In town for SCAD Style, Fern Mallis shops Savannah and stops to talk about not making plans.
Fern’s career has been all about nurturing local talent, whether as the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America—a post she held for 10 years—or as a guest judge on Project Runway and producer of The Fashion Show, or as a consultant that has helped launch fashion weeks in emerging style satellites such as Mumbai, Miami and Moscow.
A frequent guest of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s School of Fashion, Fern sat down with Savannah magazine before her freewheeling conversation with colorful designer Betsey Johnson to discuss her endless curiosity and seemingly boundless energy when it comes to fashion.
SM: As someone who has nurtured the American fashion industry and designers, what is it for you to see your fingerprints on fashion weeks from New York to Miami to Mumbai to Charleston to Savannah?
Fern: It gives me great joy. I know that it’ll probably be on my tombstone that I created fashion week, and that’s okay. I’m proud of doing something—I’ve done a lot of things that I’m proud of in my career—but that was a game-changer. And, that’s nice. Not everybody gets a chance to change the game that way, and do something that has lasting impact with worldwide implications.
SM: SCAD Style screened the documentary Versailles ’73, which elevated the work of several American deisgners. It seems New York Fashion Week was the second step in a long evolution for recognition.
Fern: Fashion week took [American fashion] to a different level and platform. Before that, the American designers—again, it’s one of those things: it’s timing; it’s confluence. The planets are aligned. The American designers were starting to do really important work. They weren’t getting the recognition around the world. There were some Europeans coming to New York—if they were invited by Calvin Klein. But most of those designers were selling fragrances around the world, but not a lot of clothing. People would have to come to New York to buy the American designers. But, it was clear they were doing world-class clothing that deserved to be in Europe, just the way all that European clothing was in America. That’s not fair. I like playing fair.
SM: You seem to have this uncanny ability to see trends or seismic shifts in fashion long before the rest of us. Is that talent something you were born with or something cultivated over time?
Fern: Y’know, I don’t know. I always loved fashion. I loved the industry. I grew up surrounded by it. In my life, I’ve often worn things that years later—and I’m not considered a trendsetter, but I watch it and I say, ‘I was wearing those Indian tunics and leggings 15 years ago’ before anybody I knew was wearing that. Slowly those things become into the mainstream. It’s an inquisitiveness.
SM: How do you maintain a childlike curiosity and not get jaded by the business?
Fern: There are days I’m completely jaded like everybody else. And then you go to a show or meet a young designer that is so adorable and doing really great work, and you go, ‘OK, wait a minute—how can I help you?’ And, I’m a shopper. I constantly shop. Today, I made time between events to go shopping. If I don’t go to a store, I don’t feel like I’ve been to a place.
SM: Where did you go in Savannah?
Fern: Paris Market. I bought a couple of things there. And I stopped at One Fish, Two Fish.
SM: And now you are curating your own jewelry collection.
Fern: I’m creating a collection. (Shows the different necklaces she’s wearing.) These pieces are mine. These two are based on Indian wedding jewelry. These are mine. These bracelets and earrings. They’re things from my travels, mainly in India and Asia and Africa. I bring them back and work with two different manufacturers, and we try to fine tune them so that they can be remade. It’s on HSN, and it’s called Fern’s Finds, which is exactly what it is. It started because everyone would grab me and ask me what I was wearing, ‘Where did you get this?’
SM: What’s the next thing on your horizon?
Fern: I’ve got to get back for my next interview at the 92nd Street Y—my fashion icons series. The next one is with Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. Then Oscar [de la Renta] after that. Then, I’m going to interview Stephen Burrows at the Museum of the City of New York where his exhibition is, his retrospective.
SM: Did you ever envision yourself in this media role?
Fern: No, I never—this is completely not anything that was planned. Which is why I tell people, ‘You can’t have a plan,” because you never know what’s going to turn up. And, it’s turned out to be remarkable. I’m very, very proud of these interviews. You really learn who the people are, how they become successful, how you build a business.