Steven Kolb is the chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. So what does he do, exactly? “I run it,” he said. “I work for the board of directors, which Diane [Von Furstenberg] is the president of, but I’m managing the organization. I’m managing our finances, I’m managing our investments, I’m managing our staff, I’m taking the lead on big partnerships and relationships, I’m hiring people, I’m firing people, I’m engaging members in programs, committees activities — I’m doing all of that.” Monday night in New York, the council puts on its annual award show honoring the U.S.’s top fashion design talent from the past year. Think of it as the Oscars of fashion. “At the end of the day, if the CFDA Awards is a failure, it’s my fault,” Kolb said. He spoke to BuzzFeed Fashion about keeping Jersey Shore out of the awards show; his colleague, friend, and CFDA president Diane Von Furstenberg; and just what exactly the mysterious-seeming CFDA does day to day.
I think everyone’s excited to see Hillary Clinton present the Founders Award to Oscar de la Renta. How did that come about?
Steven Kolb: She’s got a personal relationship with Oscar, and when the board decided to give Oscar the Founders Award she seemed like the natural person to ask. Diane [Von Furstenberg] works with Secretary Clinton a lot on Vital Voices, a charity they’re both involved in. So she emailed Mrs. Clinton right away and she said schedule permitting, absolutely. So she’ll be there wearing Oscar de la Renta.
Over the past several years, Anderson Cooper, Jeremy Piven, and Ellen Barkin have hosted the awards. This year it’s Andy Cohen. How do you select hosts?
SK: Anderson was great, Seth was great, Andy’s going to be great. There’s a pattern — a lot of them are friends of Diane’s, and we kind of just think of someone who’s going to be funny and relevant at the moment. It’s a little bit of a fashion outsider stepping into the fashion scene and their commentary about what they see and think about it all. It is a hard crowd — fashion people, in my experience, don’t belly laugh out loud. Jokes more quietly register in their brain, and that’s a tough thing.
How much say do hosts have over their material?
SK: It’s an hour and 20 minute show. We really want to have a quick in-and-out show; people appreciate that. It always starts with the host’s ideas, but there are things that are rejected. When Jersey Shore first came out, for one of the films [introducing a menswear nominee], the creative director wanted to do this whole spoof on Jersey Shore and The Situation and Pauly D, and we said, absolutely not — there will be no Jersey Shore at the CFDA Awards. And I’m from Jersey!
There have been some other calls — we always do the beautiful Swarovski Awards opening package. We did a Swarovski film with Ryan McGinley and it was filmed at Woodstock and there was a little too much nudity. And that wasn’t necessarily because the audience was so prudish about it, but just in terms of corporate use afterward. It was so beautifully shot and so beautifully done, though.
Would the awards ever be broadcast on TV like the Oscars?
SK: It used to be broadcast on TV, but it’s a hard event to do for television because there’s a lot of stop and go. And it’s an industry event — an insider event — and that’s something that I don’t want to lose. The opportunity is really digital, which is why last year and this year we’re showing the awards on Style.com the morning after. People are getting fashion access through websites and blogs. It just seems relevant and fresh and it allows us to keep the event pure.
I feel like a lot of people are nostalgic for the days when, I don’t know, Naomi Campbell went to the awards and danced on tables.
SK: They’re still irreverent. People still talk about who went to the bathroom too many times or who was ill-prepared or had a little bit too much to drink.
Why are the awards important?
SK: What some people forget or don’t know is it’s a fundraiser as much as it is an acknowledgment of the top talent from the past year. We’re selling every ticket. At the end of the day I need to make money, because it’s our biggest and only main fundraiser of the year. But our overall mission is to promote American fashion. As much as the Academy Awards doesn’t like us to call it the Oscars of fashion, I mean, it is. It puts a spotlight on an industry that people sometimes see as mysterious.
Diane von Furstenberg and Steven Kolb at the CFDA 2013 Awards nomination event in March in New York.
And would you say it helps winners’ careers?
SK: The industry really pays attention to it. Again, comparing it to the Oscars, when you get nominated or you win an Oscar, you get better scripts. I think there’s more work and more attention. Fashion is seasonal and moves so quickly, so winning a CFDA Award is only as good as the last two collections you won it for — and then get ready for September and start it all over again.
Every time I go to a member or a designer’s studio or office or home and they’ve won a CFDA Award, there it is — it’s not like it’s in a box somewhere. People are proud to get it. For a young designer to get the Swarovski award [for emerging talent], it does get them, at their next show, an increase in buyers and editors who attend.
The awards are voted on by industry types. How are those people selected?
SK: The way we come up with the nominees and honorees is the industry nominates who they think should win, and then they vote. That’s fellow designers, retailers, editors, stylists, bloggers. Carine Roitfeld was talking to Diane once about not being a CFDA member — I said, she’s not a member because she’s not a designer. What she meant was, she considered herself a member of [the group that nominates and and votes] for the CFDA awards. We call that CFDA Fashion Awards Guild, and we worked really hard to expand that with a lot of national retailers, a lot of international editors. We want to make sure we get the true opinion of a really broad section of the industry.
So it’s not just American fashion people.
SK: It’s somebody that’s actively working in the business, that’s paying attention to seasonal collections. It’s a little bit of an opinion on our part to what extent they’re doing that, but it’s really about people who follow fashion, who write about it, who really know the business of it. Some blogger in the Midwest who’s capturing stuff from others, that’s not really it.
A lot of the winners and nominees repeat over and over. Is that concerning?
SK: I think you have to look back at all the events from the ’80s, and there were periods when designers dominated the CFDA Awards for a time. I think the nominees and the people being nominated are a reflection of what’s happening in fashion at the time. There was a time when it was Ralph, Donna, and Calvin. They’re great brands — they’re ambassadors of American fashion. The Swarovski awards are pretty fresh every year. But there’s no question when you look at women’s wear that Marc, Proenza, and Alex dominate. And it’s not Diane or me that decides, it’s really this guild that makes this determination.
Outside of the awards, a lot of people don’t understand what the CFDA does. Is it designers getting together secretly and deciding they’ll put us all in white next spring?
SK: That question always surprises me because we’re a trade organization. We come to work at the CFDA every day and say, “How can we make American fashion better known, bigger, more financially successful?”
We’re helping designers at every stage of their career. We’re giving scholarships to design students, we’re helping emerging designers who are just starting, we’re helping the small business designers, and we’re involving the big marquee names as well. And it’s our job to provide them information on the industry — we hold regular professional development programs on issues that matter, like HR issues, social media, doing business in Asia. Topics that we’re constantly updating. We’ve been very involved in Washington and lobbying for copyright protection. We’re connecting MBA students to designers. We have our charitable initiatives as well, where we raise money for AIDS and breast cancer. And we’re also putting business and deals in place — the whole Kohl’s relationship that Derek and Narciso and Catherine Malandrino have done. Li & Fung, who’s our partner [and works with Kohl’s] actually came to us. So we’re creating business opportunities for designers.
Would you say it’s essential for designers to do those collaborations now?
SK: It really depends. I think a lot of designers would never do that because it’s not right in terms of where they sit in terms of price point. I think it shows the democratization of fashion that’s really been evident the last eight to ten years. It shows the consumer is interested in good design, and it gives designers an opportunity to reach a broader audience — if it’s right for the business, and it’s not right for everybody’s businesses.
How did you get into fashion?
SK: I really didn’t get into fashion, I got into not-for-profit management. That’s why I got this job — not because I have any fashion experience or interest in fashion.
Would you call yourself a fashion person?
SK: By default, yes, because I work here and it gives me knowledge and access to things I might not otherwise have. But I’ve said many times, when I leave the CFDA and I never go to another fashion show, that’s OK. I won’t go through any kind of major withdrawal, I’ll sail quietly and contently into the sunset.
How did you get the CFDA job then?
SK: Before the CFDA, I worked at MTV International helping a foundation called the Staying Alive Foundation, which was focused on HIV/AIDS. They were interviewing a lot of fashion people — fashion PR, fashion marketing, but not anyone who was really resonating. I loved my MTV job and had no interest in leaving it, but I went and met with the committee. It was Diane and [former CFDA President] Stan Herman, a few others, and it was really relaxed. I talked about what I would or wouldn’t do, I didn’t overthink it. And after that meeting I got Diane’s email, I said thank you, she emailed me right back: “We love you.” Three words.
So why do you think they chose you?
SK: The last question asked in the interview was by her. She said, “What’s your sign?” And I said, “I’m a Libra.” They closed their notebooks and offered me the job, I guess, because I was a Libra?
Do you have any other good stories about Diane?
SK: She’s been a phenomenal friend and partner. The great thing about Diane is she’s the most accessible person I’ve ever met, and you’d think she’d be the least accessible person. She’s on email and iPad all the time — she really is a hands-on president of the CFDA. Sometimes I’ll go to her office in the Meatpacking District, and they’re like, “Diane wants you to go up to the glass dome” [where she has an apartment]. I love going up there, but she’ll be getting ready and she’ll be like, “Should I wear this bracelet or this necklace?” And she’ll pick the one I don’t pick. Meeting with her while she’s getting ready, it’s intimate but we get a lot of stuff done. I still get anxious about it.
And her term as CFDA president must be nearly over, no?
SK: Diane was already re-elected twice — more than the bylaws allowed. We changed them, so she’ll finish up at eight years in office. She goes through the end of 2014. I think by the end of 2014, she’ll be ready to do other stuff, though she’ll always be involved. But there’ll be an election and the board members who are interested in that position will state that very soon. We’ll go through that very private process and then have a big press event. It’s a desirable position; I think people are going to want it. Who that will be I will not speculate with you.
Steven Kolb with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.