The move would come after von Furstenberg’s legendary 13-year tenure during which, working with CFDA chief executive officer Steven Kolb, she oversaw a period of unprecedented, heady growth for American fashion and the organization itself, followed by the current period of volatility triggered by seismic cultural changes within and outside of fashion.
“The truth is that we are in a moment of everything moving…” von Furstenberg told WWD in the fall. “It’s a very unsettling moment.”
The changing of the guard could happen as early as Tuesday, when the CFDA board meets to vote on Ford’s until now under-the-radar nomination.
When von Furstenberg was elected in 2006 to follow Stan Herman, WWD reported that her role would be to serve as the public face of the organization. She also had the mandate to galvanize the American fashion community and respond to members’ needs. She was to work closely with then-executive director Kolb, who joined in December 2005.
Assuming ratification, Ford would be the 11th person to hold the position titled president until several years ago, when the title was upgraded to chairman for von Furstenberg. The roster of presidents reads like a who’s who of American fashion, including, along with Herman, Sydney Wragge, Norman Norell, Oscar de la Renta, Herbert Kasper, Bill Blass, Mary McFadden, Perry Ellis and Carolyne Roehm.
Ford will bring a great deal to the position. Like von Furstenberg, he is one of fashion’s most glamorous personalities and a bona fide star. His ascent would indicate that the CFDA intends to continue as a high-profile presence, promoting not only its member designers, but also its own institutional role within the American industry and as its primary outward-facing representative.
He will likely take a broad-based view of his responsibilities. Ford has prided himself on being a commercial designer since long before that was considered a virtue. Though famous for upward of three decades, his business is still young, like those of many of the designers who make up the CFDA’s membership. He launched his eponymous brand with beauty in 2005, adding a men’s collection in 2007 and women’s for spring 2011, with the economy still in the throes of the 2008 economic crisis. He understands the challenges the industry poses to start-up and post-start-up businesses, and the daunting reality of competing globally at the luxury level, when much of the competition is funded by major European groups.
In that respect, Ford will bring a unique perspective to the CFDA leadership, having experienced both the might and vicissitudes of life within such a group. Beginning in 1994, he was famously creative director of Gucci, and later of Gucci Group, now Kering, during which time he designed the Gucci and Saint Laurent collections and evaluated designers for acquisition, securing Alexander McQueen (initially in partnership), Stella McCartney (also in partnership) and Tomas Maier for hire at Bottega Veneta. Though a great deal has changed in fashion and the world since Ford’s infamous exit from the Gucci Group, that international experience could prove invaluable as he works with the CFDA membership to develop council programs.
Ford will take over at a critical moment for American fashion. After reveling in something of a golden age from the mid-Nineties through the Aughts, during which the entire world seemed fascinated with its emergent young designer population, the U.S. industry has suffered a decline from global prominence, and many brands only recently considered industry darlings have faced serious woes. The technological revolution has impacted all aspects of the business, including intensifying the trend toward direct-to-consumer sales and marketing. The American industry is based primarily on a wholesale model. Conversion to direct-to-consumer has proven daunting for those still-developing businesses, especially in the face of competition from the major European houses, with their endless budgets for development of digital infrastructure and marketing.
Then there’s the conversation about the CFDA’s management of the fashion calendar and New York Fashion Week, a seemingly thankless job. While many showgoers would love to see the organization impose more stringent scheduling parameters on its membership, it adheres firmly to the tenet that grew out of the Boston Consulting Group study of several years ago, that “every brand must do what’s right for itself.” While this pits brands against many often-disgruntled showgoers, Kolb maintains that issuing dictates is not within the parameters of the CFDA’s authority.
“Fashion is not a police state brought by the CFDA…” he said last fall. “Our authority is based on information-sharing and supporting designers in what they think and offering opinions. We can’t fine or penalize someone. Ultimately, brands are going to do what they want to do.”
Whether Ford tries to modify that position is likely to evolve with time.
As for the CFDA Awards, earlier this month WWD reported that Swarovski and the CFDA will part ways after a 17-year run, with Swarovski not involved in the upcoming awards show, set for June 3. It had been the main sponsor of the industry event. In addition, Swarovski will no longer support the Emerging Designer Award and the Award for Positive Change. Kolb said he was in the process of finding new partners and sponsorships.
Together with Kolb, von Furstenberg has overseen tremendous expansion of the CFDA. The two have worked tirelessly to raise the profile of American fashion internationally, with programs such as Americans in Paris. They’ve nurtured the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, inaugurated in 2003 under Herman’s tenure, and at the height of the economic crisis, launched Fashion’s Night Out along with Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. Under their joint watch, the CFDA was on the front end of the model health initiative. It has delved into the sustainability issue and over the past several years has made increasing diversity, among the designer ranks as well as on the runway, a priority. All of these will be issues with which Ford will grapple, again, assuming he is elected on Tuesday.
If one takes von Furstenberg’s words to heart, Ford will take on a difficult but exciting challenge with big-picture ramifications.
“It’s beyond American fashion,” she said last year. “It’s that we live in such a fast-changing world. Everything — publishing, magazines closing, merging — it’s a very, very different scenery, and we are right in the middle of it. As an industry, it’s very important…that we all discuss it together and see how we can best help each other, but thinking that everybody has to do what is right for them.”
The lady knows her business. Surely Ford will take note.