Fashion industry insider Fern Mallis talks big designers, braving the fashion world and business at Fashion Forward

We chat with Fern Mallis, credited for creating New York Fashion Week, at the third season of Fashion Forward.

Fern Mallis, the founder of New York Fashion Week, attended the third season of Fashion Forward in Dubai. Michael Loccisano / Getty Images / AFP
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To have the industry powerhouse Fern Mallis – credited for creating New York Fashion Week (NYFW) – attend this season was a major coup. We sat down with her during her visit.

You’ve worn many fashionable hats over the years, from your role at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, IMG and spearheading NYFW to now running your own consultancy. Which of these has brought you the most contentment?

It comes from a lot of different places. I’m extremely proud of something that I know was a game changer – New York Fashion Week. If that winds up on my tombstone, I’ll be fine with that.

There are a lot of other things: seeing young friends – who I’ve been pushing and pushing – start to become successful, makes me really happy. I also get a lot of satisfaction from people who’ve worked with me over the years. Various assistants over 30 to 40 years, who’ve gone on to be massively successful – that makes me happy. My first assistant, when I started my business, is now the global president of Estée Lauder. That’s really nice.

I won’t ask you to pick your favourite, but which was a particularly revealing interview from your Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis interview series? Which designer did you learn the most about?

Ah, that’s a very good question. I think I learnt a lot from Tommy Hilfiger as a business person. Some of Marc Jacobs’s background story – growing up as a young man and what he went through was pretty remarkable.

And a story I already knew, but the audience’s jaws dropped when they heard, was Diane von Furstenberg’s. She talked about how her mother was in the concentration camps during thHolocaust, came out weighing around 40lbs (18kg) and miraculously, two years later, became pregnant and gave birth to Diane. You could hear a pin drop in the audience. Stories like that have touched me and have made me look at people in new ways.

With regards to mentoring – one key piece of advice you give others in the industry is to be nice. Is the fashion world intrinsically a nice place filled with nice people?

Yes and no. I think people are inherently nice. I think there are a lot of people in the industry who are very shy, believe it or not. And a lot of people who are very insecure present themselves in ways that almost become offensive. I think designers are some of the most insecure people I know in the world. The biggest and oldest names you’ve heard of are insecure and they spend their lives putting things out there for criticism, month after month. The fashion industry is very fond of criticising. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t have lasted in this industry for this long if there weren’t also some really nice people in it.

Nameless and nasty ones aside, who are some of the nicest designers?

Most of the big designers are really, really nice. People like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford – they are all incredibly nice people. What’s not nice sometimes are the “gatekeepers”. It happens in a lot of businesses – they are the people protecting the throne and make it very difficult to get across the moat to the palace.