TimesTalks with fashion’s finest

Fern Mallis, Diane von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, Norma Kamali and Eric Wilson

Tuesday night’s installment of the TimesTalks lecture series featured designers Diane von Furstenberg, Prabal Gurung, Norma Kamali, and former senior vice president of IMG, Fern Mallis, on how to blend fashion’s past with the present. Moderated by New York Times fashion reporter Eric Wilson, the topics ranged from saving the Garment District to the new role of Twitter in fashion to the Sidewalk Catwalk exhibit, a parade of thirty-two mannequins dressed by designers from all levels of the industry. The exhibit is currently up on Broadway, from Times Square to Herald Square, and will be on view through September 3.

Mallis described the origins of the project: “I just want to do a fun event that would allow tourists to stop and take pictures with the designers’ work and celebrate a district that needs to be cherished.” With Garment District re-zoning issues abuzz, designers Prabal Gurung and Norma Kamali used the Times forum to talk about the importance of utilizing the factories and manufacturers here in New York and all over the country.

“Ninety-five percent of my collection is made here in the U.S.,” Gurung said. “Five percent, the cashmeres, are made in Nepal to provide some employment there [where he was raised], but most everything is made here in New York. It’s my way of giving back to the city that gave me my dream.”

Native New Yorker Norma Kamali expressed her nostalgia for the suffering area as well, but encouraged listeners not to “hold so tight to the history and the area” after an audience member expressed concern during the Q&A session. She explained that perhaps it is time to let go of the Midtown history and start anew in a more suitable area “…like Brooklyn!” Each designer explained the inspiration behind their sidewalk catwalk mannequins, all of which celebrate the part of the industry that touched them most.

Gurung’s mannequin, a tribute to Alexander McQueen, showcased a bouquet of hand-cut butterflies surrounding the head of the mannequin. Von Furstenberg’s idea for the mannequin was many years in the making: “Over twenty years ago, I was asked what people would wear in the year 2000. I did a leopard tattoo. There’s nothing more beautiful than leopard. It makes the woman feel feline.” Kamali’s inspiration was the power of communication and the influence that technology affords us today. Her mannequin is dressed in bar codes that can be scanned by a downloadable app for your smart phone. Each bar code will show you a video or photos of celebrities wearing her clothes or even, if you’re lucky, a lottery prize. Her first job at the ticket counter of an airline showed Kamali what a necessary tool technology is. Kamali had just begun speaking of her own website, which she started in the mid 1990s, (“only nineteen or twenty people probably saw it”) when von Furstenberg interrupted, “do you twitter?”

And, just like that, talks of the beautiful old Garment District buildings and immigrants passing on skills of patternmaking to their children jumped ahead a few generations. The discussion turned to Twitter and blogs and a how-many-followers-do-you-have battle. (Needless to say, DVF won with a sly “I have 81,000 followers.”)

Gurung, who had a hard time getting words in between the quick-witted von Furstenberg and Kamali, praised Twitter for allowing him to keep in touch with his family in Nepal and his fans all over the world. The young designer also spoke fondly of his experiences this past year with a nomination for the 2010 CFDA Swarovski Womenswear award, being named a Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, and his recent acceptance into the CFDA Incubator, a low-rent workspace program that was developed with the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The program selects twelve up-and-coming designers and helps them grow and develop their businesses by providing an affordable, clean space to work.

In an industry commonly thought of as catty and cut-throat, the evening provided a refreshing glimpse of genuine mentorship and teamwork.