But last week, Ross found herself in the spotlight when news broke about a fundraiser her husband, real estate developer Stephen Ross, was throwing in Southampton for U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2020 American election.
“I’m not surprised that she had a president in her house because of her network and associations. I’m going to be honest. Kara is in a different league,” says CFDA board treasurer and jewellery designer Mimi So, referring to Ross’ social clout. “But it is surprising that it’s this particular president.”
Ross may have kept a low-profile, but she holds an important seat at the CFDA, and the news hit the organization like a wrecking ball. After WWD reported that the fundraiser hauled in over $12 million USD, with tickets costing between upwards of $250k USD a head, Stephen Ross’ financial stake in a variety of establishments frequented by NYC creatives, like Equinox gyms, Soulcycle, and Momofuku restaurants, inspired boycotts and digital protests. But it wasn’t until Out magazine’s Phillip Picardi wrote an op-ed in Business of Fashion calling out both Kara Ross’ seat on the CFDA as well as Stephen Ross’ investments in Hudson Yards — the rumored future home of New York Fashion Week, whose calendar the CFDA manages — that the blowback reached the fashion industry.
One designer, Dana Lorenz, publicly canceled her membership in protest, and CFDA committee board members Prabal Gurung and Rag & Bone pulled their shows from The Shed at Hudson Yards. Questions have swirled about whether others will follow. As a 501(c)(6) non-profit, the CFDA is legally restricted from partaking in political campaigns, and the organization is prohibited from discriminating by protected characteristics, which include political affiliation. Legally, firing Ross isn’t an option, and neither is offsetting the Trump fundraiser with donations to Democratic campaigns.
But for the CFDA, who serves an industry comprised largely of women, gay men, and immigrants, and has long partnered with organizations who openly oppose Trump policies, both the rock and the hard place feel more unforgiving than usual. Says one high-level board member who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly: “They have enough drama as it is. Are you kidding me? It’s fashion. If there wasn’t any drama it’d be so boring. Politics has the most influence on drama.”
“Everything we do at some point up the line, especially with real estate, trickles up to bad politics. It’s such a monopoly,” says an up-and-coming designer, who requested to remain anonymous. “People with money and stakes have these political viewpoints because of their tax breaks. I find it really tricky.”
Some of the surprise around Ross has to do with the fact that most of her fellow designers thought she was one of them.
In addition to supporting gay rights (her last post on Instagram before the fundraiser was a photo of a group of rainbow-colored flamingos with the hashtag #inclusivity), she has also publicly supported abortion access, taken photos with Gloria Steinem, spoken out about sustainability and climate change denial, and attended the 2018 Women’s March in NYC with her daughter. In 2011, Michelle Obama approached Ross to design a collection of bracelets and necklaces made from a fallen tree in the White House as a symbolic commitment to the environment. They were given as gifts to heads of state and other officials, which Ross proudly shared on social media and in press interviews.
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Day 18 of American Jewelry Stories ?? #rp @Val.the.gem.gal Eco-Friendly Jewelry ?❤️? One of the perks of being First Lady is the ability to have unique things made, which then serve as part of our American heritage. Michelle Obama (First Lady, 2009 – 2017) asked American jewelry designer @KaraRossNY to make wood jewelry out of a tree that had fallen on the White House lawn. These amazing bracelets were then gifted to heads of state and other officials. Many public figures use jewelry to send subtle messages. Maybe these pieces represented a commitment to the environment. Who knows? But they're definitely pretty and unique! ? #americanjewelrystories #americathejewelry #valthegemgal #michelleobama #firstladies #woodenjewelry #woodenbracelet #bracelet #ecofriendly #ecofriendlyjewelry #jewelrydesign #entrepreneur #femaleentrepreneur #girlboss #bossbabe
Ross’ involvement with the Obama administration wasn’t just with jewelry. According to FEC filings, Ross has made at last $10k USD in donations to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008. In fact, over the years, from 2002 to 2019, Ross has donated more than $200k USD toward liberal causes, helping to elect Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton and Cory Booker, as well as pro-choice organization NARAL.
But beginning in 2011, the same year that Stephen Ross became a major supporter to Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid to unseat Obama, Kara Ross’ contributions to conservative causes started to slowly — then quickly — surpass her liberal ones. She donated to Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former U.S. Representative Mimi Walters of California, and Senator Rick Scott of Florida, as well as a slew of local Republican congresspeople. Her biggest donations are to Romney ($64k USD), the Republican National Committee ($35.5k USD) and the National Republican Senate Committee ($33k USD). The decade prior, she wrote three $25k checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign. In 2019, she’s also donated to the Republican National Committee, congressional candidate Richard Neal, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney (again), as well as a variety of organizations supporting Democratic Senator Mark Warner from Virginia.
Kara Ross did not respond to Refinery29’s requests for comment.
It’s easy to see Ross as playing both sides of the political field, a slimy, but not uncommon, tactic among the uber wealthy who want to maximize their opportunities and curry favor. But others believe that Ross’ recent personal political activities cross a big, bright line.
All this puts the CFDA is in a tricky spot. In a statement, a spokesperson restated that as a business/commercial non-profit, it “does not participate in political campaigns and is legally restricted to do so” and that “the organization does not discriminate by race, gender, religion, or political affiliation.”*
The CFDA is also the only non-profit organization connected to the fundraiser, and also the only one that has not released a strong statement distancing itself from Trump’s policies.
Both Soulcycle and Equinox have issued statements, and Equinox just pledged to donate $1 million USD to charities helping injured veterans, children in foster care, and the house ball community. Momofuku’s David Chang himself donated a day’s earnings from all his NYC restaurants to a variety of anti-Trump organizations, including abortion services, immigrant centers, gun control advocates, and environmental clubs. Some CFDA-member designers, like Gurung, have publicly issued statements disavowing the fundraiser.
It’s a bad public relations situation for an organization as concerned about its public image as the CFDA, especially considering its past partnerships. In recent years, the CFDA has highlighted organizations and nonprofits like RAICES, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU, going so far as to distribute co-branded buttons to Fashion Week guests, and encouraging designers to include pins in their shows.
These organizations have been some of the most vocal critics of the Trump administration, which, some designers Refinery29 spoke to say, has made the CFDA’s reluctance to speak out about Ross’ fundraiser hypocritical. “If we are supporting Planned Parenthood, raising money for education, and have panels about inclusivity and diversity…” says one. “You can’t pick and choose. You can’t be supporting Planned Parenthood and not speak up.”
“When I hear ‘I’m fiscally Republican and socially liberal,’ what it says to me is that only money matters to you,” says Gurung. “The rest of the stuff — racism, xenophobia, mass shootings, the climate crisis — it literally doesn’t affect you.”
But others don’t believe that the CFDA’s past partnerships are technically political. “What they’ve done is they’ve made strong statements about social issues that have been created through political issues,” offers a CFDA member who requested anonymity. “Planned Parenthood is a social need.“
The CFDA member pointed to workshops about taxation, tariffs, trade wars, and legal immigration as hot-button but necessary educational opportunities that the CFDA has offered its members whose businesses are affected by Trump’s economic policies. “It seems political, but it’s very practical. They’re always on the side of designers.”
None of the CFDA members I spoke to believe that the CFDA encourages their members to express their political beliefs in their collections, though it’s certainly understood to be an effective way of expressing a brand’s identity. “This is now a new era where things are so socially and politically connected and visible. Before, it was mostly about putting on a great show. Who’s going to be there, and come? That’s it,” says jewellery designer So. “The designers are evolving, and the CFDA is, too.”
Further complicating the issue is that it’s Ross’ husband, not Ross herself, who takes ownership of the fundraiser. Much like fellow CFDA board committee member Georgina Chapman who faced scrutiny in the wake of #MeToo when it became clear that her ex-husband Harvey Weinstein’s entanglement with her brand, Marchesa, was both explicit and subtle, Ross’ work and her husband’s interests are connected. Though she independently created and ran her jewellery line prior to her marriage, Ross routinely hypes Hudson Yards, her husband’s high-stakes real estate project, on her Instagram account.
The CFDA’s serious consideration of Hudson Yards as a future home for NYFW has raised concerns that Ross’ husband has undue influence on the CFDA, who is not involved in NYFW venues, but is a close partner of the event.
Jewellery designer Dana Lorenz, who posted an open letter to the CFDA on Instagram that announced her decision to cancel her membership with the prestigious organization, sent me a text message with a link a 2017 story about Stephen Ross’ donations to EB-5 visa program, commonly known as the “million-dollar green card” in which visas are granted to those who invest $500,000 USD in new American commercial enterprises. Hudson Yards raised $600 million USD via EB-5, which is slated to change in September, which Lorenz believes was a factor in hosting the fundraiser. “Write about this,” Lorenz texted. “No one cares about what designers think is unfair.”
But when it comes to complicity, Lorenz doesn’t mince words. “This isn’t 1950, and Mrs Ross isn’t at home in her apron, unaware of her husbands dealings,” she wrote later in an email responding to questions. “All you have to do is read the news on a daily basis to find out what is truly unfair.”
It’s not the first time that the CFDA’s positions on politics have rankled Lorenz. The day before Trump’s inauguration, the CFDA posted a series of Instagrams about why their members were protesting at the Women’s March, including quotes from Aurora James, Maria Cornejo, and Rachel Comey. But the next day, the account posted a watercolor sketch of Melania Trump at the inauguration wearing CFDA member Ralph Lauren. “I called them out and people [on Instagram] went nuts,” Lorenz said in a text. “[CFDA President] Steven [Kolb] called me and told me to calm down.”
Lorenz’ Fallon NYC is the only brand to quit the CFDA in protest. All members I spoke with lauded Lorenz’ move, but some were unsure of its consequences. “[Lorenz] should have removed herself, but I don’t necessarily see how it has an impact outside of the fact she did it,” says another designer and CFDA member who asked for anonymity. “They’re loud acts, but they’re not necessarily impactful. It’s just a talking point on social media. It’s like posting selfies from Crunch Gym every day.”
Even without the non-profit designation, one CFDA member told Refinery29 that the organization is incredibly generous to members: “I just feel like they’re extremely supported. Once you’re a member, you’re family. This person is a member of their family.”
Gurung also sees the CFDA in a difficult position, as it’s been incredibly supportive to designers’ businesses and personal charitable endeavors, like his Nepal earthquake relief fund. “I continue to be on the board because I know they do the right thing,” he says, pointing to the CFDA’s stance on underage models, and its involvement in nurturing NYC’s garment industry, as other examples of when its ethics were apparent.
“It makes me sad that the action of one board member could negate all the work other board members and the CFDA have done. It’s unfortunate that a few people are saying the CFDA fucked up when in reality I know they are doing their best. Could we all do better, as members and board members? Yes. But even in this situation, I know the intention to do good is always there.”
* The CFDA statement in full: "As a non-profit 501(c)(6) organization in the United States, the CFDA does not participate in political campaigns and is legally restricted to do so.
As ever, the CFDA, through its nearly 500 members, remains steadfastly committed through our programs to diversity and inclusion, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, fair immigration policy and sustainability in the fashion industry.
The organization does not discriminate by race, gender, religion, or political affiliation."