There are two types of regular New York Fashion Week attendees: Those who got the chance to experience the Bryant Park era in all its glory and those who did not. Both — but particularly the former group — can thank Fern Mallis, who held the post of executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America throughout the ’90s. As such, she co-created (along with CFDA president Stan Herman) 7th on Sixth, which soon became known as New York Fashion Week. Named after the location of its original Manhattan headquarters, Bryant Park, 7th on Sixth lives on in the minds of the many as fashion week’s best of times.
“There’s a new generation of people who have never known it any other way,” Mallis said, while considering the sharp contrast between NYFW as it stands and its early seasons.
In addition to the convenience of the tents and the one-time exclusivity of the event, she called out tech-free shows with nostalgia: “I miss the days when everybody just sat in a space, and they looked at the runway and the clothes. Now, everybody’s looking at them through two- and three-inch screens. And God forbid you’re sitting next to anyone with an iPad.”
After the CFDA, Mallis went on to become Vice President of IMG Fashion, where she led the launch of fashion weeks in cities worldwide, including L.A. “Los Angeles was a market I loved — and apparently, a lot of designers are going to show there this season,” she said. “I can hardly keep up; it just keeps on evolving and changing.”
Mallis tells us how she got into this business and what she has learned along the way.
Before 7th on Sixth:
A lot of designers were showing in their showrooms, and some showed in big lofts and clubs — and some of the fancier brands were showing in hotel ballrooms. But nobody really communicated with each other. People were just very independent, and there was not a bunch of media at the time. If you weren’t in the industry and you didn’t read Women’s Wear Daily, you really had to dig to figure out what was going on.
Before I officially started at the CFDA, Michael Kors was putting on a show in an empty concrete space in Chelsea. The ceiling started to crumble and collapse on the supermodels — this was the Cindy, Linda and Naomi era of models — and on the editors in the front row. After that, I made it one of my missions to modernize, organize and centralize fashion shows. Eventually, that evolved: I wanted to be the voice that speaks for the designers, to make it easier for foreign buyers and press to attend the shows, and to make it safe for attendees to see them.
Choosing Bryant Park:
We were looking for places that were big enough to house many shows. Bryant Park, at that time, was in the throes of being finished as an urban renewal project, plus it was very much like the backyard of the garment district — the fashion industry was literally just a block or two away. Finally it was very centralized —you could get everywhere. We negotiated fiercely with Bryant Park and with the New York Public Library. The first few years, we used the Celeste Bartos Forum inside the library and we built tents on both sides of the lawn.
The tents set up in Bryant Park in 1998. Image via NYTimes.com.
Early designers and shows:
The first designers to show at Bryant Park included Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui, Carolina Herrera, Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham — you know, all sorts of fabulous people. For everybody else, it was exclusive — you felt really privileged to get in: The entrance was up the steps and there were barricades on the side. It was like going into a Hollywood opening. Isaac [Mizrahi] filmed “Unzipped” in those tents, and DKNY put on big productions — one included a huge gospel choir that marched across the runway.
The guest list:
Neiman [Marcus] and Barneys and Bloomingdale’s were there, and they were at the top of the hierarchy. Their seconds-in-command, and the junior editors were sometimes in the second and third rows — and then all the regional press were there: the writers from the L.A. papers and the Cleveland papers … Then you had the buyers and the textile people, and then there were the friends of each house. In some cases, that included socialites — all the ladies who wore the clothes were always in a section together. And then there were the celebrity friends. For many, many years in New York, the celebrities who were there were legitimately friends of the designers — people who wore their clothes and had relationships with them. Designers weren’t paying them to go sit there and wear their clothes at that time.
I remember Oprah being there for a Vera Wang show, and Barbra Streisand sitting in the front row for Donna [Karan]. It was just incredible. Beyoncé went to shows when she was not nearly as huge as she is now. Jay Z went, all the rockers — the Hilton sisters, way before anybody knew the name Kardashian. They walked in the Heatherette show for Richie Rich! There were just so many really fun, fantastic people. I used to have walls covered with pictures of celebrities who were there — you name it, and they were there.
Fern Mallis, Jennifer Lopez and Lil Kim backstage after the Jennifer Lopez Fall 2005 runway show at Bryant Park. Photo by Jennifer Graylock.
For many years, there was a very significant and fantastic backstage scene — and I wouldn’t say it was about drugs and all that stuff. There was always champagne, and everyone was always clamoring to get backstage and hang out at the W [Hotel] lounges. They were always giving away swag. Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ book “Look” is portraits of people he happened upon backstage: Claire Danes, Eva Longoria, Heidi Klum, Katie Couric, Angie Harmon … They were just there, hanging out.
The emergence of street style:
The place was completely covered with photographers. At the time, if it wasn’t for the photographers, you wouldn’t know the fashion show happened — it was all for the photographers. The clever ones were shooting for the houses, shooting for magazines, shooting for publications — and other ones were shooting the front row and the celebrity pictures. Others really started to capitalize on, “Look at these people out here! Look at what they all look like!” And it became an important element of the shows and of the fashion industry. Then, with the advent of bloggers and websites, and what have you, that just exponentially continued to grow. You don’t see that kind of crowd at a concert — fashion week brings out the crazies.
Coverage pre–social media:
People would wait to get the next day’s Women’s Wear Daily or New York Times and see what was written. And Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune had a big following — everyone always wanted to know what she had to say. The magazines were only there to see what collections they’d want to photograph for the next month — after fashion week, they’d call in all these different looks, and they’d identify the trends. Bill Cunningham was also identifying trends.
‘Full Frontal Fashion’ was a TV show that was on every day during Fashion Week — they showed complete shows. I used to come home and watch that if I missed a big show, and they’d have interviews with the designers and industry professionals. Fashion week helped create the Style channel — they met with us when I was there, and they said, ‘We think we can do something. After watching MetroTV and ‘Full Frontal,’ we think we can do a whole channel on it.’
[Coverage] wasn’t in-your-face. Today, every single person who goes to a fashion show is a judge, a jury, a critic, an author, a writer, an editor — everybody’s got something in their hand, and they take their pictures, they take their videos, they post stuff, and they have an opinion. It’s hard to sort through it and get a real opinion or point of view. Everybody thinks they’re Anna Wintour.
Tommy Hilfiger and Fern Mallis backstage after the Tommy Hilfiger Fall 2009 runway show during Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week. Photo by Jennifer Graylock.
The see-now-by-now of the time:
There was a moment in time when there was lots and lots of conversation about allowing anyone in with digital cameras. Like, “Really? We’re gonna let those people in? They’ll send it to Hong Kong immediately, and everyone will knock it off.” That was a huge concern.
We also had a crisis of sorts when the fashion week dates changed: New York used to be the last one on the fashion calendar. It always started in London, then it went to Milan, and then went to Paris, and then there was a week off, and then it was New York. Then Helmut Lang moved his business to New York City from Belgium and decided that he should show before the Europeans. He was a very directional designer, and everybody knew that whenever he would show, the editors would come. It was a real schism in the industry. Our shows were all scheduled for October, and we wanted to show in September. And then Calvin Klein called me up and said, ‘Fern, you’re gonna hate me, but I’m gonna show when Helmut shows.’ And there was a year when we had two fashion weeks in New York, and then everyone had to change their production schedules and change their delivery schedules, and change all their meetings with the mills to get their goods in, and get their shows up before Europe. The Europeans were not happy about that and neither were many Americans — it killed their Labor Day weekend. But New York became first, and it’s been that way ever since. That was a huge mountain to climb at that time.
Fern Mallis, Laura Bush and Oscar de La Renta at an Heart Truth Campaign event at Olympus Fashion Week in February 2004. Photo by Jennifer Graylock.
I remember it all fondly — from seeing the tents go up and thinking ‘This is really happening!’ to going to the last party we had at the tents, after Tommy Hilfiger’s final show there. (It was a huge blowout party! It was like being at my own bar mitzvah or something.) I think launching things like the Red Dress Collection with the Heart Truth campaign in the tents was very special. First Lady Laura Bush was an honorary chair of the charity, which saved a lot of lives from heart disease. We’d done things there with Katie Couric and a lot of the designers on colorectal cancer and also with Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. We’d done so many different charitable initiatives, and that kind of came out of working in the tents and using the focal point of the fashion industry to say, ‘Pay attention.’
September 11  was probably my most memorable moment and for all the wrong reasons: One morning, running all the way to fashion week, and having to go backstage to three different shows that were setting up and tell people that there’s been a terrorist act on New York City — that they better take their things and go home and be with their loved ones, and we’re not going to be putting on fashion shows. People were looking at me like I was crazy. Dealing with that horror and watching the hoards of people walking down 7th Avenue was the worst time of our lives.