Steven Kolb on the CFDA Awards and Accidentally Getting into Fashion

Steven Kolb
Photo: Patrick McMullan
Steven Kolb.

You know all there is to know about the CFDA Fashion Award nominees (and if you don't, you can brush up here and here), but what about the man behind the Council of Fashion Designers of America?

Steven Kolb may be the executive director of the center of all things fashion in America, but the self-proclaimed “accidental fashion drone” didn't grow up reading Vogue or idolizing Yves Saint Laurent. Instead, he's a former non-profit exec who's put in time as the executive director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, which gets youth groups involved with HIV and AIDS awareness, education and prevention campaigns. Prior to MTV, Kolb served as the senior associate director of DIFFA, Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS.

FashionEtc chatted with Kolb about his unlikely status as a fashion guy, his fantasy of owning a bike repair shop, and why the next generation of designers in America might just be the most important yet.

First things first. Tell us about your background and how you came to be the executive director of the CFDA!

Non-profits are my background, and I was hired because of that. When Peter Arnold left, they were interviewing a lot of people—key fashion people—but they weren’t really striking on anybody that they thought could run the organization like a business, which it is. Lisa Smilor, who’s been here 15 years, is someone I had worked with at DIFFA, and she suggested that they call me. Nobody in fashion knew who I was. But Diane [von Furstenberg] and Stan [Herman] liked me because they saw me as someone who could come in and not get caught up in the glamour and fashion part of things.

You call yourself an “accidental fashion drone” in your Twitter bio—what do you mean?

I feel really lucky I ended up here. It’s really fascinating to be surrounded by creative people. I’m creative in some things, but I don’t think like that, and I’m really inspired when I’m around people like that. But we’re a trade organization and my background had always been non-profits for social issues—particularly HIV and AIDS. Did I want to make that shift? One great thing about working here is the CFDA Foundation, which includes Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and work for HIV and AIDS. We did a tee for Haiti, the auction for Japan, and I’m glad that piece is still part of my work.

One thing I know for sure—and I have no plans to go anywhere—but when I walk away from fashion, I’m done. There’s this hierarchy in fashion over things like where you sit and what you’re invited to. I’m lucky that I get invited to things and have good seats, but if I never go to another fashion show again, that will be okay.

What would you do after leaving the fashion industry?

My fantasy would be to open a bicycle shop in Provincetown and fix bicycles. And I am not a handyman!

Was anything in fashion surprising for you?

Not necessarily surprising, but what was refreshing was the substance in the industry. It can be perceived as very surface and appearance-oriented, but there’s a lot of depth. There are people who really care, and who’re really smart and strategic.

So it was accidental, but do you consider yourself a fashion person now?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the fact that I can wear certain things and have access to designers and dress up. So many designers have been so supportive of me, and I really like what they do.

I wear glasses, and [eyewear designer] Selima helped me understand if you’re going to wear glasses all the time, you have to up your game—and now I’m on my sixth pair [of Selimas]. Clothing and much of what we do has this function about it, and that’s how I saw eyewear, but she made me see the light—pun intended. I like it.

When Marcus [Wainwright] and David [Neville] from Rag & Bone were a young brand, I was lucky to be exposed to them. Now when I see a guy wearing Rag & Bone among my friends who don’t work in fashion, it’s kind of gratifying.

What's your working relationship like with CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg?

We work pretty closely. We’re a team. We both started at the same time, more or less, and for someone so busy, she’s incredibly accessible. We email back and forth many times during the day. She travels but even when she’s away on her boat, she’s in touch. She trusts me completely to do my job and run the organization. She’s not just reactive, but proactive with ideas and things. I’m so lucky the industry has her as our president. She’s really helped propel us to become this very important, leading organization.

Her third term as president is up at the end of next year. Any thoughts on who could replace her? 

That’s actually a big to-do item on the list! But it’s too soon for me to contemplate or think about it.

It’s our 50th anniversary in 2012, and we’ve all been working on stuff for 2012. We’re doing a major exhibit at FIT and accompanying book called Impact. In preparation of the anniversary, I read every set of minutes form 1962 to today, and it’s so fascinating to have done that because early on they were these hand-typed, yellowed, musty paper-minutes bound in books, and you see how that progresses to where now it’s all electronic. When you look at the history of the CFDA and the names that were involved—not just Stan Herman, but names like Bill Blass, who was president; Oscar de la Renta, who was the president twice; Perry Ellis who was the president; and others, so many people played a leadership role in this organization.

I think the next 50 years is going to be about more involvement from the next generation, the people we’ve worked so hard to nurture. That eventually is the direction we’re going in.

Speaking of the next generation, the CFDA Fashion Award nominees seem so young this year—why do you think that is?

I think it’s a lot to do with the CFDA and what we’ve done to support young designers—most importantly with Anna Wintour and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. That has brought New York, competitively, to it’s strongest place on a global fashion stage, ever. There was a time when New York was really just a commercial market stop. Now there’s so much new talent and innovation. We have over 250 shows during Fashion Week—way too many, actually! But look at the likes of Rodarte, Sophie Theallet, Thakoon, Rag & Bone—they’re now this exciting face of American fashion.

We’ve identified, embraced, mentored; now we have the Fashion Incubator—I think we’ve helped each other in a very American way. DvF has said that when she goes overseas and meets international counterparts, they say they wish they had a CFDA.

But as far as the age thing goes: It’s not really a shift, it’s an expansion. Ralph, Donna, Oscar, Calvin, and Diane are as relevant today as they were 15 years ago. We’re just adding new designers and expanding.

You’ve talked a little bit about the CFDA’s Fashion Incubator, the Vogue Fashion Fund, and the Fashion Awards—do you have a favorite project or initiative?

I like it all, but I’m very proud of the books that we’ve done. The first one, when I started, was American Fashion, and now we’ve done books on menswear, womenswear, accessories, lifestyle, travel, a cookbook, and designers’ homes.

I take a lot of credit for pushing to become less of an insular industry and more of a public-facing organization. We’ve created a unified editorial voice of members that people can connect to. Those kinds of marketing outreach things, I find them fun; they broaden our mission. I always get charged when I see one of our books, say, in Anthropologie in Chelsea market—I like seeing that extension. It’s about staying close to our core, but expanding and making the inner workings more public.

What’s a typical day like for you?

It depends. I usually get here about 8 and stay until about 7, and there’s always something at night that I should go to. I’m not a really big social person—it’s the least favorite part of my job—but I do it. When one fashion week is over, we’re already working with the fashion calendar and IMG and MAC and Milk on the next one, meeting with current and prospective members, and I do a lot of fundraising, like pitches with corporate partners.

The CFDA has become like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval—if someone wants to do something in fashion, they come here because they know it’s the most authentic place to leverage their platform at a level of excellence and integrity. We’re constantly putting together new projects. Our existence is here for the industry. It’s about vision, the bigger picture, the next 50 years.

The CFDA Fashion Awards are just days away. How do you feel about this year’s nominees?

As you said, it’s a young group, so I’m exited to see how the nominating committee has recognized that and are celebrating that. Many were first nominated for the Swarovski award and are now in the main category, which is very fitting on the 10th anniversary of Swarovski's involvement. That’s very exciting.

Having Anderson Cooper, who’s a very well-respected commentator and personality, as the host brings us to another level as well. It feels like a great mix. Anderson, great honorees…and Lady Gaga!

I know the industry nominates and votes for the winners, but do you have veto power or any pull like that?

No, no. The top three names are the top three names that people vote for. In the special honor categories, we tell the nominating committee to tell us who they think deserves it, and it makes sense, but the board has the discretion to determine that. I’m not a voting board member, though, and usually it reflects what the wider industry is thinking anyway.

Like any awards program, there’s a little bit of politicking that happens, but I don’t get involved.

The thing about the CFDA Awards is that it’s very deliberate. Once the voting goes back out to the committee, all the ballots go straight to the accounting firm, Ernst & Young—it’s all independent from the CFDA. There’s no tampering of votes, and it’s out of the board’s hands.

The Friday before, we’ll know the final tabulation, but I’m the only person that knows that—that’s just because someone needs to make sure the envelopes are written out right! One year, there was a tie between Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Schouler. Ellen Barkin was presenting, and she only said Oscar’s name, so I had to dart across the stage to make sure she called both!

So who are you rooting for at this year’s awards?

I’m not going to tell you that!

Okay, well, will you tell us who you’re wearing?

I don’t typically pick a nominee, because that might show favoritism. This year I’m going to wear a suit from Richard Chai, a head-to-toe look. He had some ideas of things that I typically wouldn’t wear, but I trust him. It’s all in his hands!