Sara Kozlowski on Her 3 Lives in Fashion | How to Help Brands to Sustain During the Crisis?

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

Sara Kozlowski is the Director of Education + Sustainable Strategies at CFDA.

"The future of fashion must be inclusive, impactful, mindful, sustainable, and just – different than today. Hopefully, it will also be positive." - Sara Kozlowski

How did you get into fashion? Please, tell us a bit more about your career and companies that you have worked for. What experience did you get in each company that still helps you in your current career?

Sara: I have had three lives in fashion in the last 27 years. First- as a designer- following graduation from Parsons, working for Anna Sui- who hired me after being my mentor – where I would assist her with everything from collection fittings on Kate Moss, Kristen McMenamy etc. She worked closely with Steven Meisel, each look was meticulously styled and captured in polaroid. At 24, I launched a brand, CAKE. which began as a few streetwear items sold at places like X Girl until Steven Alan helped me develop the brand into a collection carried at Barneys, United Arrows, Beams etc. After 6 years, being neither a fast fashion nor a luxury brand I decided to close - producing in local NY factories made it hard to compete and I had outgrown the brand’s identity. I noticed my interns were going on to do great things – and decided to move to Shanghai to begin my second life as a fashion educator.

For 10 years, I taught thesis collection – but it was not until 2006, in San Francisco when I went to work for Simon Ungless that I began to learn {I have a dMBA or Design Strategy MBA in sustainable systems} and teach sustainable fashion. One summer after I had moved back to NY for a Directorship at Parsons – I was working in the office + received a phone call from the CFDA- it was our EVP who offered me an opportunity {she had remembered me from when she once worked at Parsons and I was a student} – and that was the start of my third life, almost six years ago – joining the staff team at the CFDA.

Why is it important to educate young talents about the true purpose of fashion? How important is it for young creatives to understand the basics of the fashion business?

Sara: The global Class of 2020 is graduating into a professional landscape of profound change. While the future may be uncertain, through their talent + potential, they represent an opportunity for the new- which is among the silver linings of our fashion system calibrating to COVID- 19 impacts. Their voices are invaluable with the capacity to catalyze true transformation + regeneration with new perspectives, approaches, and beliefs. I think of them as “the transformers” - Designers who are equally systems thinkers and makers - agile, versatile, resilient. Co-creators and pioneers- of product, process and ideas with meaning and purpose. Like design x business, creative entrepreneurship at its best is a balance of left and right brain thinking, and ability to blend imagination with pragmatic reality.

I believe that this generation will be successful because while they may learn from the past and traditional brand models, they are by design of the times, required to apply ingenuity to all they set out to achieve. To that end- education including the design of business and the business of design matters.

How the CFDA supports young talents?

Sara: The organization- has a long legacy of supporting talent – from scholarships, graduate talent platforms, to professional development for early emerging brands. {see CFDA.com for full details on programs such as CFDA Design Scholar Awards, Liz Claiborne Impactful Futures Award, Geoffrey Beene Design Masters Award, Kenneth Cole Footwear + Innovation Award, Elaine Gold Launch Pad, Fashion Future Graduate Showcase etc.}

Adriana Kim from Parsons School of Design for Fashion Future Graduate Showcase

Tell us please a bit more, about the most recent initiative A Common Thread by the CFDA and VOGUE?

Sara: The CFDA’s Chairman, Mr. Ford and CEO President Steven Kolb with Anna Wintour – established the initiative to immediately mobilize support for American fashion during the pandemic. {see CFDA.com for the official program overview and recent grant recipients}

Do you think that prior fashion design experience is important for those working at the CFDA?

Sara: Most of my CFDA colleagues have backgrounds in fashion business areas such as brand, production, marketing, and journalism as well as finance.

In your opinion, are there any specific features that make an emerging designer stand out among others?

Sara: Agility. Innovation. Change Championship. Creative Darwinism. Authenticity. Courage. Resiliency. IMAGINATION.

Do you think that independent designers and independent fashion brands are the future of fashion?

Sara: Yes. The fashion ecosystem is no longer a one size fits all brand model: many small scale, visionary ventures, are innovating with their direct strategies, by not focusing on wholesale channels – they are able to blueprint bespoke strategies- and collectively are right-sizing the future.

Be your own creative captain= don’t be afraid to invent your own role/create a new title.

What can help small brands to go through this crisis? What strategies should they implement in the future in order to grow and sustain their businesses?

Sara: The role of creativity to engine last change cannot be underestimated. Design advocacy for social justice, climate justice… must become fashion’s new normal. Now is a time of unprecedented challenge – but it is also a time of tremendous opportunity. For brands to plan and to blueprint 12 – 18 months into the future. Rather than rebuild - it is an opportunity to build anew - and to align mission with values based on people, planet, purpose before profit. This is also a time to embrace the design of services and experiences and imagine how these can be integrated into the design of fashion products… as well as a time to fine-tune the design of the business model itself – to one that is conscious, meaningful, adaptable.

Are there any tips you would give those who want to work in fashion? (fashion designers, stylists, buyers, art directors, etc.)

Sara: Roles in fashion are changing. Be your own creative captain = don’t be afraid to invent your own role/create a new title. Pioneer new relationships: Embrace the unknown including opportunities for collaboration. Connect within your own community but also be open to collaborating across specializations, sectors, and generations.

How did the COVID-19 change the fashion industry? How did it influence various professions, like stylists, photographers, make-up artists, models, fashion designers, buyers, PR agents, etc.

Sara: Everything has changed. In terms of sustainability, pausing has allowed for planetary healing and we must be mindful to help the earth maintain this momentum; It is too early to measure the full impacts or to predict the future – to culture + society. Perhaps IRL and the experience of travel will become the new luxury. Wellness, health, and humanity – working together to overcome all that has happened will take time.

Digital fashion technologies are developing fast, but how fast will fashion brands actually learn to integrate them and work with them? What are the most important digital technologies in fashion to be aware of?

Sara: The role of technology – whether augmented reality for virtual showcases, CLO 3D for on-demand inventory free design, biotech of new material innovations, or blockchain for supply chain transparency/traceability. The utility and importance of supporting R+D for innovation are only going to continue to accelerate – brands large and small – can integrate technology in a way that aligns with their ethos and DNA.

How do you see the future of our fashion industry?

Sara:The future of fashion must be inclusive, impactful, mindful, sustainable, and just – different than today. Hopefully, it will also be positive.


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