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Urban, The Straits Times
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The man driving fashion in America
by Leslie Kay Lim

Mr Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), recalls a funny observation made of him when he was being interviewed for his current post in 2005.

"Former CFDA president Stan Herman said I dressed like a country bumpkin," says the 52-year-old with a wry smile.

He used to dress in a more corporate style, wearing plain suits for his previous jobs. Still, he impressed his interviewers with his extensive business management skills and friendly personality.

Spending close to a decade immersed in the American fashion scene has seen him raise his style game.

In town to watch Fashion Week 2013 shows by American menswear label Burkman Bros and American lingerie brand Ari Dein - both in the CFDA's fashion incubator programme - MrKolb wore a checked shirt, smart blazer, dark pants and red hipster glasses during the interview with Urban, exuding a cool and comfortable vibe.

Born and raised in New Jersey, MrKolb's background is in communications, public administration and business management.

He worked in the non-profit sector - at the American Cancer Society, Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids and MTV International's Staying Alive Foundation - prior to joining the CFDA.

Since Mr Kolb, who is married to a freelance producer, came on board in 2006, the CFDA has grown from having 280 members to more than 450members. Started in 1962 by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, the Council's mission is to promote the American fashion industry.

The non-profit designer trade association offers scholarships and starter funds, organises more than 350 shows on the New York Fashion Week schedule and promotes local manufacturing.

Mr Kolb also works closely with fashion power players, including CFDA president and designer Diane von Furstenberg and American Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, both of whom he describes as generous and accessible.

Oscars of fashion

One of the biggest events he oversees is the annual CFDA Fashion Awards, which recognise the industry's top talents in womenswear, menswear and accessories for emerging and established designers.

Known as the Oscars of the fashion world, the awards are proof of recognition from the style establishment, Mr Kolb says. The candidates are nominated by and voted for by more than 1,500 people in the fashion industry.

"Some people complain that certain names appear over and over again," he says. "But what I find is that these designers end up representing the best of an era."

He notes how designers such as Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, who won CFDA awards in the 1990s, created designs which are now synonymous with that time and have had a lasting impact.

This era's equivalent may be Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, he says, who scooped up a record fifth win this year.

The Council plays an important role doling out financial aid for up-and-coming designers as well.

In addition to scholarships at the high school and college level, the organisation runs the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an endowment fund which provides financial assistance and mentorship to emerging designers.

Launched in 2003, the fund has given out more than US$10 million (S$12.4 million) to date.

The CFDA has also established a support network, which links up businesses both inside and outside the industry for new business development and licensing opportunities, and offers legal and technical advice as well.

Reflecting on the world at large, MrKolb notes that the fashion industry is getting bigger, more global and moving at a faster pace than ever before.

"It's good for the brands that have the resources and infrastructure to deal with it, but bad for emerging designers," he says, adding that young designers should focus on the spring and fall collections instead of spreading their resources thin creating resort or pre-fall collections as well.

Owning a style or signature is also helpful, he says.

"If you do white shirts, be known for making the best white shirts. If you do jersey dresses, be known for making the best jersey dresses," he says.

While the energetic Mr Kolb says he enjoys his work at the heart of the fashion industry, he maintains a refreshingly frank view towards it.

"Sitting front row at shows is great, but you can't be seduced or driven by all that," he says.

"Fashion can't be prescribed, even by the CFDA, and real style is personal. It comes from who you are."

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