Fern Mallis is having a moment. Another moment. This one, the release of Fashion Icons 2, Fashion Lives with Fern Mallis, from her ongoing interview series of industry designers and leaders at the 92Y. Nordstrom launched it with a blow-out bash for their first New York store. “Nordstrom loves Fern Mallis” signs proclaimed. Her likeness was on cookies, cake pops, matches and napkins. Blow up art from her book lined walls. Goody bags were worth hundreds. Hoda and Jenna talked about it on air.
Fern’s book tour may be a victory lap, but she’s already back on the boards. There are commitments for two more books. A streaming television series is in the works.
For those who just “know her name,” Fern created the Bryant Park tented Fashion Week, 7th on Sixth. It made New York into a true fashion capitol; gave American designers gravitas; launched careers.
She also forged fashion philanthropy. As an original board member of DIFFA the Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS, and the CFDA’s Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, she helped raise 100 million dollars and counting.
No wonder, they call her the Godmother of Fashion.
Twenty years later, the tents came down and she moved onto the interview series, now back from a quarantine hiatus. Industry superstars confide in her as intimates: about their childhoods, marriages, children, highs, lows. And how they made their visions into multimillion dollar businesses.
These are definitive, authentic, one of a kind. It’s a how to for those who want to build businesses around their talent, and fascinating read. “It’s called Fashion Lives,” says Fern. “You can pronounce it either way.”
Fern and I were chatting during a drive from the Hamptons to Manhattan. Neighbors on a lake out East, we were thrown together during lock down. In 2020, when she casually mentioned she was working on a second book, I didn’t get the magnitude. Fern doesn’t drop names or flaunt her accomplishments.
She flaunts others’.
“Tell me some stories from the book,” I asked, in between WAZE interruptions.
“One of my favorite interviews is with Leonard Lauder,” she replied. “It took years to get him.” He embodies the entrepreneurial gumption Fern celebrates. “They built a multi, multi billion dollar industry that started, like all the others in both books, with a passion and a dream.
His mother, Estée, started making face creams in her kitchen in Queens. She would go behind the counter in Saks and touch women’s faces. She gave them a gift with purchase. No one had ever done that before.
“Leonard started a film club while in the University of Pennsylvania. It was so successful, he started a second one. He realized that he could do both without competing with each other. That became his business model: having more than one brand under the same umbrella without cannibalization.”
Plus he respects strong women. “He said you should never make a serious business decision without a woman in the table, He has fantastic women in leadership positions, who all play happily in the same sandbox. That stems from the top.” In fact, Lauder Group President Jane Hudis worked for Fern for six years.
Then, there’s Victoria Beckham. “She told me she would make her father drop her and her sister off a block from school so they wouldn’t be seen in his Rolls-Royce.
“Bob Mackie talks about his son dying of AIDs, a very tough period in his life. Later, he found out he had a couple of granddaughters, with whom he is now very close.
“Bethann Hardison, a former model who created a management company for the field, is the only fashion icon who has been a guest of mine on the lake. She is one of the people responsible for diversity in the industry.”
Not surprisingly, Fern also loves the story of Iris Apfel. “She started a whole new life at 75, and is still going strong at 101. She and her husband had a fabric business that counted the White House among its clients.” They travelled. She shopped. He passed away. She retired. “The Metropolitan Museum had a mid year costume exhibit fall through and heard about her accessory collection. But, when they saw her stuff, they were overwhelmed, expanded the show and it put her on the map worldwide. She also had a variety of interesting fashion jobs before the textile business. She’s an inspiration: there’s still no stopping her.”
Or Fern. Her story is in the second book, too. In college, she won the prestigious Mademoiselle Guest Editor contest, worked at the magazine for six years, became Director at Gimbel’s East, then opened her own PR firm. “I believe everything is public relations,” she tells me, “connecting with the public and putting people together for the right reasons to tell their stories.” Besides, everyone was already calling her for advice. “I felt like I had ‘411’ on my forehead.”
In the ’90s, Fern heard the CFDA was looking for a new Executive Director and threw in her hat. Stan Herman was part of the search committee. “I can work with her,” he said. She was hired and he accepted the post of president. One year later, he rented her his guesthouse on the lake. Six years later, he found a house down the road for her to buy. They are close to this day.
The two weeks before she was about to start was “what they loosely called fashion week,” Fern recalled. “If there were 50 shows, there were 50 different locations.” Michael Kors had taken over an empty concrete space, which all the designers love. When the bass goes on in these shows, things tend to shake. The ceiling plaster came down onto the shoulders of Cindy, Naomi, Christy, Claudia, all the one-name super models. They brushed it off and kept walking. But, when it landed on the laps of fashion editors Carrie Donovan (NY Times) and Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), they wrote, ‘We live for fashion. We don’t want to die for it.’
“I realized it would be my mission to find safe, sound places to organize, centralize and modernize fashion shows. I started dialing for dollars and we made Fashion Week into a village of tents in Bryant Park. I ran it for almost 20 years. First, as director of CFDA and 7th on Sixth and the second ten for IMG, when they purchased it, as Sr. VP of Fashion.” They took it globally, with Fern as Fashion Ambassador, to LA, Miami, Mumbai, Moscow, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, and Singapore. “It was a magical time,” she told me.
The tents, her Camelot, are gone. “Now Fashion Week is decentralized,” Fern continued. “It’s all over the place: Brooklyn, Harlem, Tribeca.”
What else has changed? “You used to look to magazine editors and retailers for fashion counsel,” Fern replied “Now, because of social media influencers, everybody’s got an opinion. People are hired because of how many followers they have. I don’t even recognize the front row anymore.”
That’s OK. Fern keeps up. “I have a very active and prolific Instagram of almost 55,000,” she told me. “But, I’m not interested in learning how to do TickTock.” She took a beat. “I shouldn’t say that. Let’s just say at the moment, I’m not doing a dance routine for 30 seconds.” But Fern likes to reinvent. You never know.
What’s the same?
“Every year, people say, ‘Fashion’s over: nobody cares.’ And every year people kill to get into the shows. Fashion changes. It evolves. It has its ups and downs. But, it’s not going anywhere.”
Well, I was going somewhere … to an opening at Sotheby’s East Hampton for the uber-trendy British jewelry designer Solange Azagury-Partridge. “She’s one of my favorites,” Fern told me and forwarded an invitation.
It was a Mallis sister act. In London, Solange had been close to Fern’s late sister, Joanne Lampley Metcalf, who put them together when Solange opened a Madison Avenue outpost. “Fern was an amazing support to me from the moment I arrived,” Azagury-Partridge told me. “She introduced me to people and was so kind and friendly during the 12 years my store was around her corner.”
Solange uses precious stones and metals in whimsical designs, diamond rings that spin or hang in fringes, for example. It’s also in the details. She set ruby rings in blackened white gold, lacquered red. Rock and movie stars (including Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore, Thandie Newton, Emma Watson and Sienna Miller) and hip creatives are clients.
“We have so many young friends because of her,” husband Murray Partridge, told me. “She’s amazing.” He wasn’t always known as her husband. He’s an advertisement director, a film and sometime TV writer and author of three books. He backed her original business. “And I keep reminding her!” he laughed.
The show was also a second generation sister act. Victoria Lampley Berens who runs the Stax Advisory, a jewelry consulting firm, was behind it. Sisters, Brooke Lampley, Chairman & Worldwide Head of Sales for Global Fine Art at Sotheby’s and Alexandra Metcalf, an artist courted by galleries all over the world, reunited in the Hamptons for the occasion.
They’re all brunette beauties living their best lives while venerating fashion, family and friends … just like Fern!
Photos: Joe Schildhorn/BFA.com (Nordstrom).