CFDA Reveals New Strategy

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NEW YORK, United States — It was the Fall of 2012, during Paris Fashion Week, and the CFDA’s chief executive Steven Kolb and president Diane von Furstenberg set off on their annual walk. “We generally discuss the year to come, but since 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the CFDA, there was a lot of reflection as well,” Kolb told BoF.

After all, the organisation has changed dramatically since he and von Furstenberg arrived in 2006. Membership has nearly doubled to about 450 designers, up from 250. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which was, then, still in its infancy, is now a high profile competition with its own cable television series. What’s more, in the intervening years, the CFDA has launched several scholarships, established the Fashion Incubator (a business development programme designed to support young designers in New York) and broadened the reach of the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative.

But von Furstenberg is thirsting for more. “It all goes so fast,” she told BoF. “The minute I’m proud of something, it’s already obsolete.” The legendary designer may have been being facetious, but she does raise an important question: what’s next for the CFDA and its members?

“When [Steven and I] first started, the first priority was to become a family,” von Furstenberg said. “We decided that it was time to go to professionals and put together a business plan.” Those professionals were a team from the elite management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which spent eight weeks last Spring interviewing the CFDA’s staff along with 82 industry leaders, including 20 designers and 16 chief executives, as well as publicists, editors and educators — everyone from Ralph Lauren to Anna Wintour to Mark Lee, chief executive of Barneys New York.

“[The] CFDA has brought fashion from an elite few in Paris and Milan to the American mass market,” said one chief executive-designer who was interviewed. “[The] CFDA fulfills its role of ensuring that young New York designers can actually succeed,” said another. But, of course, the feedback wasn’t all positive. “I need to push to hear from the CFDA. It should be the other way around,” said one chief executive. “CFDA helped raise the profile of fashion in the US. It is time to do so on a global scale,” a member added.

“[The mission] needed to be clarified,” said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, managing director at BCG. “We needed to paint a precise picture of what each member, and all of the stakeholders, get from the association.” Together, Kolb, von Furstenberg and BCG were able to distill the CFDA’s six-sentence mission statement, first cobbled together in the 1960s, into one clear line: “The mission of the CFDA is to strengthen the influence and success of American Fashion Designers in the global economy.” And to transform this mission into reality, the CFDA has decided to focus its initiatives on four strategic areas.

New York Fashion Week

Perhaps the most talked-about element to the CFDA’s new strategy will be their plan for revamping New York Fashion Week. Unlike in London, Paris and Milan, New York’s fashion week calendar lacks robust, centralised planning — industry veteran Ruth Finley still publishes the schedule, as she has been doing for almost 70 years — leading to a schedule which is overcrowded and challenging for industry professionals to navigate.

While the CFDA respects Finley’s role, it has, for the first time, become actively involved in scheduling and organising the event. “We have, over the last few seasons, very informally, been more involved in supporting her with the scheduling,” said Kolb. “This season, we have announced publicly that we have even tightened that relationship. We are collectively making decisions on where people are showing — we’re really in daily communication and conversation on that.”

This is in stark contrast to the hands-off approach that the CFDA has taken in the past. And while there are, undoubtedly, plans for the CFDA to eventually take full control of the calendar, Kolb insists that every designer will still have the right to show.

“I don’t think that will change, as long as you follow the rules and as long as you can find a spot that works and respects other people on the calendar,” he said. “It’s the entrepreneurial spirit of ‘anybody can make it.’” But there will be efforts to ensure things run more smoothly. “We can bring resources and knowledge and opportunity into the calendar.”

One big and currently missed opportunity is the simple act of distributing the calendar on the CFDA website, as well as via an app, which the CFDA says will enable users to sort by filters like neighbourhood and presentation format, and see the top 25 shows chosen each season by an anonymous group of editors and buyers.

The plan also calls for a more efficient physical experience. Currently, editors and buyers travel up and down the West Side Highway from Lincoln Center to Milk Studios, as well as to multiple offsite venues, without any official transportation. Taxis and private cars are expensive and slow, and most buses and trains don’t reach New York’s 10th and 11th Avenues, where many of the choice show venues are located. While there are no plans to launch a “fashion bus,” similar to those organised by European fashion weeks, there is talk of holding the shows at a more convenient and central location, like The Culture Shed at the Hudson Yards, along the Highline at 30th Street, which von Furstenberg wants to make the next “main hub” of fashion week, once it opens in 2017.

“What’s the value of a centralised venue? How do you make that meaningful to designers? That’s where Diane as an individual — and as the president of the CFDA and part of the Culture Shed board — comes in, and what the BCG study has helped us understand,” said Kolb. “We have been involved in advising and meeting with the architects and planners, so that they are already creating a venue and a facility that has elements that will lend themselves to a better fashion show.” That means things like making it easier to changeover a set and offer a better guest experience. “More efficiency will result in better execution,” added Kolb.

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