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Fern Mallis Dishes on Her New Book ‘Fashion Lives’

Michael Kors and Fern Mallis

Michael Kors and Fern Mallis; Image: Courtesy of Rizzoli Books

If you’ve ever been to one of Fern Mallis‘ “Fashion Icons” interviews at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, you know that nothing is off-limits. Since 2011, the award-winning curator of New York Fashion Week has conducted in-depth and entertaining interviews with some of the most prestigious talents in the fashion industry, including Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Tom Ford and more. Nineteen of those no-holds-barred interviews have been gathered into a new, 448-page coffee table book called Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis, set to launch tomorrow, April 14. Coming up, the book will be featured in 16 windows at Saks Fifth Avenue from April 20 to April 27. 

theFashionSpot: Let’s start with the beginning, Fern. Ralph Lauren penned the forward to your book. Was that his idea or yours?

Fern Mallis: I asked him because he has not yet agreed to sit down with me at the Y and have a full-on interview. I’ve done some other things with Ralph, and always been a huge fan. We have a nice, mutual admiration. Since this book is about fashion icons, I thought he needed to be represented in one way or another.

tFS: Who else has been a challenge to book for your “Fashion Icons” talks?

FM: Scheduling and timing is what’s really difficult. In the fashion world, September is off-limits because everyone is working on shows. In October, some of the Europeans aren’t available. December is the holidays and then the fashion cycle starts all over again. People think I can just invite anyone anytime when they’re available. But the Y is booked 360 nights a year. They have so many great programs. 

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham; Image: Courtesy of Rizzoli Books

tFS: We remember you asked Bill Cunningham quite a few times to be interviewed. Was that about scheduling?

FM: That was about Bill not wanting to do it. I have to coerce and romance some people into it. Bill didn’t want to do it because he was not happy about the documentary about his life. It made him too public. He felt like he couldn’t hide and do the work he wanted to do; people kept stopping to talk with him everywhere. Luckily, he spilled a drink on me, so I got him to do it. 

tFS: Do you ever get emotional during your interviews?

FM: With Bill, there was a little bit of that. Diane’s [von Furstenberg] story about her mother and the concentration camps always takes your breath away. And with Betsey [Johnson]. I got a little emotional when she told the story about when she got breast cancer during the time I was the director of the CFDA. The only person who knew at the time was her daughter, Lulu. Then she came to see me at my office because we had asked her to work with us on one of our General Motors cars, which we did to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. She was afraid to admit she was dealing with that. When she told me, we both were crying and hugging. Every time she tells the story, I get a lump in my throat.

tFS: Before you go in front of your audience, do you hang out with the guests?

FM: With most of them, I try to have a meeting or a phone call a couple of days before to make sure they understand the procedure and timing. And I ask what’s off-limits because it’s not my intent to embarrass anyone or bring up something that would make them give me a cross-eyed look. But I don’t share my questions or the information I put together. About an hour before we go on stage, we all sit and relax. They all crack up at the Y because our audience takes the longest to sit down since they all know each other.

tFS: Are there moments on stage that stand out for you?

FM: Every interview has something that stands out to me, and I can’t say I have a favorite. But Norma Kamali was the first interview I did. I’ve known her for years, and she’s delightful. She’s an incredible talent. The whole thing was so honest and forthcoming. I also love just learning things I never knew about people.

Marc Jacobs and Fern Mallis

Marc Jacobs and Fern Mallis; Image: Courtesy of Rizzoli Books

tFS: Like what?

FM: Like learning that Marc Jacobs‘ father was an agent at William Morris and represented Joan Rivers. Marc said that later in his life when he was meeting Barry Diller and all the Hollywood guys, they’d say to him, “‘Oh, you’re Steve Jacobs’ son!'” That’s remarkable.

tFS: Some people are easier to interview than others. Is there one person who was more challenging for you?

FM: Lauren Hutton was challenging. She was all over the place. She started off by demonstrating how to wrestle a snake. Later she asked me if she could have a cigarette. Then she kept saying the lights were wrong. At one point, she looked out into the audience and asked them if they had any questions for her. I said, “I’ve been trying to ask you questions all night!” The whole tenure of the thing was kind of amusing. Anyone who was there and saw me said I earned my keep that night.

Polly Mellen

Polly Mellen; Image: Courtesy of Rizzoli Books

tFS: Who’s been a big audience pleaser so far?

FM: There are so many! Polly Mellen was the first one who got a standing ovation before she even said a word. Later on, the same thing happened to Bill Cunningham.

tFS: What have you learned about yourself during your “Fashion Icons” interviews?

FM: I’ve gained a certain amount of confidence that I can do this; I never thought I could. Like when Valentino [Garavani] agreed to do it. I was really nervous. But it turned out to be a charming interview. 

tFS: In the beginning, did you watch other interviewers to study their technique?

FM: Not specifically, but I’m conscious of it. I’ve always watched Charlie Rose and Barbara Walters. Howard Stern is a great interviewer; he gets you off your guard when you listen to him. I’m a little bit of a combination of Barbara, Oprah and James Lipton. I feel that my series is very similar to James Lipton’s format.

tFS: During Fashion Week, your comments about Kanye’s work and his subsequent tweets went viral. Did it shock you that people were so interested?

FM: I’m completely baffled on how viral it went. I wasn’t saying anything negative about him. It was just my personal opinion. He wrote back in the middle of the night and then his team weighed in. So, I thought he should come to the Y and share his fashion philosophy with everyone and his ideas about being a designer. His team got in touch with us, said he was interested and asked for a formal invitation.

tFS: Did you send Kanye a formal invite?

FM: We did. We’re waiting to see if he’ll accept the invitation. I think they’re just back from traveling; I think he’s interested.

tFS: What can we expect from the series going forward?

FM: More and better! Also more international people. My whole career has been about celebrating creative people and the work they do, and yet always feeling that you never really got to hear their voice or who they were. Now we can. Hopefully, there will be a second book soon!

Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis

Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis; Image: Courtesy of Rizzoli Books

Catch Fern Mallis on this season of theFashionDish on theFashionSpot!