Writer Alessandra Codinha sits down with fashion industry legend Fern Mallis to discuss her latest book, “Fashion Icons 2,” which is a compilation of interviews from her celebrated interview series at New York’s 92nd Street Y.
Alessandra Codinha: Fern, you’ve had such an incredible, wide-ranging career: magazines, merchandising, PR, you led the CFDA, you started New York Fashion Week in all its modern glory. And now your Fashion Icons series at the 92nd Street Y is a book series. Congratulations!
Fern Mallis: Thank you. I really am as proud of this series as I am of having created fashion week. This is the definitive interview with so many of the most fabulous people in and around our industry. We did the last interview with Oscar de la Renta before he died. So many of these people do such terrific work, and for the most part we don’t ever hear them. We know names and we see them on labels but it’s something else to hear the highs and lows and who they really are.
AC: Was it obvious from a young age that you were going to have a career in fashion?
FM: Does it count that I was voted best-dressed in my high school?
AC: Absolutely, it does.
FM: It was a big school, too. My father and his brothers were in the fashion industry, so I grew up a child of the garment district. He was in scarves, so I had more scarves than anybody could imagine. I knew how to tie them 800 ways. If this was today, I probably could have had a viral Tik Tok account about how to tie scarves. And then in college I won Mademoiselle’s guest editor competition, and I started working after that. It led to a very meaningful career in fashion that led to creating the tents at Bryant Park, which will probably be on my tombstone.
FM: I’d rather it be on a bench in Bryant Park.
AC: Do any favorite moments from the series stand out?
FM: Almost every single one of them. Valentino was just so charming—such an elegant man—and there was one moment when he turned and looked at me and said “I think I tell you more than I tell anybody ever. I think I have to tell you what kind of underwear I’m wearing!” And I said “Yes! Please, tell us!” The audience loved it. I loved talking to Leonard Lauder. What an extraordinary man. He said “Don’t ever make an important business decision without a woman at the table.” I loved the way he talked about building all these businesses and putting women into positions of power. At the end of our interview he said: “We should take this on the road!” Victoria Beckham, who everyone said would never smile at all, smiled and laughed through her whole interview. Bob Mackie talked about his son who passed away from AIDS and how, 20 years later, he found out he had a granddaughter, and now he has great-granddaughters. It was a very special, meaningful moment to hear about
AC: Did you know off the bat that you’d be such a good interviewer?
FM: I was nervous at the very beginning. Out of the gate we got Norma Kamali and Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and Tommy, and Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. Norma was my first interview. We’d been friends for 40 years, so I felt safe and I could cut my teeth on it. Because I know these people, I’ve been in the trenches with them, there’s a comfort factor. I make it clear: I’m not the SEC, I’m not the Wall Street Journal, I’m not trying to find out the dirt behind the business. I talk to them about when they were born, where they grew up, about their parents and how their parents met, what home was like and their bedroom and their siblings and where they went to school. I also start all of them with horoscopes. It’s a bar opener—it just breaks the ice a little bit. But it’s really about the early stuff and family stories—Tim Gunn getting bullied growing up; Tom Ford carrying a briefcase because a backpack was too sloppy.
AC: Were you surprised when the series was such a success?
FM: This was one thing I did not have in my dreams, but God knows it worked out beautifully. Ten years later, it’s still going strong. Next round coming up we have Bobbi Brown, Christy Turlington Burns and Tory Burch. We have enough interviews already to do books three and four. We’re working on adapting the first into a streaming series. And we’ve got the series at the Y still going on, so, you know, this could go on forever. God knows.
AC: What would your advice be to someone who was aspiring to a career in the fashion industry?
FM: That’s usually my last question to a designer in my interviews. They all have very different answers. My advice is to read these books: how every one of these designers have been in that kind of position, how they started and what they had to do to persevere, what they had to do to get the funding or what they did when they went bankrupt. That’s pretty much what all of them are about: how do you do this, how do you become this. It really is the advice. I always tell young people: become a sponge. Take it all in. Just listen, and learn. Go to the theater, go to museums, absorb all that, get away from your computer. There’s a world out there. I think the books are the best lesson for anybody.