Happy 50th CFDA! We Chat With Steven Kolb On The Big Day

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The Council of Fashion Designers of America has marked a milestone anniversary with a book and exhibition titled IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA. Created by CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg and curated by Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT, IMPACT celebrates the fast-growing force of American design with a collection of garments and accessories created by the organization's most prominent members. To get the deets on what makes the organization's golden anniversary so poignant, we sat down with CFDA CEO Steven Kolb to discuss the evolution of American design, and where we can expect it to go in the future.

What do you think is special about American designers that makes them impactful?
"The interesting thing about American design is the diversity. It ranges, in some instances, from a very particular garment like Diane’s wrap dress, to a movement like Marc Jacobs and grunge, or even something connected to their business. — I found it really interesting that the Olsens, with the Row, and Nanette Lepore talk specifically about the garment district and their commitment to manufacturing in New York. The way we designed the anniversary celebration was to really let the impact be defined by the designer. I think that’s a very American thing, not labeling or making assumptions, but letting the designer make that determination."

"I also love that when you look at designers within the CFDA and over the course of 50 years, there are the marquee names, and then there are others that, in their own small way, are still very important to the tapestry of American fashion. It’s nice to be able to put all of that together."

How do you think it's changed over the last 50 years and how has the CFDA facilitated that?
"When you look back at American fashion, it was always considered the poor stepchild of the industry in that it didn’t shine like Paris, Milan, and London. It was heavily based on the manufacturing side of fashion. So, you had these brands that consumers were buying, but the designers were kind of in the back room, working, designing, and creating—people didn’t know who they were."

"When the CFDA was formed, it created a unified voice. It created this group that the designers could be a part of. It empowered them, it gave them the confidence to come from the back room, to step up and actually be the face of their work. Early on, too, a lot of designers were looking at Europe and copying what Europe did, so it also freed us from that. It allowed us to have our own aesthetic. I think that that’s changed over the 50 years. You’ve gone from the back room to really being empowered."

Are there any particular American designers or looks that you feel have been particularly impactful? You've mentioned a few with the DVF wrap dress and Marc Jacobs's grunge…
"I think when you look through the book and at the exhibit, it’s all so personal. You see it from Marchesa and their influence on the red carpet to Halston, who is really the first minimalist American designer; to someone like Patricia Underwood, who really created a movement in hats; to past president Stan Herman, who was one of the first designers to work on uniforms. And Ralph [Lauren] has continually evolved as an ambassador to American fashion. And someone like Donna [Karan], who adds easy pieces to dressing; and I already mentioned Diane [von Furstenberg]. It’s all really personal."

We know that you never dreamed of working in fashion (you've dubbed yourself an accidental fashion drone), and you are now CEO of the leading fashion trade organization. How does it feel to play such a prime role in the organization as it celebrates this milestone?
"I think 50 is such an important milestone. It really is a time to reflect on the things that have been accomplished. And when I started, I hoped that I’d still be here, but never really did the math that I would be here for such an important occasion. People are proud of what they do and I feel really lucky to be part of it. I remember starting, going to lunch with Ralph Lauren, just me and him, talking about his cars, his view on the business. I grew up wearing Ralph Lauren so that was kind of a major moment for me and now he’s somebody I know personally. And even my relationship with Diane and the time I spend with her. It’s never imaging I would have these kind of relationships. I feel so lucky because they’re all so creative and committed to the CFDA and what we do. But I also know that I bring something to it that is about management and organization and I know that they respect that."

What do you hope for in the next 50 years?
"I that we continue to be a global marketplace, that fashion continues doing what it has been doing, which is breaking out of its borders and really being the global force it’s meant to be. So that you’re not necessarily an American designer or a French designer or an Italian designer—you’re a designer. And how you connect to a customer in Asia or South America is the same for all of us. And that, I think, is the evolution of what I hope for, just a more global community of fashion."

IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA, the book, is out now from Abrams and the exhibition opens on Friday, February 10 at the Museum at FIT, 227 West 27th Street (between 7th and 8th avenues); 212-217-4530.

Photos: Courtesy of The Museum at FIT