling them to compete with European designers. The impact would be felt on a global scale, forever changing the fashion business by paving the way for fashion weeks in Miami, Los Angeles, Berlin, Moscow, Mumbai, Sydney and Melbourne. Mallis, who’s now an in-demand consultant, is wickedly funny, smart as a whip and fully dedicated to her many passions. Her energy, passion and determination have made Mallis an undisputed industry icon.
Considered a fashion maverick—a designation she received from the American Apparel & Footwear Association—Mallis influenced or helped create many of the organizations that are now cultural mainstays, including Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, a group that generates more than $100 million in donations. She is also a founding board member of DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids), has served on the board of The Partnership for the Homeless and has been instrumental in the creation and success of the Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection befitting research for heart disease in women. Fern’s a busy woman with a huge heart.
To witness this bundle of kinetic energy in action is to witness corporate competence. The patented Fern Mallis approach begins with tackling every task in front of her with relentless focus and superhuman vigor and never falling for the complacency of a been-there-done-that attitude.
But what makes Fern Mallis a living legend in a world that doesn’t hand out accolades freely—and the reason the likes of Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg have her phone number on speed dial—is simply that she “gets it done.” Mallis’ word is golden, and her joie de vivre is infectious. In the often prickly, highfalutin’, Mean Girls world that is couture fashion, it’s reassuring to know that Fern Mallis is still minding the store. Without Fern Mallis, there wouldn’t be a New York Fashion Week. And that’s why the lady is a giant. A fashion giant.
As the creator of New York Fashion Week, what surprises you the most about its current execution?
It’s interesting to me how [New York] Fashion Week has become a social and cultural phenomenon. Everything waits for Fashion Week to open: new clubs, stores, restaurants and so forth. It’s now so much more than just fashion shows.
What are the differences in the fashion industry now, compared to when you started New York Fashion Week two decades ago?
The biggest changes are in the technology—no one had a digital camera when we started, no less a phone that took pictures. Now, everyone attending a show tweets and pins and posts images and blogs and comments on whatever they see—they’re all so busy, they barely look at the clothes. Today, no one has to wait for the few fashion leaders in the media to tell us what we’ve seen. The immediacy of the shows is frightening, and fashion shows have become “content.”
Who are the biggest divas, fashion designers or supermodels?
I’d say maybe the press and VIPs who sit in the front rows.
Your philanthropic endeavors are staggering—battling AIDs, breast cancer, homelessness, at-risk students—why are they all so important to you?
It just makes good sense to use the positive energy of the fashion industry and its creativity to give back, and it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business as well. Listen, when we all experience our friends and colleagues dying, how could you not do something?
Your house is on fire. Tell me, what do you grab first?
Easy—my cat, Dimples.