There’s nothing in her manner to suggest it, but Fern Mallis is kind of a big deal on the international fashion scene. She’s the social dynamo fashion bodies clap for when they want a fashion week to become permanent fixtures on a city’s social calendar. She did that for New York and she did it for Mumbai too. She is a galvanising force for marriages between fashion and philanthropy with such institutions and movements as Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign, Design Industry’s Foundation Fighting Aids and the Red Dress initiative for Women’s Heart Disease. She has been the director of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), managed her own PR company and judged reality shows. She’s been in plays about fashion and now has her own consulting company.
“I seem to have 411 written on my forehead,” she says about why she opened her own PR firm many years ago. 411 is what you dial in America for information. “If people have a question about fashion, they call me up. I was always connecting people, helping them partner up, making introductions. I would also think, ‘What next?’ when thinking of a job change.”
She was in Mumbai last week to promote her new book — Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis — which is a collection of the interviews she conducts at 92nd Street Y, a non-profit cultural body in New York. Only Mallis could get Vera Wang, Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenberg to have long, intimate conversations that become mini biographies. She’s the only force that can get photographer Bill Cunningham to talk in front of a live audience about why he keeps the milk in an ice box with his film and why he wouldn’t watch the documentary made on him.
Her choice of ensemble in Mumbai is a representation of all her eclectic talents and interests. It’s an Aarti Vijay Gupta shirt, with cascades of chains, charms, skulls down the neck. On one hand she wears a Kutchi beadwork bracelet. “I have a fluid sense of fashion and like shopping in smaller places that keep a good mix. I especially like buying pieces that tell the story of where they were made,” she says. In this aesthetic, throw in the Kallol Dutta tunics and prints she’s particularly fond of.
Mallis’s Mumbai connection was as senior vice-president of IMG which had teamed up with Lakmé to build the city’s fashion week. From 2001 to 2010, she helped grow the event from a small industry meeting at the Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba to a social event that the glitterati would drive to the suburbs for.
“I remember Mumbai in 2001 for the first fashion week when I joined IMG. I landed in the middle of the night and drove straight to the Taj, which was as busy as the Grand Central,” she says. “The grand staircase had been turned into an art installation and Tarun Tahiliani and Anamika Khanna were some of the first people to show. A few years later, I saw Sabyasachi’s (Mukherjee) first collection and thought, ‘Wow. This is really something special.’ In those days, many shows were just mostly traditional wear.”
That was more than a decade ago and major part of her work was corralling the independent designers into an industry and setting systems and processes for the business — introducing foreign media and buyers to our designers, teaching designers how to label garments and size them; navigating import-export laws and so on.
Mallis herself wanted to be a fashion designer, but did a liberal arts degree on her father’s suggestion. She then landed a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. “It was a very prestigious position,” she says. “Sylvia Plath had once held the post (and it served as the basis for The Bell Jar) and if the contest were held today, it would be equivalent of a reality show today. College girls from all over the country living together, editing the famous September issue. And after the one month experience for the 20 winner, some of us went back to finish school and I was the only one hired by the magazine.”
Her strong belief that fashion should power charity is apparent in the way she brought her audience’s attention to designer Kenneth Cole’s work for AIDS at a time when nobody wanted to talk about it. “This was in the late 70s and early 80s,” she says. “No one was talking about this disease because it was transmitted sexually and through needles. And the people who were dying were our friends and colleagues in the industry.”
As a celebrity interviewer, Mallis has a peculiar way of starting her interviews. First she confirms the interviewee’s birth date. Then the star sign. Then she lists the qualities associates the qualities of the star sign for her subject to agree or disagree with.
“It’s a warm, friendly approach. It makes people comfortable to talk about their family, siblings, their first jobs…” she says. “It also humanises them. These names are familiar on clothes labels of multi-million dollar companies. I want to talk about their interesting lives, challenges and legacy. My questions are personal but not intrusive. I don’t want my guests to be caught on the spot, muttering under their breath ‘why are you asking me that?’.”
So do designers have a common hubris? “Not really. But I found that grandmothers play an important role in their lives,” says the Aries (we had to know her sun sign after all). “Very many of them said they were inspired by their grandmothers.”
And is she a typical Aries? “Well, they are famous for starting many things and not so much for finishing them. I guess that’s true about me some of the time…”