Before she founded New York Fashion Week in the 1990s, Fern Mallis built her artistic foundations as a student in UB’s fine arts department.
Mallis, a ’69 UB alum and fashion icon, discussed her experiences in the world of fashion to a sold-out crowd in 403 Hayes Hall Thursday night. The event marked the beginning of the university’s new speaker series featuring alumni and the lessons they’ve learned in their respective fields.
Mallis’ fashion industry accomplishments include her work as an author, president of her own international fashion and design consultancy and her work as executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
English professor Eric Pritchard, whose research focuses on intersectional identities and literature, lead the conversation with Mallis.
“This is really a trip down memory lane. I am sorry to say that it’s only taken me about 48 years to come back,” Mallis said. She added that her experience at UB was “quite remarkable.” As a student on a college campus during the Vietnam War, college for her was during a “heavy time in our country, not unlike the kind of rage and things that are going on now in this country.”
Mallis talked about her childhood,growing up in the Garment District of New York City, her experience as a communication design major in the fine arts department and the time she spent working on plays at UB. As a student, Mallis won a contest hosted by fashion magazine Mademoiselle to create graphic and marketing pieces, where she was brought on as a guest editor.
She went on to work full-time at the magazine.
Mallis then discussed how she created New York Fashion Week.
“Fashion week was something that came out of an accident. Some of the best things in the world happen from accidents and things that go wrong,” Mallis said.
In 1992, during New York’s Democratic National Convention, Mallis served on the convention’s planning committee. The committee considered the idea of showing off New York to some of the convention’s delegates.
“Of course I said, ‘Let’s do a fashion show’,” Mallis said.
Mallis set up a tent in Central Park with famous designers who each brought a couple models.
“That was in the summer; that September I was sent to Paris and Milan to check out [other fashion shows], and I came back and began one-on-one meetings with all the heavyweights [designers] to figure out how we could do [an official Fashion Week],” Mallis said.
The show was held in New York’s Bryant Park and the initiative was named 7th on Sixth, an ode to an AIDS benefit called 7th on Sale, which Mallis was a part of. The mission of the week, Mallis said, was to “organize, centralize and modernize shows.”
Her proudest accomplishment, however, is her book, “Fashion Lives: Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis.” The book collects interviews with current fashion icons, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and more.
She said she is working on a second book of interviews, which could include conversations with models Iman and Cindy Crawford, and designers Valentino and Zac Posen.
Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said this first talk would be “hard to beat.”
"[Mallis] is the perfect example of what I really think is the underlying spirit of this institution,” Schulze said
After the interview portion of the events, audience members asked Mallis their own questions.
Stephanie Stewart-Hill, a sophomore psychology major, asked Mallis about the importance of creativity. Stewart-Hill said she loved Mallis’ talk and appreciated her insights during the event.
“Her stories were very relatable. She was always on the edge of something and figuring out things for herself, which I think is a really important part of creativity. I really learned a lot from [Mallis],” Stewart-Hill said.
Kirsten Dean is the assistant features editor and can be reached at and on Twitter