FGI Presents The Frontlines Of Fashion with Fern Mallis & Simon Doonan

When I first saw that Fashion Group International was sponsoring a Zoom event featuring Fern Mallis and Simon Doonan, I naturally thought that the former CFDA executive director and host of the 92nd St Y “Fashion Icons” series would be interviewing the former Barneys creative director and “Making It” judge — I would be wrong. The tables were turned in this talk to benefit the Fashion Group Foundation to promote Mallis’s “Fashion Icons: The Archive” on YouTube.

Every Wednesday, a new video is released — so far, you can see interviews with former CFDA presidents Stan Herman, Diane von Furstenberg, and current chair Tom Ford.

Doonan walked Mallis down memory lane, beginning with Mademoiselle (“one of the best Conde Nast magazines”). Mallis was selected as a Guest Art Editor through the publication’s prestigious College Board of only 20 finalists a year. (Other past editors included Sylvia Plath, Peggy Noonan, Betsey Johnson, Ali McGraw, and Joan Didion). Guest editors stayed at the exclusive women-only Barbizon Hotel on Lexington Avenue (now a condo and Equinox) for a month. “The Barbizon was a hoot,” she said. “The bathroom was down the hall. It was white-gloves almost, very proper.” She traveled to Europe and Israel and got to meet and interview Stan Herman (“Life goes around full circle, so be nice to everyone as you never know when you’ll run into them again.”)

Next was a stint at Gimbel’s East located at 86th and Lexington in the “heart of the Upper East Side. It was very different than the 33rd Street location catering to young upscale marrieds with babies.” As Fashion Director, Mallis had a “tiny red office – my Diana Vreeland moment” where she supervised windows, events, and advertising. It was the age of Studio 54 prompting Doonan to ask if she frequented the disco wearing a “Qiana maxidress.” Her BFF, Scott Bromley, of the architecture firm Bromley Jacobsen designed the space, so she often went there.

Unfortunately, this was the era of AIDS – in response to so many of her friends dying, Mallis, then a design publicist, founded DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) and learned that she was born to fundraise. While working at Harriet Weintraub’s office, she created “Seventh on Sale,” a November 1990 designer clothing sale at the Park Avenue Armory, raising over $5 million. “People still have the clothes they bought there,” she said.

She then “threw her hat in the ring” for a position as director of the CFDA, meeting with board members Stan Herman, Monika Tilley, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, and Carolyne Roehm. “Why should we hire you? You haven’t worked in fashion in 10 years, they asked.” She responded that the “garmento background is in my DNA,” she loved being around everyone in the industry, and, wait for it, she wore clothes. Of five finalists, she was selected– on March 26, her birthday. “Everyone on the board of the CFDA, including Eleanor Lambert (she called me ‘that woman’) sang Happy Birthday with a cake.”

The infamous “ceiling-plaster-falling-on-Suzy Menkes’ head” episode at Michael Kors fashion showroom became the inspiration and impetus for Mallis to create the NYFW tents in Bryant Park. Simon’s description: “Fashion shows were always in hot, sweaty showrooms. The blasting disco music “One, two, three Shake your body down” shook the ceiling down! Anna Wintour picked plaster out of her ‘do’” – it also fell on Carrie Donovan. “She was pissed because she had a custom Chanel lipstick that got destroyed,” recounted Mallis.

In the summer of 1992, the Democratic convention with nominee Bill Clinton had come to town. “I sat at a table representing fashion,” said Mallis. A tent was set up holding over 1,000 people in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. A lightbulb went on– never mind that Roy Campbell of the Philadelphia Inquirer said she would not be able to pull it off. “7th on Sixth” was created (named after Seventh on Sale) in the fall of 1993. “It was a game-changer,” Mallis said, “although every designer at first wanted to know who else was doing it.” She made it happen by “dialing for dollars” – getting sponsors from fashion publications, cosmetics companies, and even General Motors. “If you believe in something, it’s easy to ask for money,” she said when asked how she had the temerity to approach these heavy hitters.

“People ask me all the time, ‘can’t you put Bryant Park back?’ It’ll never happen again – it was a special time,” she said while showing a sample of the Versace seat cushions she saved from his show. Isaac Mizrahi’s “Unzipped” fashion documentary pandered to the fantasy of everyone being privy to backstage goings-on, while “Sex and the City” recreated the Bryant Park tents in a scene from the movie complete with an appearance by FM herself.

Next, Simon asked about the “Dick Cavett years” when Fern reinvented her life after the tents were kicked out of Bryant Park and moved to Lincoln Center. Her 92 Y series began with Norma Kamali as her first guest, followed by Calvin Klein. Klein had been out of the fashion business for years and had nothing to promote — he said he only did it because Fern had asked him. Valentino famously said he told her more than anyone and threatened to share what underwear he was wearing. Her first 19 interviews became a book launch at Saks “Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” – her second book (including Bevy Smith’s interview of Mallis) will debut at Nordstrom in February 2022.

Favorite subjects? The late Bill Cunningham (“he shared so much, it was very emotional”) and Leonard Lauder (“a really remarkable man”). The most challenging interview was with Lauren Hutton: “It was wacky, I think she was stoned at the time,” craving cigarettes, mints, wet wipes, and complaining about Tom Ford approved lighting. Mallis is looking forward to returning to live interviews in the fall — she welcomes the response of a live audience.

Lastly, a Zoom viewer asked about the future of the fashion show. “Aren’t we out of time?” quipped Mallis. “There’ll always be fashion shows. The best way to see clothing is on the runway with a model.” (IMG is putting on shows at Spring Studio in the fall.)

Interestingly, Mallis wasn’t a fan of some of the videos which designers presented during the pandemic. “Sometimes I would say what the hell is this? People get a little too creative sometimes. At the same time, I don’t know how many people will be racing off to Paris and Milan. What people buy could be different. I’ve done and still need to do a closet cleanse – there’s so much stuff I don’t need and will never wear again. We’ve just been through the most unprecedented time – entire countries just closed down, and everyone wants to go on like it’s nothing and nothing changed. I don’t think I can ever put on a pair of heels again.” I guess that rules out the Balenciaga crocs?

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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