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Journalist and Fashion Insider

Fern Mallis

Written by Saul Taylor

With over 40 years in the industry, celebrated consultant, philanthropist and New Yorker Fern Mallis has transformed the fashion world from the inside out. The godmother of style discusses the evolution of events in the digital age and the price of social media — from the spectacle and the brilliance to the horror. And why an after party invite now goes “straight to the trash”.

How important are events?

Events are extremely important and the best way to market and promote almost anything. Events are what bring people together. Events are the experiences that people remember and talk, write and Instagram about. Maybe moreso than ever before. We live in a world where people are so focused on their cellphones and social media that events are becoming more important so people see and talk to each other and not communicate through a two and a half inch screen.

How have they changed over the last 30 years?

I’ve been in the business more like 40 years. I was constantly doing events for clients, openings at trade shows and markets, launching a new chair or textile line or collection. It was always about the event. You always tried to structure something, to do something interesting that people would talk about, but now I think the stakes and the budgets are much bigger and there’s a lot of real creativity out there. Whether it’s an event to raise money for charity or whether it’s just to promote a new beauty launch or a fragrance. A new show at the Met museum, for example. That event moves the barometer all the way to one end of the spectrum of what an event can be. I think it’s insane in many ways, but that’s the other side of the coin.

What do you think of social media and the digital revolution that’s happened within the last 10 years?

It’s spectacular, it’s marvellous, it’s brilliant and it’s horrifying. It’s a double edged sword. Several years ago I gave a keynote speech at FIT graduation and there were several thousand students in front of me in caps and gowns and parents behind them at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. I looked out at them and I told them they had the world in the palm of their hands. I also told them that that used to just be a great expression. Now it takes on a whole new meaning because you look at the palm of your hand and you can move money around, you can make plane reservations, you can open your garage door, you can monitor your baby crying in a room, you can set up the security alarm. There’s nothing you can’t do. You can speak to people all over the world in a matter of seconds and it all comes from the palm of your hand.

How do you stay ahead of the curve?

I’m not sure I am ahead of the curve anymore. I mean the curve is moving so quickly and evolving so fast. I’m not even sure where it all lands anymore. I think that the curve is being redefined and reinvented as we speak. In an emergency and in a pinch, thank God for social media and for the instant access to information and knowledge. I’m old enough to remember having to go to libraries to get information, having to research things before we even had computers at our disposal and everything in your lap. Now you’re at a dinner and somebody says, “Who is the movie star in that movie?”, or “When did so-and-so win an award?”. In two seconds you look up the information. It’s remarkable and it’s fabulous, but it comes at a price. That price is touchy feely communication.

At the same talk that I gave at FIT I asked, “How many of you have Instagrammed something while I’m talking already? How many of you have posted something on Facebook? How many have Tweeted something out?”. Hands were going up constantly and everybody was laughing. “When was the last time you spoke to your parents on a real phone, and not by text? Waited for the pause and the answer and had to come up with the words you didn’t have several minutes to edit?” Texting is not a real conversation. It’s the cop out. I have nieces who I can only talk to via text now. They hate the phone.

Do you still go to events much?

I get invited to a lot of things and I decline a good majority of them, especially if it’s nothing I really need to be at. If it starts at 10pm at night, forget it. You know, I can rule out after parties. If it’s called an after party then it goes straight in the trash.

I was recently at Macy’s for the launch of Rachel Schechtman’s concept store, Story, at 8am. There I was, starting my day, out of the apartment at the crack of dawn to go to an event. Martha Stewart was there, and I go to that because I support Rachel. I liked the concept and it’s something important. If it’s a friend involved or somebody I know or like then I’ll do it. But I have to draw a line because there’s no way I can do everything. In our industry, it’s incredible how many events there are — every single night and some nights there are three or four. You try to drive by and make an appearance here and there. You should try to be supportive, but if it’s way downtown in Tribeca I have to think really hard if it’s worth my while to go.

All those things come into play. Where are they; what time is it; is it convenient; what does the invitation look like? What’s the purpose of it; is there some other message that’s happening there? You have to evaluate each invite.

The event has become something of the culture in New York. What keeps people so enthralled with that city?

New York, with all of its problems and headaches, is still a place where everybody who lives and works there is pretty much at the top of their game. There are many other cities where it’s a film town, a music town, a corn town, whatever. In New York it’s everything — business, publishing, banking, fashion, theatre, arts, culture. And that’s what keeps New York, New York. There’s so much creativity.

I ran into David Stark who designed the event for Rachel [Schechtman]. Here’s a man who I’ve known and worked with for many years who plans enormous, spectacular events. I told him I have such a good time looking at his Instagram feed and seeing all that creativity. I still, to this day, get turned on by seeing people who are doing something really clever and creative and that comes from the party planners, the florists, the Preston Baileys, the Bronson Van Wycks and David Starks that make you understand the importance of events.

What makes a great event?

The people, the lighting and depending on what it is, the food and beverage. My biggest pet peeve at most events is that the music is too loud. I just can’t stand it when you go to an event and you can’t talk to people and find yourself shouting. There’s absolutely no reason unless it’s a disco or dance party. I go to events with a very different eye. I walk in and I think, oh my God, they need six more bartenders at this bar. I try to put myself in the clients’ shoes. How do you make it smoother at check-in? How do you make the bar and the coat checkpoint more efficient? All of those things make for a good event. If you arrive somewhere and have to stand in line for 10 minutes to check your coat, you’re pissed before you even walk in.