Fashion insider Fern Mallis, 74, r-e-a-l-l-y knows how to get people to open up about themselves. And the longtime Southampton resident has proved that point 61 times at her hotly attended, in-depth conversation series “Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis” at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, featuring the fashion industry’s most fascinating personalities.
The live talks, have, to some extent, served as a reinvention of Mallis, who is sometimes referred to as “fashion’s fairy godmother.” As executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), she created New York Fashion Week in 1993 and helmed it for some 20 years before exiting. A decade ago, she began the series and in 2015, published her conversations in the bestseller “Fashion Icons 1.”
In May, “Fashion Icons 2: Fashion Lives With Fern Mallis” (Rizzoli, $60) was released recapping 15 no-holds-barred conversations with the likes of Valentino Garavani, Victoria Beckham, Christian Siriano and Billy Porter. Busy, busy, we were happy to nab Mallis for an interview.
What motivated you to do the second “Fashion Icons” book?
While everybody else was making sourdough and banana bread during the depths of the pandemic, I decided to write the book (laughs). Thankfully I have a magical house on Big Fresh Pond in Southampton. And for 18 months I stayed there. It was actually a splendid time. I have a small pod of dear friends there, and I wasn’t distracted. This was a perfect time to look back on the conversations. Many of them were about reinventing themselves in stressful times, so it seemed their stories were more relevant than ever.
How did the whole “Fashion Icons” thing come about in the first place?
After I left New York Fashion Week, I took the year off. That was the “coffee phase” of my life. The phone started ringing and people were asking, “I have a new project. Can I take you out for a cup of coffee?” … I was asked if I would be interested in speaking on fashion culture at the 92Y. I was like, “I think I could string together some intelligent questions.” My first conversation was with Norma Kamali, a great old friend and one of the most talented designers in the world. Then Calvin Klein came. He really opened the doors for me. He was followed by Donna (Karan), Betsey Johnson, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Michael Kors and I did the last major interview with Oscar de la Renta before he passed away. These days, I’ve advanced from coffees to lunches and some breakfasts (laughs).
How do you shake so much info out of these folks who dare to join you on stage?
I always begin by talking about their astrological sign, it’s a bar opener, an ice breaker. And it just disarms people in a funny way. People are surprised by the depth of research. Years ago, when I interviewed Isaac Mizrahi, he said, ‘My shrink is going to retire soon, he’s 90. I’m going to come to you next, you know more about my life than I do.’ And this time around, Valentino said that he never told anybody as much as he told me. He said, ‘Next I’ll be telling you what underwear I’m wearing.’ And I said, ‘please do.’
Have you ever been shocked or really surprised by the stuff people tell you at the talks?
Yes, when Tim Gunn talked about his suicide attempts when he was in high school and how he finally worked with a terrific doctor who got him past those traumatic years of not feeling worthy. Here’s a guy who’s loved by so many on television and became dean at one of the most prestigious fashion schools. He talked about something very, very personal. He didn’t share the story to be provocative, it’s was about hope and survival. Also, Bob Mackie talked about the heartbreaking moment of his son dying of AIDS and how years later he found out he has a granddaughter and great granddaughters who became very much part of his life.
Sheesh, I hope you’ve had some laughs too.
Billy Porter was a scream talking about how his first fashion runway was the aisle at church on Sunday morning and you could tell who did and who did not have a good night by how they were dressed and where they sat. Arthur Elgort just cracked me up. He is the most delicious man and so funny. He was constantly referring to his family who sat in the front row and he was asking for champagne. Iris Apfel talked about how she became an overnight success at the age of 72, she’s remarkable.
You have some amazing photos in the book. How do you find them?
I always ask for photos from the shoe box under the bed. For me it’s not finding the perfect collection picture from the runway because that’s not what these interviews are all about. I want pictures of your siblings, your house growing up, your parents. Those tell you so much more about somebody. One cool photo we have in the book relates to the interview with Victoria Beckham. Growing up her father drove her to school in a Rolls-Royce. She was embarrassed about it so she’d make him stop a block away. Her mom found a picture of Victoria and her sister sitting on top of the Rolls.
You launched the book at a star-studded a mega-fete at Nordstrom, reputed to be the party of the year. How’s it feeling to be Fern Mallis these days?
For an old broad like me, well it’s interesting to be in the place I am now. This is a reinvention to me, and I love what I’m doing and the conversations. The Nordstrom event just blew me away. Who ever thought that people would be eating cookies and cakes with my face on them?! (Laughs.) Life is good.