by Karen Alberg Grossman

It was a Zoom session not to be missed last Thursday when Fashion Group International hosted the ever-engaging Simon Doonan interviewing fashion icon Fern Mallis about her illustrious career in fashion and fundraising. It started when Fern won a Mademoiselle magazine-sponsored contest and was one of only 20 college students selected guest editor, awarding her a stay at the famous girls-only Barbizon Hotel, a trip to Israel, and a role in putting together the September issue. Fern quickly fell in love with fashion and design (her father and uncles had worked in the garment center) and has made a big difference in her various positions throughout her career.

At Gimbel’s East, where she was fashion director in a little red office, she began meeting name designers (Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenberg) and creating shop-in-shops on the selling floor. “It was the Studio 54 era, all about who you knew. I quickly learned the importance of being nice to everyone: you never know who might help you out later on…”

But it was clearly her unique ability to connect with people that made Fern such a success at DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS), where she solicited funds to fight AIDS and financed the first refrigerator for God’s Love We Deliver, providing meals to those in need. There was also the 7th on Sale events leading to 7th on Sixth fashion weeks at Bryant Park, prior to which fashion shows were held in hot crowded showrooms or in makeshift venues like parking lots. Fern recalled one particular Michael Kors fashion show at which plaster from the ceiling rained down upon VIP guests, underscoring the need for more suitable venues. “Bryant Park (known as Needle Park) was quite dangerous at the time,” Fern recalls. “We actually spearheaded its renovation and got celebrities to attend fashion shows.”

Fern is most proud of the fundraising component of her work, both at DIFFA and at CDFA (Council for Fashion Designers of America), where, as newly elected executive director, she first raised $5 million from a tiny office at 1412 Broadway. “I had little confidence in my ability to raise money but so many of my friends at that time were literally dying so it was easy to ask. I started out calling Anna Wintour; she asked how much and, having no idea, I said half a million. She said let me talk to Sy (Newhouse), who came up with $100,000. Once I had that, I managed to get donations from Bazaar, Elle, Town & Country, then Clairol and Estee Lauder. It was a truly exciting time.”

From there, Fern used her interviewing talent to spearhead a series of talks with top-name designers at the 92nd Street Y. Among her favorite interviewees: Norma Kamali, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Isaac Mizrahi (who told her she was better than his shrink), Valentino (who claimed Fern knew more about him than anyone), Michael Kors, Simon Doonan (who she interviewed three times) and Leonard Lauder, an extraordinary man who started his career working in his mother’s kitchen in Queens. Fern’s most emotional interview was with the late New York Times street photographer Bill Cunningham, a humble and very private person who unexpectedly opened up about his life. Her most challenging was with Lauren Hutton, who (while on stage) kept asking for cigarettes, mints, and hand wipes, complained about the lighting, and declined to answer many of the questions, apparently saving the good stuff for the autobiography she was working on.

Many of Fern’s interviews are in her book, Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis, reprinted four times and available on Amazon “if any are left.” A second book of fashion luminaries will be launched in February 2022 with Nordstrom.

To view an encore of the recording visit fgi.org.