By Mark Ellwood | July 1, 2015 | People
As CEO, Steven Kolb helped reinvigorate the Council of Fashion Designers Of America, the group set to launch New York's first men's fashion week in July.
“I didn’t know anything about fashion—not even that, in February, you show fall clothes and in September it’s spring. I mean, that’s fashion 101,” Steven Kolb says, recounting his first interview to become CEO of American fashion’s governing body, the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Grilled by a panel of luminaries, including Joseph Abboud and Diane von Furstenberg, he admits to being stumped by the final question. “Diane said, ‘What sign are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m a Libra.’ All at the same time, they closed their notebooks and put their pens down.” He was puzzled, but left and sent a customary follow-up thank-you note by e-mail to von Furstenberg. “Within two seconds, she e-mailed me back, saying, ‘We. Love. You!’” Kolb had aced the interview, especially with his admission to being a Libra—the sign renowned both for its tact and its appreciation of beauty. He learned a valuable lesson. “I now know horoscopes are a big deal in fashion.”
That was 2006, and von Furstenberg (an ambitious, driven Capricorn) would soon be appointed head of the CFDA; since then, the astrologically inclined pair have transformed the organization. “We’re a volleyball team,” says Kolb. “She hits the ball in the air, and I’m responsible for spiking it and scoring the point.” Before the duo began its overhaul, membership of the CFDA was a prestigious, if somewhat pointless, plaudit. Today, membership is a powerful privilege. Boosting business for fashion brands is central to Kolb and DVF’s reinvigorated CFDA. They spearheaded several industry programs like the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, an investment fund aimed at increasing business in the Garment District, and commandeered the scheduling of NYC’s fashion shows by purchasing industry bible the Fashion Calendar. Kolb’s newest project is perhaps the CFDA’s most ambitious: the stand-alone New York Fashion Week: Men’s, running July 13–16 at Skylight Clarkson Square and featuring shows from Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Rag & Bone, Billy Reid, and Michael Bastian, among others.
There are smart business reasons for this midsummer catwalk—certainly by showcasing Spring/ Summer 2016, it aligns better with the menswear wholesale cycle. However, the launch of a men’s fashion week is as much a strategy as it is an economic decision. “There’s been a shift in American [men’s] fashion from just being this Ivy League approach to dressing. Menswear has become more creative, and guys are more interested in how they dress. Look at Carson Street Clothiers, or Odin, or online at Mr Porter,” Kolb raves.
Retail markets are providing proof of the concept, too, via the successful launch of a similar male-skewing fashion week in London, and a surge of nascent talents focusing on menswear, like Public School, which won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award two years ago, besting a passel of womenswear designers.
As a young man in New Jersey, Kolb may have been a natty dresser (“In high school I had Levi’s in every single color—burgundy, black, gray, blue, and tan”), but he never envisaged himself as a rag trade power broker. “At one point in college [Glassboro State, now Rowan University], my dream job was press secretary for the president of the United States,” he recalls. “But I knew that corporate America as a work environment didn’t have a lot of meaning other than feeding the machine.”
Instead, inspired by a stint volunteering with a shelter for runaway kids, Kolb embarked on a career in the nonprofit sector. “For somebody who’s shy, it’s a much more welcoming environment than scary corporate America,” he admits. Kolb spent several years working for the American Cancer Society and living in New Jersey before his life was transformed. As a gay man in the 1980s, HIV loomed large, and its impact on his community inspired Kolb to switch roles to a staff position at DIFFA, the design industry’s HIV/AIDS organization. Crucially, it was in Manhattan. He remembers “one of the very first things was being part of Susanne Bartsch’s Love Ball at Roseland. Madonna was there, performing ‘Vogue.’” He pauses, chuckling at the memory: “All of a sudden, that was a very different kind of thing.”
Kolb spent almost two decades running DIFFA before decamping to become the founding executive director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, another charity aimed at HIV prevention and support. Not long after that, the stars aligned and Kolb was invited to take over the CFDA.
Of course, almost 10 years into his tenure, he’s no longer the fashion rube he was at that interview, either. Just ask George Clooney. When the star was the cohost of Vogue’s glittering Met Ball with Julia Roberts, Kolb was progressing along the receiving line with Anna Wintour, who introduced him to the Oscar winner: “I was wearing a tuxedo that was little bit shrunken and gray—it was by Michael Bastian— and Clooney was in a traditional black tuxedo. I remember him saying, ‘I really like that suit you’re wearing.’ To this day, it’s still a pinch-me moment.”
Kolb’s proudest professional sortie, though, was a recent trip to the White House. “Mrs. Obama hosted a reception to thank fashion for all it does for the American economy,” he says. For the kid from New Jersey who once dreamed of being the president’s press secretary, it was an indelible experience; he even ducked into the pressroom. “I saw the podium,” Kolb says, “but I didn’t make a play for it.”
photography by eric ryan anderson