Nurturing the Next Fashion Leaders

How Virgil Abloh, Aerin Lauder and Darren Walker are navigating the shutdown.

By Ruth La Ferla

With the New York charity circuit on hiatus, here is how some philanthropists and society figures are spending their time and resources during the pandemic.

Virgil Abloh

Age: 40

Occupation: fashion designer, artist, musician, entrepreneur

Favorite charities: Fashion Scholarship Fund; No Negativity

Where have you been sheltering?

I’ve been spending most of my time in my studio on the North Side of Chicago. Digital conferencing has had to replace flying all over the world, so I’ve created space where I can work on fashion, my artwork and my music — a multipurpose studio that I’ve come to love.

What does it look like?

It’s a beautiful mess, a sort of open space that reflects the cross-disciplinary aspects of my practice.

You are a board member of the Fashion Scholarship Fund, which supports the next generation of industry leaders. What do we owe them?

We owe a complete restructuring and rethinking of our assumptions. In the past, hiring was based on accreditation: If you went to this or that school, or came from this or that background, we could give you a position. Now we need now to open our doors to a generation that is newly empowered, that comes with social media tools, with concepts, ideas and diverse opinions, not just accreditation and ambition.

You have mentored young Black and brown people. What has that taught you?

It’s a different world from the one I’ve experienced. The turbulence of the past year has put things — systemic racism, unconscious bias — on our front step, not in our backyard.

Your fans wait in long lines to buy your designs. Post-pandemic, will those lines have a future?

I don’t think so. If you are measuring the success of something by a line, that’s a misstep. The line is a side effect of my practice, not the point. The point is to make something that is worthy of existing.

What do you do for enjoyment?

I’m not the type to sit on a couch and watch a film. I’m passionate now about my label, Off-White. More than a purely fashion label, it’s a generational platform for highlighting and sharing stories. We’ll be replacing a fashion show with an online television station that we plan to launch during fashion week.

Aerin Lauder

Age: 50

Occupation: creative director, Estée Lauder Companies

Favorite Charities: God’s Love We Deliver, Mount Sinai Medical Center Foundation, Estée Lauder Breast Cancer Campaign

Where have you been sheltering?

I just came out to Westhampton. We’ve been traveling between here and our apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for months and months. The pandemic has meant a complete adjustment. On the positive side, there is time for the family and the things that we care about.

Such as what?

We have family meals and talks where our sons, Jack and Will, can communicate their concerns and fears. We celebrated the New Year with my family.

What has been most troubling?

In the beginning there was the fear. Every package, every envelope that arrived, every trip to the store with masks and gloves — all these things were so disturbing. Even now when I walk in my neighborhood, I see so many stores for rent. So much is empty. It’s heartbreaking.

How are you coping?

I’m not comfortable being outside or being with more than a few people. I’ve been careful. I follow the rules; I wear a mask. But then I’ve always followed the rules. I was never the girl who dyed her hair pink. I’ve never worn black nail polish.

You’ve published a book on entertaining. Have your rules evolved?

Entertaining to me has always been partly about taking time for yourself. When I do invite guests, I have no more than 10 people, close family and friends. We have lot of dinners in our kitchen. Things are more casual, and they’re multigenerational. I’ve learned to cook. I learned from Ina Garten on Instagram how to make a roast chicken, and now I make that for my boys.

Have you found other upsides to lockdown?

This pause has helped me look at different ways of being creative. I’m following travel accounts on Instagram and walking constantly. I walk alone. It’s the one thing that allows me an escape. Some of my best ideas come from those walks. I’ve found I’m a New Yorker at heart. There is nothing I love more than a pretzel from a truck.

Darren Walker

Age: 61

Occupation: president of the Ford Foundation

Favorite charities: N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund; President’s Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy

Where have you been sheltering?

I am renovating a new apartment on the Upper East Side, so I’ve been staying at a friend’s apartment nearby. The renovation started before Covid, and I’m still homeless. I’m living by myself with Mary Lou, my wonderful English bulldog.

Has lockdown been tough?

I’m an avowed extrovert, and I thrive on human interaction. The isolation of the last nine months has been particularly difficult.

How do you break up the solitude?

I very judiciously go out, partly because we need to support our restaurants. I feel strongly that we need to eat out every meal if we can. I just had lunch at Le Bilboquet and dinner at Philippe Chow the other day.

You hosted a Zoom conversation last week for the Museum of Arts and Design.

MAD occupies a unique space in the ecosystems of museums in New York. That they work at the intersection of design and visual arts makes their mission especially important now. We know that art can heal.

You invited André Leon Talley to speak. Why?

André and I met at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in 1995. We have often talked about what it is to be the only Black face in the room. What comes across in André’s memoir is that he is vulnerable in ways in which the fashion elite often are not. As he told me, “every day I have to suit up to fight.” That is the same in finance, technology and in other industries. In order to succeed we’ve had to, as André would put it, leave our Blackness at the door.

Which groups have been sidelined by the pandemic?

The community that has been most marginalized are people with disabilities. They often are an afterthought in policy, programming and hiring. You don’t find many in leadership positions on boards. We have a lot of work to do to destigmatize disability.

Your optimism seems boundless. Where does it come from?

Winter is always tough on the mental health, but this January is harder. My partner David Beitzel died two years ago this month. Still, not a day goes by when I don’t’ think about how lucky and privileged I am. What I look forward to more than anything is being able to hug. I can’t wait to luxuriate in the embrace of the people I love.

These interviews have been edited.

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