Interview

Interview with Marc Karimzadeh, WWD and CFDA Icon

Marc Karimzadeh at NYFW

By Ahuva Levy & Cristina Martin

We had the pleasure of interviewing fashion editorial icon, Marc Karimzadeh.

A German-born-now-native-New Yorker, Marc has an extensive background in the fashion industry, where he met and interviewed designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, Tommy Hilfiger, and Karl Lagerfeld. Marc works as the Editorial and Communications Director for Council of Fashion Designers of America. Prior to CFDA, he worked for WWD. Marc sits with us and shares his experiences on the past, insights of the present, and visions for the future.

Ahuva: What inspired you to get involved in the world of fashion?

Marc: I’ve always been interested in fashion, even back to when I was a teenager. I would buy Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, or other fashion magazines, and read them under the covers with a flashlight. Fashion is a wonderful world of creatives that I wanted to be part of.

When I was 14, Karl Lagerfeld came to my hometown, Hamburg, Germany on a book tour. I bought the book and he signed it for me. I still have the book to this day. My mom said at the time that she couldn’t believe I spent so much on ‘just a book.’

To me, fashion represents magic and creativity. I needed to figure out how I could be part of the magic. Since I was terrible at drawing, I couldn’t be a designer and so I decided to study comparative literature at Brown University.

I knew I wanted to be in magazines, either as a writer or fashion stylist. Throughout my time in college, I did a lot of internships. I even interned at British Vogue. My parents supported me, thankfully, and eventually I landed a permanent position.

In 2000, I responded to an ad in the New York Times for a position at WWD. My first beats were accessories and legwear. I was one of the first people to write about SPANX! Sara Blakely  [SPANX founder] came to me with this new concept. Looking back at it, I wish I had invested in it then and there! Eventually, I began writing about fashion. I would travel to Milan and Paris to cover the shows.  

A few years ago, with all the shifts in publishing, I switched to Council of  Fashion Designers of America – a non-profit supporting over 500 designers.

I was blessed to have parents who were supportive for me to pursue my dream and do something unusual for my culture.

A: What’s the most fascinating way you’ve learned along the way? If you ask people about fashion industry – reputation is catty, snobby and egomaniacs. Has that been your experience?

M: The most creative people are often also the most kind and generous. The truly creative don’t have anything to prove( i.e. Donatella Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs). They can be so inspiring, just by allowing me to spend time with them, and by the wisdom and information they share. That is what sets them apart from the others.

My most inspiring moment was probably when I interviewed Donna Karan for the first time, about 12 years ago. She took me around her studio, then opened a door that opened to the atelier of pattern-cutters, seamstresses and bolts of fabric. It’s where that magic I so love begins to happen!

Another inspiration has to be Ralph Lauren. He is a genuine, kind man who always takes an interest in my personal life.  I remember once sitting with him on the stairs of his then-new  women’s flagship store on Madison Avenue. Before we even started, he asked me how how I and my family were doing.

Diane von Furstenberg, who is the chairwoman of the CFDA, is another wonderful and  inspirational woman. I’ve known her for a very long time. She grew up in Belgium, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She created her own destiny and was able to come to New York, rise to the top of the fashion industry and to this day, she continues to inspire other women, and men.

If you look at the ratio of female versus male designers, it’s still strongly tilted towards men, and that has to change.

At the CFDA, we are working on several initiatives to improve the gender gap. We just announced a comprehensive study on women in fashion with Glamour magazine called The Glass Runway. We are also focusing on diversity. Why is the industry lacking diversity? What actionable plan is there for us to ensure that the equal opportunity truly exists? We are happy to see more diversity on the runways and in the pages of magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but it’s not enough. We want to see diversity at all levels of the industry, from the runways to the boardrooms. Fashion should reflect our country in all its diversity. Talent should determine success in fashion. Ethnicity or gender identity should never become a barrier to the top of our industry. If we don’t work to create change, nothing will ever change. I recently moderated a panel on diversity, politics and race in fashion. A major question was where we can start to implement change. It in in schools, is it at work? Role models will play a big role. We also need to empower the new generation to think without barriers and let their talent shine.

Left to Right: Estee Goldschmidt (ShopDrop), Marc Karimzadeh (CFDA), Cristina Martin (ShopDrop)
Left to Right: Estee Goldschmidt (ShopDrop), Marc Karimzadeh (CFDA), Cristina Martin (ShopDrop)

A: Who will be the next generation to make it big?  The millennial generation is the next generation. Is it possible to exceed the designers of PRADA, Chanel, etc.?

M: The landscape has changed. Retail has changed. Department stores are consolidating. Ralph Lauren went to Bloomingdales with a box of ties, and become the most successful American fashion designer. Perhaps that opportunity doesn’t exist any more, or at least it’s even more challenging to come by.

Consumer attitudes have shifted. People mix designer with mass fashion. Millennials are looking to put money into different areas: electronics, travel, or other experiences. We have the talent, but they have to think outside the proverbial box and translate their aesthetic to a new generation.

Millennials get information from non-traditional places, but they are still interested in trends. Luxury brands focus will on millennials because they represent the next generation of consumers. Eventually, they will get married, have kids, buy a house, and with that lifestyle, there will hopefully be a need for nice clothes.. What’s important for luxury brands is to start speaking to millennials now to get them in the future.

Social media has removed the sense of mystery. Mystery is like an aphrodisiac and creates desire. This is an industry that is driven by desire. Hermes, with the Birkin or Kelly bags, is a good example of the elusiveness that everyone aspires to have. Hermes is also a brand that never marks down.

The media landscape is changing too, as more people have a voice.  We will see how the blogger and influencer phemonomom plays out. Influencers get paid by the brands to promote their product. Millennials are smart enough to see the difference. Why should I trust the person if they were being paid by the brand they are promoting? Will there be more rules on ethics? Will [bloggers] need to be more transparent? Magazines are challenged because more people get information online. They have to translate their brand equity to online platforms, and monetizing online editorial platforms continues to be less lucrative than print once was.

This weekend, as I was running some errands, I bought an issue of Vogue and Vanity Fair on the newsstand because I wanted to read the actual magazine. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day on my computer or checking social media on my phone. It provided me with something solid, and I really enjoyed it! When I was on a flight to Singapore recently, I told everyone that I would have WiFi on the plane. When we took off, I realized there was no WiFI. After suffering from an hour or two withdrawal, I read a book, and the experience was so rewarding.

 

A: What is your advice for young people entering the fashion industry?

M: You have to have a real passion for it because chances are you won’t be financially rewarded the way many are in sectors such as finance. You will work long hours and often travel and be away from home a lot, and there is often no big financial reward that compensates for this, so you must do it out of passion,

My advice to teenagers is to be prepared to work really hard, and to always believe in yourself and your love for the industry. Always know that there are many wonderful people who will help you – this industry is very supportive. To quote DVF, ‘fear is not an option.’ Fearlessness can implement itself in so many ways. In design, taking an aesthetic risk can pay off. Adam Selmon made a completely transparent dress four years ago which started the trend of people wearing sheer to red carpet events: Beyonce, Catherine Zeta Jones, Kim Kardashian… He created something new that shifted the eye. People see this look now, and find that it’s acceptable to be semi-nude.

Think about DVF and the wrap dress which really changed the way women dress and empowered them in the workplace. Sometimes it’s not as much as design innovation as it is about clothing that makes you feel good and empowers to be the best version of yourself and accomplish all that wish to do.

When I started in the industry in the mid-90s, it was that moment of  Sex and the City, when Sarah Jessica Parker would dress up to go out with friends, and wear pouf skirts with tank tops and hoop earrings. The look may have been over the top, but it empowered women to be more playful with their fashion choices.

More recently, you see the influence of Gucci. People are more experimental and open to embroideries and embellishments. They mix and match things from different decades in a magpie way. Athleisure is also a trend that doesn’t seem to go away. Personally, I don’t want to see people in gym clothes in a restaurant, but people aren’t dressing up as much anymore, and designers are trying to cater to that.

A: Are designers getting bored?

M: I wouldn’t say that they are getting bored; however, they are all challenged to create that the wow factor. That goes back to mystery, elusiveness, and exclusivity.  Everything is too available and at your fingertips. When you spend your time on Instagram all day, it feels nothing can wow you anymore because you see so much. That’s where storytelling comes in. Brands like Chanel and Ralph Lauren do a fantastic job with the way they continue to tell a story.

When the Calvin Klein underwear ads featuring the Kardashian-Jenner clan broke, it was a play to reach a wide swath of America that loves what these women stand for. Whether or not you like them, those ads will probably speak to a customer who may not buy the pricier runway collection, but they will buy the underwear and jeans. From a reach and impressions perspective, the campaign was genius! Think about how many people the family reaches when you aggregate their following. Note that legacy of Calvin Klein is different from a Chanel. Calvin Klein is driven by marketing – great clothes, too – but marketing set it into the fashion stratosphere. People always talked about the Calvin campaign and this one was no different – everyone noted how  Kylie Jenner was covering her pregnancy with a Calvin Klein blanket.

Hermes would never take the approach of brands that sell underwear, activewear, jeans and other licensed categories because that is not right for them. Their essence is luxury; that’s what drives sales, not second and third lines.

The revival of Gucci with Tom Ford in the 90s was the ultimate in desirability right after a minimalism phase. It was a drab era in fashion, and the consumer was longing for desirable clothes. Ford shifted the fashion vocabulary during those years and built a global business.

 

A: Where do you think the next five years will be like for the fashion industry?

M: I wish I knew! A fashion executive told me not too long ago that ‘In order to be successful, you have to create something that is really special.’ Designers need to create something with value and emotion.

We will definitely see more sustainability. What was once considered ‘crunchy, hippy and granola’ is anything but that today. Fashion houses will not just look at sustainable fabrics and processes – organic dyes that don’t harm the environment, for example – but also their carbon footprint and ways they can minimize it. If you want to speak to millennials, you have to address these things.

I’m excited about the next decade in fashion. We are all expecting designers to show us something different. Yes, they face enormous challenges, but challenges are also blessings, because they will force us to move forward.

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