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Steven Kolb: At the Heart of Fashion

Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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from the pages of AVENUE’s September issue


Steven Kolb is promoted to big man on fashion’s campus, and is devoted to giving back


by Martin Marks   

photographed by Sophie Elgort


If fashion is about appearance, then the calm, soft-spoken man who commands a central role in what could be called the nexus of the style monde seems in contrast with the fast-paced, frenzied fashion industry. “When I first started, Stan Herman liked to joke that I knew nothing about fashion,” says Steven Kolb, the bespectacled ringmaster of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who has been described, almost universally, as being the nicest guy in the industry. “To some extent that might be true, but one of the great perks of my job has been getting to meet and work with designers, and getting to see what they do and how they create,” admits Kolb, who spent several years as the Executive Director of the CFDA and was recently named the organization’s CEO—a major promotion. “It’s a nice validation, and another tool to do what we do on a day-to-day basis,” says Kolb.

With the colorful quilt of postcards, pictures and notes tacked up behind his desk serving as

a backdrop, and an almost bookish sense of glee, Kolb explains the CFDA’s mission: “As an organization, we’re actually two in one, a 501(c)(6) trade organization and a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.” But these indecipherable tax codes don’t do the CFDA justice. As a charity, they’ve raised nearly $50 million for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and $30 million for the New York City AIDS Fund. As a trade organization, CFDA’s roster encompasses a who’s who of American fashion. It is an authority and a voice for its inventory of more than

400 members, presenting American designers to the public, and the public to American designers. Moreover, it is also a community, with a series of funds, initiatives, awards, scholarships, development programs and strategic partnerships meant to foster creative talent—both established and emerging.


Indeed, one of Kolb’s latest tasks has been overseeing the CFDA’s incoming freshmen class of 33 designers—the largest in CFDA history. One of those new members, Fenton/Fallon jewelry designer Dana Lorenz, recalls first approaching Kolb about becoming more involved with the CFDA. “When I was younger, I’d read about fashion, and think that these were some really powerful people,” remembers Lorenz. “For someone who is one of the most important people in our industry, Steven’s remarkably down to earth, and he really is someone I can reach out and talk to.”


Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s, Kolb’s world was just about as far removed from the Seventh Avenue to Madison Avenue stretch—or the lunches with Ralph and emails from DVF—as one could be, even though his family lived just 45 minutes outside of Manhattan. He recalls his first trip into the city, for his sister’s birthday: “We came to see the Harlem Globetrotters at Madison Square Garden, and then went down to Chinatown for Chinese food.  I remember being on the subway thinking we stuck out as being very suburban,” he says. “It was one of the few times we came into New York as a family.”


When you imagine Kolb’s first fashionable moment, you half expect to hear musings on Halston, or a mid-1980s pair of Fiorucci jeans. But Kolb’s answer is decidedly appropriate for a man who, on both Twitter and Tumblr, has described himself as an “accidental fashion drone.” “In the fourth grade, I remember that I had an orange turtleneck with tan panels on it,” Kolb says with a laugh. “It’s true! I’m not making it up! I even remember my teacher commenting on it!”


The idea of working for fashion never really seemed to be on Kolb’s radar. As a communications major who eventually earned a master’s degree in public administration from New York University, Kolb became involved with the non-profit sector at an early age, as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and at a crisis intervention hotline. When he graduated from college, his path in non-profits seemed to have already been paved.


For many years, he worked for the American Cancer Society of New Jersey because “HIV and AIDS was pretty brutal at that time,” he says. “I felt that I could take what I was doing and apply it to something more personal.” This led to a 15-year stint at the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, which, through its outreach, changed the direction of how people

in the city were responding to the epidemic. A friend at MTV who was the Executive Director of LIFEbeat—a music organization dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS—was looking for someone to head up an organization that would create marketing campaigns to raise awareness of the disease. Thus began Kolb’s work with the Staying Alive Foundation

and the start-up tasks of filing all the paperwork, creating a charter, putting together a board and setting up a grant process.


At the time, Kolb had never set foot in a Fashion Week tent. Therefore, it would seem unlikely that the search committee looking to fill CFDA’s Executive Director position would make a call to Kolb. But while he was at DIFFA, he had worked with CFDA’s Lisa Smilor; Smilor remembered him, and suggested that the search committee get in touch with Kolb about the position. Around the interview table sat Diane von Furstenberg, Stan Herman and Geoffrey Banks, among others. Though most would be daunted by these fashion heavyweights, Kolb recalls it being a relaxed conversation, with von Furstenberg asking the last question: “What’s your sign?” Kolb answered (Libra), and, for reasons falling outside the realm of the zodiac, he got the job. “I think it was because I wasn’t coming from a pure fashion background,” he reasons.


These days, Kolb seems to be far removed from the orange-turtleneck-with-tan-panels. He defines his style as being “disheveled American, because I’m always wearing an American designer and there’s always something just a little messy, whether it’s my hair, or my shirt.”

Sitting at his desk, Kolb is true to the definition of his style, dressed from head-to-toe in CFDA designers: a handsome navy suit by Andrew Buckler; a Band of Outsiders tie; a blue J.Crew shirt, its sleeves punctuated with Michael Spirito cufflinks; eyewear by Salima Salaun (“When I started wearing glasses, she kind of intervened with an upgrade,” Kolb confesses.); and shoes by L.A.-based cobbler George Esquivel.


“People look at fashion and think it’s all about appearance,” says Kolb. “But there’s a depth to fashion that goes beyond how someone looks, that goes beyond appearance or style. Real style is about the giving, and the connection to issues that are important to us as individuals. There really is a heart to fashion.”


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