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UB's fashion icon: Mallis put American designers 'on the map'

NEW YORK CITY — An SUV pulls to the curb in lower Manhattan, and out steps Fern Mallis. She knows what’s next: Photographers gather and ask her to pose. Mallis obliges. She tucks her hands into the pockets of her leather coat. She is wearing three necklaces – a leather tassel, a small red enamel heart, and Venus of Hohle Fels figurine of a woman – all made by friends. Mallis flashes a well-practiced smile.

This is New York Fashion Week, where top designers unveil their latest collections to journalists, buyers and trendsetting celebrities.

This is her place.

Mallis, a 1969 graduate of the University at Buffalo, co-founded Fashion Week 26 years ago. Through the ‘90s and early 2000s, it became a magnet for celebrities, an aspirational ticket for fashionistas, and a compulsory event for industry insiders.

“The work Fern did in creating New York Fashion week helped to put American fashion on the map,” the designer Calvin Klein wrote in an email to The Buffalo News.

Fern Mallis, pictured at the New York Gala for Fall 2013 Fashion Week, at Cipriani Wall Street. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

It also earned Mallis a place in fashion history — and royal deference to this day at Fashion Week, even though she stopped running the operation in 2010. After posing for the cameras, Mallis and her guests bypassed the line of ticket-holders and walked in to this afternoon’s show, which would reveal designer Naeem Khan’s spring and summer line of gowns and dresses.

Inside the show, Mallis chatted with writers and editors and gave an on-camera interview before taking her front-row seat next to a Vanity Fair writer.

As Khan’s models paraded the runway in sheer, fringed and flowered dresses in hues of yellow and blue and pink, Mallis had her phone in hand, taking pictures that might end up on Instagram, or might just be for her memories.

She sees a lot of these shows, and keeps a packed schedule, so sometimes her mind will wander. On this afternoon, Mallis wondered to herself, When will I have time to pack for London? A longtime global traveler who has helped create fashion weeks around the world, Mallis was flying to England in two days for a trio of shows.

Later this afternoon, she was heading to a fitting for an event she would be hosting for Neiman Marcus in Houston. The previous night, she was interviewing basketball star Russell Westbrook, the author of a recent book called “Style Drivers,” as part of her Fashion Icons interview series in the theater at the 92nd Street Y, an uptown cultural institution  in Manhattan.

That series, which Mallis started after leaving her executive role with the fashion agency IMG in 2010, has included revealing interviews with fashion figures such as Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Vera Wang, Victoria Beckham, Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs.

“I used to think if I had a party, I could invite 300 fabulous people,” Mallis said after Khan’s show. Minutes earlier, she had been embracing singer Paula Abdul, who was seated a few steps away from Mallis on the runway, and had slipped backstage, amid a flurry of models and clothing assistants, to congratulate Khan.

“I still could invite 300 fabulous people,” Mallis added. She was sitting on a soft upholstered chair in a crowded VIP lounge, where a collection of sponsors and agency types circled the nearby bar. “But I don’t care to.”

Mallis has spent a life around glamour. Today, she’s seeking something else, something quieter and calmer.

Fern Mallis, right, pictured at the Naeem Khan show at NY Fashion Week.
(David Handschuh)

* * *

Mallis grew up in Brooklyn as the middle child of three sisters in what she describes as a “creative family.” Her father, Mac – “a master salesman,” Mallis calls him – worked for a wholesaler of women’s scarves, and was also a painter and poet. Her mother, Vera, was “Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart,” Mallis said.

Her older sister, Stephanie, became an architect — a “brilliant Renaissance woman” who is also an artist, illustrator and painter. Mallis’ younger sister Joanne, who died a year ago of lung cancer at 61, was a painter dabbled in making clothes, and was “always busy with new ideas.”

After graduating from Madison High School in Brooklyn – where she was voted best-dressed – Mallis enrolled at UB. She painted, studied graphics and communication design, and became involved with the theater department.

“She was very, very focused, and very artistic,” recalled the Hollywood director Rob Lieberman, a Buffalo native who was one of those theater students.

“She is now revered,” he added. “I am honored to know her.”

Fern Mallis, in a leather jacket with glasses, eyes Naeem Khan's show during New York Fashion Week.
(David Handschuh)

As freshmen, Mallis and Lieberman dated briefly. “I saw her crossing the campus; she was a tall, Sephardic, kind of darkish-skinned beauty,” Lieberman said. “I was just struck by her, and I approached her and I asked her out.”

Their romance was short-lived, but Mallis developed lifelong relationships through her behind-the-scenes theater work at UB. She designed a program and helped with military-style costuming for the war play “Stalag 17,” and became close with students who would go on to successful Hollywood careers: Lieberman and the actor Peter Riegert were the stars. The late actor Ron Silver (“a very good friend for many years,” Mallis said) was the director, and the future television executive Steve Sunshine was a producer.

Mallis’ time at UB in the late ‘60s was dominated by the anti-war activism of the era. Buffalo, as she recalls it, was “very much considered the Berkeley of the east.” Mallis ticks off her memories: demonstrations, picketing, bra burning, “the emergence of a new, powerful black movement.”

“It was a wakening experience for me,” said Mallis, recalling that she would write letters to her mother saying, “The world is going to change. There’s a revolution going on.”

Lance Bass, Amar'e Stoudemire, Fern Mallis, Sachin Ahluwalia, and Babi Ahluwalia attend Fashion's Night Out in 2012 in New York City. (Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images)

She was choosy about when to become involved in the protests. “I grew up with a dad who said, ‘Be very wary of a parade, or a march, because whomever’s in the front is who you’re following, but if you get too many blocks back, you can’t see when they’ve shifted and who else has moved in, and you somehow wind up not following what your initial cause or leader was,’” Mallis said. “It’s really true. That was my Buffalo.”

Near the end of her time at UB, Mallis was named a finalist for the magazine Mademoiselle’s guest-editor competition, and ultimately ended up winning a job at the publication. She skipped graduation to move home to New York to begin her magazine career (and hasn’t been back to Buffalo since).

After Mademoiselle, Mallis worked in retail, public relations and design. The confluence of those experiences helped her land a job in 1991 as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It’s a job that sounds chic, but wasn’t  — yet. Mallis’ first CFDA office was the size of a closet, “tucked in a space across from a freight elevator,” and when the phone rang, she had to stand up from her desk and pick it up on a different counter.

Fern Mallis and fashion designer Richard Chai attend the Maison Martin Margiela with H&M global launch event at 5 Beekman in 2012. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Mallis’ initial digs were an apt metaphor for the American fashion industry’s marketing efforts: Back then, designers were hosting seasonal runways shows that were scattered around New York and often disorganized — and sometimes unsafe. At an Isaac Mizrahi show, the lights went dark — and the lighting guy had already left the building and headed to his next gig.

At a Michael Kors show, the bass music throbbing through the speakers shook the walls so hard that a piece of plaster fell from the ceiling and clonked a European journalist on the head.

A fix was needed, and that would be Mallis’ job.

“All the designers were going rogue, in a manner of speaking,” said Mallis’ longtime friend Tim Gunn, the host of television’s “Project Runway” and former fashion program chair at the Parsons School of Design.

“They all showed in the same week because the editors, the buyers, the retailers would all assemble in New York for this occasion, so everybody clamored to show. Fern was the one who said, ‘We need to bring some systematic organization to this, and rationalize it.’ And she did it. It was a remarkable feat.”

Mallis, working with the CFDA’s president, Stan Herman, organized a schedule that ultimately brought all of the shows to a series of tents erected in Bryant Park – a block from Times Square – thus creating what we now know as New York Fashion Week.

It drew journalists and other fashion types coming to New York from around the world, and in crowded midtown Manhattan, it attracted crowds, too. The tall, white tents became a spectacle, with passerby and tourists clamoring to see what celebrities were slipping inside.

The production became so large that in 2001, the CFDA sold 7th on Sixth Inc. – its division that ran Fashion Week – to IMG. Mallis moved on to IMG as well. By then, she was a major figure in the fashion industry; she had earned a deep and enduring gratitude and respect from designers.

“Fern Mallis is a force!” the designer Norma Kamali wrote in an email. “She is the empowered woman. She is the reason the American fashion industry is on global status because of her ingenious tents concept that finally united all the shows in one place.”

Calvin Klein, in a separate email exchange, said, “I always appreciated her ability to get things done and continuously advocate for designers.”

Tommy Hilfiger told the News that, as “the visionary behind New York Fashion Week,” Mallis “gave American designers a platform on the global stage.”

That includes Hilfiger, a native of Elmira, whose brand’s meteoric ascent in popular culture coincides with the rise of Fashion Week in the ‘90s and early 2000s. In 2010, Hilfiger’s show was the last one ever to be held at Bryant Park. A still-growing Fashion Week would be moving the next year to Lincoln Center, and Mallis was moving on.

After his show, Hilfiger emerged on the runway, microphone in hand, and thanked Mallis in front of the still-seated crowd. Afterward, Mallis went backstage to thank him in return. Their conversation was captured in a Fashion Week documentary called “The Tents:”

“You made it all happen,” Hilfiger said as he clasped Mallis’ hand.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I remember 18 years ago,” said Hilfiger, a smile on his still-boyish face.

“I know,” Mallis said. “There were kids sitting here who weren’t even born when these things started. It just is a lifetime. It’s amazing.”

“You have done an amazing job,” Hilfiger told her. “Now, onward and upward.”

Fern Mallis, left, is interviewed at Naeem Khan's show during New York Fashion Week 2017. (David Handschuh)

* * *

Upward today for Mallis looks like this: She still attends fashion weeks around the country and the world, and is the director of FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology Foundation). Mallis’ Fashion Icons series is regular programming at the 92nd Street Y, where her “authenticity,” as Tim Gunn puts it, has prompted celebrities to bare all emotionally on an auditorium stage.

“It’s very refreshing and in some ways it’s very disarming, so we let our guard down around Fern, because we know we’re in a safe zone,” said Gunn, who during his interview with Mallis spoke openly about getting bullied as a child, his difficult relationship with his father, and coming out. (At first, Gunn revealed only to his sister that he was gay.)

“It’s very unusual for me to talk about those areas, and quite frankly, especially coming out,” Gunn said. “I figure it’s nobody’s damn business.”

Upward for Mallis also looks like this: Spending a lot of time with her family and, she said, “what’s become a much smaller and smaller and tighter group of friends.” She has an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a lake home in Southampton. Mallis purchased the home 20 years ago – when “I could barely afford it” – and calls it “clearly the best decision I’ve made in my life.” The home has become her place to recharge.

“My country house has done that for me,” she said. “It’s like putting my phone on the charger. My body is there and I can feel the battery lines filling up.”

Mallis’ actual phone provides a glimpse at her priorities, too: It is loaded with family photos, especially of her three grown nieces and two grand-nephews. Of the three Mallis siblings, her late sister Joanne was the only one to become a mom, and Fern has a maternal-like pride in her nieces' accomplishments: the eldest, Brooke, is a Harvard- and Yale-educated executive at Sotheby’s, her middle niece, Victoria, is a publicist, and the youngest, Alexandra, is an artist.

Her nieces call her “Tia” – Spanish for “Aunt” – and lately, they’ve been talking to her about something that is on Mallis’ mind too. Sitting in the Fashion Week lounge, drawing the occasional stare from someone who recognized that this is the woman who started it all, Mallis revealed what’s missing.

“‘Tia, we need to find somebody for you,’” she said, echoing her nieces’ message. “‘You’re too good and too wonderful and too loving. You should be sharing your life with somebody.’ And not just Dimples, my adorable black cat.”

Mallis has been wrestling with this, too. She has a beautiful life. Why has she not found that person with whom to share it? As she thinks it through, she even harkens back to her era in Buffalo, when so many, many young men her age were sent to war, never to come back.

“I honestly believe there were, of my generation, of the men – the dating pool, of sorts – there was a huge amount of people that were killed in the Vietnam War of that age,” she said. “Huge amount. Who knows?”

But she knows that’s not the only answer.

“It was probably a cumulative feeling over the years of breaking glass ceilings and, somewhat unconsciously to me, making choices that led me to be very competent and successful in my career and to kind of shelve the personal life,” she said. “I don’t think I consciously said I’m going to do that. I actually go to a doctor now to figure that out. Like, ‘Why not a personal life?’”

Mallis isn’t giving up on that. She’s not done. She’s still open to the possibility of finding that person.

“I’m totally open to it,” she said. “If there’s somebody out there that’s fabulous that wants to run around with me and have some good times, let me know.”

She flashed that smile again, but this time, there were no cameras around.

Fern Mallis

Why you know her: Mallis is the co-creator of New York Fashion Week, which she started in the early 1990s and ran until 2010. She’s also appeared on multiple fashion-related television shows, including “Project Runway,” and is the host of the Fashion Icons interview series at the 92 Street Y, a well-known cultural institution in New York City.

Mallis’ 2015 book, “Fashion Lives,” includes her interviews with designers such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Vera Wang, Betsey Johnson, Marc Johnson and Oscar de la Renta.

Age: 69

Residence: Manhattan, and Southampton

Family: Mallis is single. Her parents, Vera and Mac, had three daughters: Stephanie, Fern and Joanne. Mallis has three nieces – Brooke, Victoria and Alexandra – and two grandnephews, Theo and Milo.

WNY Roots: Mallis studied graphics and communication design at the University at Buffalo, where she graduated in 1969.

Designer Calvin Klein on Mallis: “She has a wealth of knowledge not just about designers and clothing but how the entire fashion mechanism operates. Fern is a great sounding board and has developed strong relationships because we can trust that the advice she gives is coming from experience.”

Tommy Hilfiger, designer: “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with Fern for many years. She has been a powerful force in the fashion industry and was the visionary behind New York Fashion Week, which gave American designers a platform on the global stage.”

Norma Kamali, designer: “Fern Mallis is a great source of inspiration for each generation behind her.”

Tim Gunn, host of "Project Runway:" “We wouldn’t have New York Fashion Week if it weren’t for Fern. It was really her vision.”

Fern Mallis smiles for the camera.
(David Handschuh)

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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