In the global apparel and accessories world, few organisations command the same respect as the CFDA or Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Steven Kolb, the chief executive of an entity founded more than 50 years ago, with a membership in excess of 400 designers, was a guest of honour in the UAE last month at the inaugural season of Fashion Forward.
His presence set tongues wagging about the imminence of a similar trade council being established in the region as Dubai looks to secure its standing as a sector hub and trade gateway between East and West.
If and when we’ll see a comparable group of leading designers and business consultants join forces to foster the Middle East’s design talent, remains to be seen, muses Kolb.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “And I don’t know if I have the answer. I think what they need to develop here is an ‘ecosystem of fashion’. It’s all about connecting the areas of design, media, manufacturing, retail, international partners and stakeholders. That’s basically what CFDA does. Things such as that don’t happen overnight and it takes time to build a structure, it takes a real commitment. It’s like a start-up – you must have a solid business plan and see where that takes you.”
In the 1930s, the CFDA was the brainchild of Eleanor Lambert, an outspoken and prominent publicist in American fashion and interior design who strove to bring home-grown designers to the attention of the domestic and international audiences. In 1962, she formally established the organisation and remained an honorary member until her death in 2003. Since then, 11 presidents have taken up her cause, the creative pioneers Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass among them. The current serving head of the non-for-profit association is Diane von Furstenberg, with whom Kolb works closely to ensure burgeoning talent is supported and bilateral partnerships are forged.
“I always say, great things come from relationships,” says Kolb. “The CFDA is always looking to foster new partnerships around the world and having a more global presence is something we’re interested in. In talking to the [FFWD] team, it seemed like a great opportunity for me to come and start building that bridge.”
For Kolb, the UAE’s reputation for retail excellence in addition to its incrementing tourist numbers highlighted the potential to do business.
“For us, selling in a global economy is important, which works because the UAE is such a shopping hub,” he says. “American designers want to increase their sales distribution, so coming here and understanding the market better has helped me and it will, in turn, help those designers.”
The CFDA chief was in Dubai at the invitation of Bong Guerrero, the founder and chairman of Fashion Forward, which wrapped its first season to rave reviews last month.
“I would say it was seamless and I’m very proud,” he says. “The vibe was incredible, with all of the shows and talks at full capacity.”
On the topic of a similar establishment to the CFDA taking seed in the Emirates, Guerrero is optimistic yet practical.
“An industry body would work. But first, we’re looking to establish some kind of advisory council to create parameters and guidelines for fostering a home-grown fashion industry. You need to create a body of experts that have fashion as a priority and, hopefully, out of that a designers’ council will stem.”
Babak Golkar, the co-founder – along with his two brothers – of the luxury menswear label Emperor 1688, debuted an edited collection at FFWD this year. He echoes Guerro’s sentiment that an official body would give gravitas and credibility to the rapidly developing sector.
“Dubai is a retail capital with huge potential, but as a fashion industry we need recognition,” he says. “Good-quality products can be made here, we have amazing designers and pattern cutters, too – that all needs to be recognised. How to present it to a wider audience? Maybe the council [CFDA] could best advise and point us in the right direction.”
Close to Kolb’s heart is the charity work the CFDA carries out in tandem with its commercially focused activities. His advice, to any frontier market looking to safeguard its fashion industry long-term, is not to ignore the pressing concerns of the city and region in which it operates.
“Fashion can be perceived as superficial and cynics would say it has no depth,” he says. “But the truth of the matter is that creative people have real hearts, deep souls and care hugely about society and the issues affecting it.
“We [the CFDA] are basically two organisations. We’re the council and trade organisation which is our primary function and we also have a philanthropic foundation focused on issues that matter to the industry. We’ve raised upwards of US$50 million (Dh184m) for HIV/Aids programmes and similar amounts for breast cancer. We’ve also galvanised the industry to raise money for disaster relief. So any time you can use creativity to help others, it’s a very good thing.”
With his wealth of expertise and bulging contact book, would Kolb join forces with Guerrero and take up a seat on a regional committee in the UAE, if invited?
“I don’t know if I would accept a seat on the board, probably not,” he says. “What I would accept, however, is a deeper relationship as an adviser and collaborator – that seems more appropriate. I think the right board would consist of people from the region. They must be the ones to represent their own. But I’m happy to advise, council and be a best friend.”
• To further the position of fashion design as a recognised branch of American art and culture
• To advance artistic and professional industry standards
• To create design partnerships
• To support the growth of the US’s fashion industry
More than 400 designers have been invited to join the CFDA, including established names such as:
• Calvin Klein
• Donna Karan
• Tom Ford
• Tommy Hilfiger
• Lorraine Schwartz
Step in the right direction
We chat to Babak Golkar, the co-founder of the luxury menswear label Emperor 1688. Founded in 2007, the maison showed a collection at Fashion Forward
Why did you want to get involved in Fashion Forward?
We’re a regional brand with an international presence, selling in the US and Europe. Being based in Dubai, we needed a platform to show that. Fashion Forward seemed the most appropriate way to do it.
Is there something you’d like to see improved upon in season two?
It’s an evolution and Bong Guerrero [the founder and chairman] has been spot-on so far, so I’m sure he’ll continue to improve upon things. On my wish list might be to have a really great front row. The presence of big regional celebrities and singers would be -wonderful.
Has any business stemmed from your showing there?
Well, after the coverage we received, other fashion shows from the region have asked us to appear, from Jordan to Muscat and Saudi.
And will you appear?
No, it’s not on the cards yet.
• Check out the latest collection from Emperor 1688 at www.theemperor1688.com
‘We want to foster a home-grown fashion industry’
Bong Guerrero is the founder and chairman of Fashion Forward (FFWD). He shares his thoughts on the debut season of the event in Dubai.
What lessons were learnt in the event’s execution?
There’s always room for improvement. Season two will have an even bigger participation and I’m sure the debriefs in the coming weeks will help us make it even better.
Will you look to secure a big headline act? An opening or closing show from a regional name such as Elie Saab or Reem Acra, for example?
In the UAE, when you do something really worthwhile, the big names will ultimately be attracted. We’re all about showcasing the best from the region and we’re already in talks about potential collaborations with international organisations to ensure FFWD has a constant exchange flow of talent from different markets.
Can you name names?
I’d rather not say yet. One thing we never want to do is overpromise. We feel things will happen organically at the right time.
Are you tired of the questions about, and comparisons to, Dubai Fashion Week?
In a way, yes. I just think that there should be no comparison. We’ve really delivered something different and our aim is to reach a point where it will have commercial objectives at the highest level. We’ll get there eventually but there’s a lot of learning to be done. Our designers are flexing their muscles and are continually upping their game. They are so talented, as demonstrated in the shows, so I believe we have the chance of being a successful international event.
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