Fashion’s Power Forward

In the 31st-floor offices of SWW Creative, the walls are beige, the carpet is gray and the cabinets are standard-issue wood-grain. There’s no Eames armchair, no runway stills splashed across the walls, not even a lucite coffee table with a copy of Grace Coddington’s memoir. There’s not a flower in sight.

While fashion professionals are known to obsess over the color of their pens, SWW Creative’s offices are about as splashy as an insurance agency’s. Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is not concerned.

Ms. Wolkoff, who orchestrated Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week’s Lincoln Center expansion, isn’t in it for Smythson notebooks or a pair of Céline fur sandals. She is an executor first and a fashionist somewhere further down the line, finding more satisfaction in a spreadsheet than an Avedon. Though she’s a front-row fixture and a special-occasion catwalker, she doesn’t scour the runways for her own closet. Instead, Ms. Wolkoff, who stands a statuesque 6-foot-1, prefers the simplicity of a uniform—Ralph Lauren is her everyday.

“The outside world thinks that Fashion Week is so amazing and so glamorous and so over-the-top,” said Ms. Wolkoff, who has been overseeing the twice-annual event since 2009. “Is it important to have celebrities there? Great. Is it important to have the athletes in the front row? Super. But the truth is, this is a business.”

And yet, by acknowledging as much—and reimagining Fashion Week as populist and business-friendly—she has rankled fashion’s artistes, who feel that recent changes have given the event a noticeable odor of commerce. Under Ms. Wolkoff’s tenure, corporate sponsorships have taken center stage in a lobby concourse that more closely resembles the Javits Center than the heart of couture. Also, for the first time, there are events for the public, in the form of fashion-art collaborations with Lincoln Center’s performance groups. It’s gone from a tent to a circus.

“Lincoln Center is amazing—they have amazing facilities, they have everything you could possibly need,” said Stefan Golangco, the communications director of progressive menswear line Asher Levine. “But our brand is also about being underground and being off-schedule and being a little bit … maybe less commercial. [Showing at Lincoln Center] doesn’t feel unique to your brand, especially if you’re a small label. You kind of get lost in the shuffle.”

While Fashion Week may be a few days longer now and may feel bigger (the tents certainly are), the number of shows in its main hub hasn’t grown materially since Ms. Wolkoff entered the mix. The total number of designers showing at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week itself has remained pretty much the same—the big explosion has been predominantly offsite. In 2007, when Fashion Week was still at Bryant Park, 90 designers showed at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week while 165 showed offsite. Last year, 91 designers showed at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center and 231 showed offsite, according to data from the Fashion Calendar, a fashion event scheduler, and IMG.

Many of the designers opting to show offsite are looking for a particular sense of place; a mythology that matches their brand. “I always dreamed about being a part of Bryant Park, and when Fashion Week lost its location, I was really bummed about it. I lived for that moment,” said Nary Manivong, an emerging designer who has chosen to show his work offsite and off-schedule.

Of course, nobody can keep everyone happy, and Ms. Wolkoff is aware of that. She’s not interested in reclaiming defectors. She is interested in making sure the event goes off seamlessly.

“I stay in control of every little thing,” said the maestro of Post-it notes, corkboards and carefully stacked folders. “I want to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. If I could delegate a little better, I would be better off.”

She is well-known for indifference to the theatrics so often associated with fashion, calling herself an industry “Switzerland.” “There’s no drama,” Elle’s creative director, Joe Zee, told The Observer. “Whatever is happening behind the scenes, everything still feels very put together.”

Every detail is per Ms. Wolkoff’s design, said associates, one of whom likened her preparedness to that of a Boy Scout. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to put my hands up in the air and say, ‘too bad,’ you know, or ‘It’s not my job,’” Ms. Wolkoff said. “There were times when I’d be sweeping the floor before an event if the floor was dirty. I wouldn’t wait for someone to come into the room and do it themselves.”

Ms. Wolkoff is known in the industry as “General Winston”—a name bestowed on her by Anna Wintour, a career-long mentor who tapped her to become Lincoln Center’s director of fashion when Fashion Week was pushed out of Bryant Park by an ice-skating rink. Ms. Wolkoff, who had previously headed the Vogue-hosted Costume Institute Benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is credited with helping elevate it from an East Coast event to a star-studded couture pageant.

She is one of the many New York fashion success stories who owe their rise in large part to Ms. Wintour’s mentorship. Ms. Wolkoff was a client services manager at Sotheby’s when Ms. Wintour hired her to do PR for Vogue, despite her lack of fashion experience. Raised amid acres of farmland in the Catskill Mountains, the black-belt preferred working on her jump kick to reading magazines. “Fashion was not something that I knew about,” she said. “It just wasn’t really particularly interesting.”

But what Ms. Wolkoff did have was an intensely disciplined work ethic, which was solidified playing power forward for Fordham University’s Division 1 basketball team. The diligence of waking up for predawn practice drills developed a personal drive that became impossible to turn off. (To this day, she calibrates her schedule to the minute, opting to have a manicurist come in to do her nails at her desk so she doesn’t have to cut into family or work time.)

And she looks the part. Described by an associate as “the first person you see when you walk into a room,” Ms. Wolkoff came equipped with Vogue-worthy family associations: her stepfather is Bruce Winston, jeweler Harry Winston’s son.

“I didn’t have quite the understanding of the difference between Vogue, Elle, Harper’s and the rest of the world,” Ms. Wolkoff said, recalling her interview at the magazine. She was hired the same day. “I knew Anna Wintour was the editor in chief of Vogue, I just didn’t understand what it meant to wait around to meet with Anna Wintour. I didn’t lie that I read Vogue every day or that I grew up loving fashion, but I did know how to roll up my sleeves and do whatever it took to learn it.”

In the cosa nostra of fashion, Ms. Wintour’s blessing is likened to being “made” by a mafia boss. The wheels are slicked, critics are silenced and success is imminent. Accordingly, Ms. Wolkoff’s ascent at Vogue was rapid; she jumped from PR manager to special events manager to the head of the Costume Institute Benefit.

“The Costume Institute Benefit became my baby. It was something that I lived, breathed, day and night,” she said. “It was all about excellence. It was all about never taking ‘no’ for an answer from anyone in order to achieve the ultimate goal.”

At Lincoln Center, Ms. Wolkoff expanded on the foundations laid by Fern Mallis, the founder of Fashion Week, whose efforts put American designers on the global fashion map.

“We wanted to compete with Paris and Milan and other world capitals. There was very limited international business coming to New York, because we weren’t organized,” Ms. Mallis told The Observer. One of the initiatives she pursued was corporate sponsorships that would help offset the costs of the runway productions.

Ms. Wolkoff nurtured those relationships, creating events that were open to the public rather than only buyers and editors, prying open the former fashion fortress and transforming it into a sprawling campus. “My goal was to put fashion on par with all the other cultural institutions that were at Lincoln Center,” Ms. Wolkoff said. “I always wanted to somehow democratize Fashion Week in a way that hadn’t been done before. I wanted to create a place where editors, models and designers could rub elbows with the everyday person.”

Some designers have balked at the new venue and the new vision, opting to take their shows elsewhere. Marquee New York brands like Proenza Schouler, Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang have all decided to sidestep Lincoln Center. “The feedback I’ve gotten is that it’s way more commercial out there. But at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about,” Ms. Mallis said. “I certainly miss Bryant Park.”

Mr. Zee says that Ms. Wolkoff’s innovations have “matured” the biannual event. A self-proclaimed “fashion dinosaur,” he has been to shows at every fashion week, since long before they ever found a home at Bryant Park.

“I kind of love Lincoln Center,” he said. “She’s really made it into a true event. It’s not about going to a fashion show and leaving—she makes it into a true experience. It’s like growing up: Bryant Park was the teenage years, and now you grow up and you migrate uptown. It’s bigger, more glamorous … it’s more what it is.”

At the end of the day, the models need to walk, the buyers need to shop, the editors need to see the season’s best and the designers need to sell their handiwork. It’s a trade show.

“If you look at who’s involved in fashion, there’s glamour, and smoke and mirrors, but it is a true business,” Vanessa von Bismarck, co-founder of fashion PR firm BPCM, told The Observer. “[Ms. Wolkoff] is someone with a business mind and [she] knows how the business works.”

In June of last year, Ms. Wolkoff stepped down as Lincoln Center’s director of fashion to take charge of her own company, SWW Creative. She still oversees the event, but now IMG and Lincoln Center are her clients, along with a number of other companies, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Penske Media Corporation and Kapture, an iPhone photo-sharing app.

Setting up shop privately enabled Ms. Wolkoff to dictate her own terms, which include being able to pick her three kids up from school and get home for dinner with her husband, real estate developer David Wolkoff. “I didn’t have children not to be with them,” she said. And even though her daughter Alexi has made the occasional runway appearance, she’s not an aspiring Tavi. “My children do not know the difference between Tar-jay and any other designer brand,” Ms. Wolkoff said proudly.

After bedtime, she typically dives back into work. “I go to sleep once I’ve put my third child to sleep, and I will wake up around 1 o’clock in the morning and work for a couple of hours, and then go back to bed,” she said, pointing to the 1,777 emails that had accrued in the past hour.

Once left alone, Ms. Wolkoff settled back into her seat and began riffling through the stacks of paper spread across her desk. She checked her iPhone and called out to her assistant. It was clear: she may be the first person you see when you enter a room, but she’s also the last to leave.

Published in The New York Observer 

All Content © Emily Anne Epstein