By Salma Awwad
One of the fashion industry’s biggest icons is lending her expertise to Dubai’s Fashion Forward
Despite being only in its third season, Dubai's Fashion Forward has won the backing of some big-name partners, with Galeries Lafayette offering retail space in the Dubai Mall, mentorship programmes by Azza Fahmy and the participation of international media, competitive talents and potential buyers alike.
But perhaps the most notable new facet to this edition is the involvement of a fashion industry icon, the ‘Godmother of Fashion’ herself, Fern Mallis.
Mallis earned her title by being the driving force behind the creation and success of New York Fashion Week in 1991. She has been pretty much unstoppable ever since.
She orchestrates her magic behind the scenes but everyone in the industry knows exactly who she is and the huge contribution she has made to the fashion worlds of New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Berlin, Moscow, Mumbai, Sydney, Melbourne and now Dubai.
She is frequently quoted in the fashion press and broadcast media and her presence as a mentor and guide is as cherished as it is highly regarded.
So how exactly did the industry guru come up with the idea of New York Fashion Week? Somewhat surprisingly, it was the collapse of a roof that put the concept in motion.
“Fashion history started because of an accident. Back in 1991, if there were 50 shows during fashion week there were 50 locations. There was a pink fashion calendar that people called to get listed on and that was the end of the organisation of fashion week,” says Mallis.
“It was the end of March and Michael Kors had a show in a loft space which was essentially an empty raw concrete space. The show started, they put on the bass music and the ceiling started to shake. Plaster kept coming down on the runway on Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and so on.
“They all get paid the big bucks. They know what they’re doing. So they just brushed their shoulders off and kept walking. But the editors in the front row also got plaster in their laps. The next day, headlines all over the media buzzed with words which literally stated: ‘We live for fashion; we don’t want to die for it’.”
From that moment on, Mallis knew she had found her calling to bring order to New York's annual fashion showcase. It became one of her first initiatives when she joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), where she served as executive director for ten years.
CFDA is a not-for-profit association for designers, with over 400 members to date. Every year there is a nomination process where people submit an application to a very rigorous admission committee of designers who are in the position of deciding who gets in and who doesn’t.
The CFDA awards gala every year is considered the Oscars of the fashion industry and the CFDA Vogue initiative is the bar that everybody refers to when looking at mentorship and development programs to nurture new designers . It’s also worth pointing out that winning designer takes home a grand prize of $400,000.
“Our mantra was to organise, centralise and modernise the shows. It was about bringing together all the American designers who were at a pivotal stage in their careers such as Calvin [Klein] and Ralph [Lauren]. This seemed like it was an idea whose time has come, just somebody had to do it.”
Mallis travelled to Paris and Milan to see how New York could compete head to head with such prestigious fashion weeks. And after several meetings with designers, the first ever joint showcase brought together a humble total of six designers.
“It was the first time we ever got six people to do something in one space and bringing together all these egos was not easy,” she says. “It’s all about hard work, checking your ego at the door and dialling for dollars. We then made a deal with Bryant Park where the show stayed for 18 years before it got evicted and moved to Lincoln Center.”
This is Mallis’s third visit to the UAE and a question she has been asked frequently is where she sees Dubai in the global fashion world and what she thinks is unique about fashion in our region.
“I hate the obvious comparison of fashion weeks and places,” she says. “They all have to start somewhere. It starts with some passionate people, it starts with talent, you have to have designers that are really doing something special and have a voice. But then you need the business people around it to help make it happen.
“Every city is known for something different and I think that this area really is pivotal for the region. The Middle East represents a lot of people and a lot of buying power. The industry here has to look at that and say: ‘Wow, look what we can do here - let’s really manufacture, really get the goods out there and really make some big noise’.
“There’s enough business here. It doesn’t have to be that fifth city in the wheel. Cherish it, grow it and make it fabulous right here,” she adds.
The New York-based fashion legend has a very particular perspective on the industry. With a sharp sense of humour and the wisdom of decades at the top of her game, Mallis dispels many myths about what it really takes to be a fashion designer.
“I think now that there are too many people designing in the world. Ever since there was Project Runway, people think that if you can sew two things together then you are a designer. After 10 years of that show there has only been one designer to come out of it and have a business.
“You have to have a spark, something that is refreshing. It’s not derivative but not exactly outrageous. We’re still looking for clothing that can be worn. It’s not artwork, it’s not sculpture and we want to see a full collection that represents a clear thought process over 10 to 12 looks.
“There are some fashion shows I go to where I go crazy when 20 to 30 pieces come out and each one looks like its been done by a different person and not one piece relates to another piece. That is not what a collection is,” she says.
Mallis definitely embodies that spark. Right now she is spearheading four different projects at the same time. Those include her interview series, ‘Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis’; her radio show ‘Fashion Insiders with Fern Mallis’; her own-brand jewellery line Fern Finds; and finally her very own fashion consultancy, Fern Mallis LLC.
“My mantra has always been: ‘Be nice’,” Mallis says. “You never know who you will be working with and if you have a choice to work with two people, you will always choose the one that is nice. It’s really the bottom line.
“I don’t care how good your designs are or how talented you are, if you’re not nice I don’t want anything to do with you because it’s just not worth it.”