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2011 March 15

The Assistant Files, Vol. 2: Sophie Marx, CFDA

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Sophie Marx/CFDA Sophie Marx/CFDA
Giorgio Niro
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(NEW YORK) Is it already time for your second dose of The Assistant Files?! They're the gatekeepers, sanity-restorers and overall organizers for some of the most important fashion figures around. What's the story with these amazing assistants, who are often as formidable as their bosses? So every Tuesday, The Daily will be chatting up a different assistant extraordinaire for stylish (and sometimes absurd) tales from the trenches. This week, meet Sophie Marx, 22, the color-coding, brownie-baking assistant to Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America).
ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

What did you do before snagging this job?
I’m pretty fresh out of school. I went to Connecticut College; I'm your typical liberal arts kid. I double-majored in anthropology and English. Right after I graduated, I started interning in the art department at Vogue and I was working at Intermix. There was a meeting for all the Condé Nast interns where Anna Wintour and Vogue PR director Megan Salt were talking about the CFDA and Fashion’s Night Out. I went upstairs and told Martin Hoops, senior designer at Vogue, that I wanted to work at the CFDA. Martin told me he could definitely get me an internship. I was an intern here for a day, on Fashion’s Night Out. I guess I’m a poster kid for internships that work in this industry. I didn’t go to fashion school, I just kind of networked my way here.

What was your day-long stint as an intern like?
Steven Kolb’s former assistant and current PR manager here, Christine Olsen, emailed to warn me about how crazy the day would be and to make sure I was up for it. I told her I’d be sure to wear my comfortable shoes, and Christine responded,  “Well, not too comfortable!” That's fashion for you. It was pretty crazy. We were running back and forth from Lincoln Center like madwomen, it was definitely my longest day on the job.

How did you end up here?
I’ve always wanted to work in fashion, and I worked in retail when I was younger. I’ve also really wanted to go to Africa—this job is the only thing that kept me in New York.

How does the office culture at the CFDA compare to the vibe at Vogue?
I loved the atmosphere in the Vogue art department. It was a bunch of very down-to-earth and talented people. Vogue’s art director, Alberto Orta, used to walk in every morning and say, “Hello, beautiful people!” It wasn’t the horror stories that you hear or see in the movies, and that’s very much how it is here at the CFDA. We’re a team of cheerleaders for our designers. We get very excited when they succeed and sad when they don’t. We’re always wearing their clothes, too.

What's an average day like?
Steven usually gets in around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, and I’m there about a half hour after him. I check his schedule to see what he has on board for the day, I really like to check our press coverage. I confirm Steven’s appointments early on in the day, and then perhaps I’ll send an email to our CFDA members alerting them of an event. I’ll check our RSVP email account, especially if we have an event coming up. I have five different email accounts on my Outlook. I constantly check them all throughout the day. As for specifics? Yesterday, designers from Haiti and Kenya were in the offices, visiting from Vital Voices [a women’s empowerment organization]. And recently, we had an event for new designer members of the CFDA. There was great energy and the new inductees were like the belles of the ball. It’s a really cool time to be at the CFDA, because we have our fiftieth anniversary coming up next year and we’re putting together a book for that in addition to all the events. We also just finished a travel book, for which I coordinated submissions and worked with the publisher on layout and design. There are 11 people here at the CFDA; it’s kind of mind-boggling what this little office produces!

How many contacts are in Steven’s Outlook email account?
Oh, gosh. Steven currently has 1,613 contacts. He talks to a lot of people. Our general CFDA database of contacts includees about 16,000 people.

What’s the phone situation like? Is Steven constantly getting bombarded by calls from CFDA designers?
Steven answers his own phone. He gives out his direct number so anyone can – and does – call him. He has an “open phone” policy.

How often is Steven in touch with Diane von Furstenberg?
They speak three to four times per week, if not more. Steven and Diane just spent the day together in Boston for the “Health Matters” conference at Harvard Business School with Dr. Herzog. I’ve never seen her in the office, but she’s very, very good about coming to all of the CFDA events. I’m halfway through Diane’s biography, and I think she’s just incredible. I’m kind of in awe. She’s basically designed the most amazing dresses that both my mom and I have been wearing for years.

Where do Steven and DvF meet?
They usually schedule meetings at Diane’s studio downtown, or they’ll meet at an event. I don’t know the last time they actually shared a meal together, since they are both very busy people. Steven loves Diane and her work as a designer; he really respects everything she’s done over the years. He calls her Diane in person, but will refer to her as DvF in emails or in the office.

Any particularly memorable designer encounters, besides DvF?
Oscar de la Renta
is the most gentlemanly person I’ve ever witnessed or met in my life. He’s in his seventies, and he  just walks on air. He glided into an event we did with Balenciaga and it looked like he was ballroom dancing. We all got weak in the knees.

How often is Steven accosted by budding designers who want to become CFDA members?
We get calls about that daily. People will also email Steven directly and list their accolades. We also get five to 10 lookbooks sent in, unsolicited, each week. Steven will even thumb through some of them.

Does Steven divulge any personal favorites among the enormous roster of CFDA designers?
He really doesn’t play favorites, but he wears a lot of CFDA. He has a rag & bone overcoat that he wears all the time, for example. I mean, I’m head-to-toe CFDA right now. It’s not hard to be, since there are over 370 designers to choose from.

How would you describe Steven?
He’s just so knowledgeable about what he does. To be in a room with Steven is just fascinating. He knows so many people in the industry. He has a Filofax in his brain. He’s very self-sufficient. I basically just help manage his schedule.

Looks like there’s an intense rainbow of Post-it's on Steven’s giant scheduling board. How do you do it?
I set up and confirm his meetings and other appointments, and they all go on the board as color-coded Post-it's. Steven takes care of booking everything for his vacations, and I book his lunches when it’s for business purposes, but not for personal meals.

What are Steven’s haunts for on-the-clock dining?
He loves the granola at Café Cluny. Otherwise, he likes to stick around the area, close to the office. Steven is a fan of lunches at the Royalton, Bryant Park Grill, and Koi. I have them all on a master list somewhere.

What does Steven eat for lunch when he’s not dining out for a meeting?
Steven is a vegetarian, and he’ll usually grab his own lunch or coffee somewhere local, like Pret a Manger or Freshii. I recently discovered this phenomenal coffee place on 38th Street and Sixth Avenue called Culture Espresso Bar. I picked up a sandwich from there the other day called “The Happy Hen,” and it’s a truffled egg salad sandwich. It’s kind of decadent for a midday meal, but Steven and I are both very big fans of it. Whenever I go to Culture now, I’ll grab him one. I’m actually going to have that sandwich today. I tweeted “we live in truffled times” at him after we had the sandwich last week. He retweeted me, and then I got a lot of followers.

Describe his relationship with Twitter.
He’s very clever with his tweets, and isn’t afraid to get personal. And sometimes they’re just so out of the blue. Last Friday, he tweeted, “Spend the weekend with someone you love.” That just made me so, so happy. It set the weekend on such a good note! He’s a very good tweeter.

What’s the most surprising thing Steven has ever done?
Last Friday, Steven brought us all Cadbury eggs. Everyone was posting stuff like, “Best boss ever!” 

What is Steven’s metaphorical Achilles tendon?
Well, Steven has the worst handwriting of anyone I’ve ever seen. Steven’s fourth grade teacher told him his handwriting looked like smashed ants on the page. It’s almost unreadable. I was constantly asking, “what does this mean?!” about notes he had written when I first started. I think he would win any worst handwriting award. Ever. A postman definitely wouldn’t be able to read anything he writes, so it’s a good thing I address everything for the messenger!

What’s are some of Steven’s guilty pleasures?
Glee. He also really likes brownies. Sometimes we get the tiny square brownies from Pret. I baked brownies one time and brought them into the office. Steven said mine were better than Pret’s, not to toot my own horn or anything. It wasn’t a special occasion; it was just a Friday, or maybe a Monday… whatever day it was, it felt like a good day to make brownies.

Does Steven ride the subway around NYC?
He definitely does. He’s got an unlimited MetroCard.

How many hours of sleep does Steven get each night?
He goes to sleep very early. After 9 p.m. Steven is off the air and I stop receiving emails from him. He wakes up around 5:30 or 6 a.m. and starts sending emails. So he’s definitely an “early bird catches the worm” type of a person.

How would you rank some of the CFDA’s biggest events (CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, CFDA Awards and NYFW) according to the following categories—garden-variety anxiety, sleepless nights, migraines, and mental breakdowns?
The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund dinner is really handled by Vogue, so that would be garden-variety anxiety. I suspect that if one of them were to be mental breakdown status, it would be the CFDA Awards, and I haven’t been here for those yet. And I don’t actually think that I will have a mental breakdown because there’s a really solid team here. I color-code my calendar in depth, and that kept fashion week from being a migraine.

How many shows did Steven attend during fall 2011 NYFW?
He went to 54 shows. Steven likes to schedule everything when he’s tired so he doesn’t overbook himself, but he always ends up adding more.

Are there any repeat party crashers at CFDA events?
Some people are great fans of the CFDA, I’ll put it that way. They think that we throw really great parties, which we do. Usually our response to emails from frequent party crashers is, “Due to space restrictions, we cannot accommodate your request.” We do have their photos and we are aware of them. The parties are really about the members, so we want it to feel that way at our events and not to be about crashers.

What’s the wackiest thing you’ve seen at an event on the job?
Well, Karl Lagerfeld lost a diamond brooch at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards. He was quite flustered for a moment, but a photographer quickly picked it up. Crisis averted!

Does Steven maintain relations with the CFDA’s across-the-pond counterparts, like the British Fashion Council and ANDAM?
I know that he’s had breakfast with the head of the British Fashion Council one time. They very much respect each others’ work and they’ve had “meetings of the minds” at times, but I don’t think there’s much contact.
*Editor's note: In fact, Kolb communicates with his colleagues overseas frequently via email.  


What’s on your career bucket list?
Traveling for work. When I was in school, I went abroad to India and just a couple weekends ago, I was in Paris. It reminded me how much I want to travel more. Whether it’s for the CFDA, somewhere else during my career, traveling a lot is simply on my life bucket list. I’d like to touch foot on every continent, at least.

Is there an expiration date on this gig?
It is indeed an assistant position, but there are so many things that the CFDA works on. I’m also special events associate in addition to my assistant title. There are just so many facets and opportunities at this job, I would be foolish to not see it out until it goes its own way.




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