Stan Herman Offers Eagle-eye View of CFDA – WWD


Having first joined the Council of Fashion Designers of America in the 1960s, Stan Herman was a familiar face within the organization and on Seventh Avenue. Yet his 1991 ascension to the post of president prompted the WWD headline, “Stan Who?”

Decades later, at age 93, the designer readily offered up that recollection with a laugh in an interview as testimony to some of the obstacles that he encountered along the way. Without question, Herman, who served as president from 1991 to 2006, remains the industry’s elder statesman, always willing to give context to whatever issues or struggles are at hand — more often than not with a dash of humor. His all-are-welcome approach to running the organization was not embraced by some of the CFDA’s more revered, and moneyed, members, but Herman soldiered on.

His marching orders were clear from the start. After being elected following a four-and-a-half month search, he told WWD, “The membership feels a change in direction coming on in the ’90s. We feel we can really do some marvelous things, such as last year’s Seventh on Sale AIDS benefit. We’re also trying to reevaluate our goals, our awards and how they’ll be presented, and how we represent ourselves in the industry.”

Still playing tennis twice a week — even after a summer bout with COVID-19 — and designing and selling a line on QVC, Herman’s vigor for the CFDA hasn’t waned either. The way he sees it, the CFDA “represents a very important block of people. Hundreds and hundreds of designers over the years have given their whole lives to designing for America and to the world. We have no other organization like it. It has a legendary beginning and it has morphed into its own self in different ways. It’s remained relevant because it has a solid beginning. It’s not phony. It’s a grassroots organization in an industry that was never known to act together or to work together.”

More specifically, in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s designers and independent businesses were much more secretive in what was then “a mom-and-pop world,” where designers acted like children, according to Herman. After Eleanor Lambert helped to make the CFDA a reality, designers started to grow and did not remain children, with some becoming big, big businesses while the CFDA remained their home base, he said.

Unlike the group’s current emphasis on inclusivity, that was not the case in the beginning. Somehow the fact that Lambert plucked members from her garden of clients worked for a while. “But the sheer exclusivity gave it an imprimatur that made almost every designer want to become a part of it,” said Herman, who joined in the late ’60s.

“For me, the CFDA became the humanization of an industry that could be quite inhuman. I am probably different than most designers. When I became a member, I was interested. I never missed a meeting. That’s my nature in everything I do. When I became president, I went to everything, every single meeting of every committee. I had the time to do it. I’m not saying it was better than Diane [von Furstenberg] or anyone else. It was the way I ran it.”

During his tenure, the organization was not as large as it is today. “The membership in discovering each other, liked each other. Our membership meetings were filled with hundreds. There was a lot of screaming and saying what they say now, but behind closed doors,” Herman said. “That was the beauty of the organization — you could air your grievances and move on.”

As a young upstart designer eager to join the fold, he was left on the outside looking in for four or five years. Designing less expensive clothing for Mr. Mort may have been a factor. The founding board of directors — Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Molly Parnis and others — determined who was in and who was out. Herman even tried to go rogue at one point to try to pull together another group of young designers with the help of Alexander Julian. “We had a few meetings. We thought, ‘We don’t need the CFDA. Let’s do it on our own.’ But every time I turned around, the council had plucked one of our designers. So we lost our membership before we even started.”

Once he did make the cut for the CFDA, Herman was “happy as a clam,” especially to be able to talk to the more established designer members about “what the future might be.” In the ’60s, Blass, de la Renta, BH Wragge, Ben Zuckerman, Norman Norell and John Moore dominated the press and the press was controlled by Lambert. “Her press week made or broke a designer in terms of being accepted as an American designer,” he said.

The Coty Awards, the precursor to the CFDA Awards, were also created by Lambert, whose clients included Coty. “Smart lady that she was, she decided that Coty should become more important by giving awards to designers of the year. That’s how it started and that’s how it initially ended. She again was representing the CFDA and Coty. Oscar [de la Renta] was very much involved with Bill [Blass] and me in realizing Coty has gotten so big and important that it [the awards] should be a cleaner operation that we controlled ourselves,” Herman said.

Two hundred people turned out for the Coty Awards, which were held in a more intimate setting at the New York Public Library, and in later years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s auditorium. There were very little funds in the organization at that time except for what was made from the gala and those funds were automatically given to the museum, Herman said. “We were doing in a sense what Anna [Wintour of Condé Nast] is doing now [with the Met Gala and the Costume Institute]. We were supporting the museum in our own way through the amount [of ticket sales] that we got from the gala,” Herman said.

Initially, “very paternal and parochial,” the CFDA began to grow thanks largely to an influx of sportswear designers whose clothes were easily identifiable. So much so that Europeans took note. “America became an important member of the world of fashion, when the word ‘sport’ was put in to describe their clothing. American sportswear designers like Donna [Karan], Calvin [Klein] and Ralph [Lauren] changed the name of the game. They also became very important figures in the CFDA,” Herman said.

Another defining moment was the CFDA’s response to the AIDS crisis, which was championed by his predecessor, Carolyne Roehm. “Everybody was worried and we didn’t quite know what to do. Other organizations like DIFFA were doing big parties and raising money. Finally, our Seventh on Sale happened with Anna and Donna. And we raised $4.2 million [in the first New York sale and $2.5 million in a 1992 San Francisco sale], which was a lot if money to us. And that money came into our coffers, that was the first time that we had raised money to give back. In a sense, it made our foundation a true foundation. It just happened to be that moment when I became president of the CFDA. It was all within that year that it happened.”

Herman’s first task was to determine how most effectively to disperse those funds to help people who had AIDS around the world. “It brought us together in a way where we could do something, we could make the CFDA a worthwhile organization. We can still have a gala each year. We can start fundraising for other things — look at the power we have.”

Herman said, “I was just lucky that I was there, having become president that year,” succeeding Roehm.

Fern Mallis’ suggestion to centralize the fashion shows led to the creation of Seventh on Sixth, “which was the second thing that took us out of our private campus and into the world again,” Herman said. “Once I was gone, other things happened. Diane [von Furstenberg] took it to a completely different level and a good one.

“We had a tiger by the tail. Who knew what was going to happen with those fashion shows? It was a big deal. Of course, Fern was magical. She got all excited by it. It became second nature to her,” Herman said.

The endeavor also pulled the whole industry together with Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle giving money to the fashion shows. “It was that moment when people put arms around each other and the camaraderie was extraordinary. It didn’t last very long [he laughs]. It lasted maybe two or three years. Then everybody wanted to do their own thing,” Herman said. “There were potshots — the tents are too big. The tents were too dark. ‘I don’t want to show with Joe Schmo. I want to do my own thing.’”

Despite the subsequent castoffs, Herman said that every time he goes to a show at Spring Studios he still gets a rush, and thinks, “‘My God, what did we start? It’s amazing.’”

The discourse was “absolutely” more reflective of how the industry had become more personality-driven than product-driven, Herman said. Allowing how the industry is now “very high-profile,” he said. “I have been around for so long — nine decades and six in the industry to see the beginning, the middle and the end — like an eagle flying overhead. We could spend hours [discussing] the big picture of our industry.”

By his account, most of the organization’s growth period occurred under him and Mallis. And he had realized that as fundraising strengthened, things would eventually change. “But we did not have a power position in the world. That’s what happened when Diane became president. She was able to pick up the phone and speak to whoever she wanted to. I didn’t have that power. They might have answered the phone but they wouldn’t have known who they were talking to.”

Asked about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Herman said, “like everyone else,” he ran up to the tents at Bryant Park to see what he might do to help. “I remember everybody saying, ‘Clear every tent because there will be bodies brought up here.’ Of course, that never did happen. We volunteered the tents because they were big, open spaces. We got nothing, we got nothing. That is what I remember the most about 9/11,” he said.

Making the CFDA Awards a big-time event to try to compete with Hollywood ones was another point of contention. Ramping up the extravaganza in 1992 cost $1 million to produce, $400,000 more than in 1991. Attendance tripled to 2,000 and the revenue hit $764,000, thanks in part to the evening’s underwriter Hearst’s Magazine Division upping its contribution to $600,000, WWD reported at that time. Herman said of competing with Hollywood awards, “We never quite made it there. We got our heads bashed in by WWD and a number of people, who wanted a more intimate organization. [Critics would say], ‘We don’t want this Hollywood pizzazz thing.’ We tried Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher, The Met. We tried everywhere. We did have an attempt to put [the awards] on television. Boy, I wanted to put rocks in my coat and walk into the ocean. It was that bad. It went on for hours and hours. Everybody had left by the time that it was over. They were televising it and they were controlling everything. It was a disaster.”

Recalling a pre-event walk-through with WWD’s legendary publisher and editorial director John B. Fairchild, Herman said, “I felt that I didn’t lack any charm, but boy I faced his wrath. He didn’t say very much. It was his demeanor.”

Union overtime costs at Lincoln Center and the high cost of enlisting the help of Hollywood talent like Angelica Huston pushed up costs for the 1992 awards to the point that the CFDA could not make outside charitable contributions that year, Herman had told WWD at that time.

Prior to Herman’s presidency, a membership board of about 12 to 14 people made up of press representatives decided on the awards. “It became quite controversial at times. But it cleaned itself up later on, when it was determined it should be done through our own membership,” Herman said. “That’s changed again. More people are involved. There are nonmembers giving ideas to the board, but the board still selects the winners of the awards.”

A self-described centrist, Herman said his style was to “let everyone say what they wanted to and listen to them all,” but he did what he wanted to. “A lot of the success of the organization had to do with working hand-in-glove with Fern [Mallis], Peter [Arnold] and Steven [Kolb]. Lisa Smilor became a key part of the organization and CaSandra Diggs, who I hired years ago. All these people became very strong advocates of the council.”

However, over time the council changed, with power players enhancing its image but that made it “more difficult to be just a sweet nice amusing organization that we were in the beginning,” he said. “We became a big foundation, losing some of the warmth but gaining some of the wealth.”

Under his reign, he said the industry suddenly grew up and became part of the business world. “Now it’s a well-oiled machine and I am still privileged to be part of it, on the board as an officer, and very much involved with the day-to-day operations as much as one would be being on a board. I’ve been lucky to see all these things.”

As for criticism that some young designers are less inclined to get involved with the CFDA because the emphasis is on the chosen ones or the media-savvy ones, Herman said, “I have to tell you that it’s no different than it ever was. We got the same complaints a long time ago. It’s a little more powerful now because the results are so much bigger.”

CFDA members Maryann Restivo and Patricia Underwood often lobbied for designers who weren’t getting publicity. Herman recalled, “We would try to work something out but it always came down to they have to help themselves.’ Noting how someone had called him recently and said they hadn’t planned to join because they questioned what they would get out of it, Herman said, “I did not convince them, not because they couldn’t become a member but they didn’t want to. But at the same time, I think a lot of it is what you put into it for yourself.”

Uncertain whether that disinterest is driven by the pursuit of personal gain as opposed to camaraderie or fortifying the industry, Herman said, “I don’t know. I think they’re human and the prize is listening in business. You have one collection that is deified and you think everything is going to fall into its place. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t.”

Encouraging the emergence of accessories designers was another marker in his reign, with Gerard Yosca and Robert Lee Morris among those that led the charge. He and Mallis created an accessories week, a new format, which excited people. “Those kinds of things aren’t happening today because it’s been done already. We have to find new ways to excite people,” Herman said.

Anticipating the post-pandemic scene, Herman said, “I’ve watched the water settle so often that I would venture to tell you that it will recalibrate. It will never be quite the same but it will have a similar surface, those who can will, those who can’t, won’t. They will do it in a different way. We haven’t gotten our new Calvin, Donna and Ralph in our world yet, but we’ve gotten different people. Who those people are, I don’t know. I say all the time that I think designing today is as good as it has ever been. The choices are extraordinary. Designers are just as talented if not more talented. They are so desirous in making it they will make a new pond…there’s going to be attrition. “

 

There always is. In his last week of being the CFDA’s president, Herman requested a list of all of the members during his run. He was struck how many had disappeared from the industry, and how many he never thought would disappear, like Patricia Klein and Carmelo Pomodoro. His former assistant Bill Robinson, who died of AIDS, was another. Then there are the ones that stayed and others that he didn’t even remember. “We all have our moments. I had 10 years on Seventh Avenue that were glorious — ‘62 to ’72, ‘73 — but somehow it’s very hard to ride that glory for more than a 10-year period,” he said.

 

Lucky to have been able “to file off the edges of his life,” Herman said his epitaph won’t be that he designed clothing but part of it will be his president’s role at the CFDA for all that time. “I love it. I still love the council with all its warts,” he said.

 

Given the chance to change an aspect of the CFDA, Herman said he would “desperately try to do the types of things that bring people back to the warmth of it. I don’t know if it could ever achieve that again. I would make sure every member is being rattled up a little bit. But it’s hard with 500 members.”

 





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