NYFW’s Key Players! Meet IMG’s Dominic Kaffka, Who Brings Designers’ Runway Dreams To Life

by Freya Drohan

Sure, people might be talking about the metaverse and dressing their avatars for virtual front rows, but back in the real world, our minds are still routinely blown by the innovative way designers’ collections come to life on the runway, season after season. As senior vice president of fashion events at IMG, and managing director of the company’s production agency FOCUS., Dominic Kaffka is instrumental in executing many of the most talked-about shows and events; whether they’re in physical, digital, or phygital format. We were keen to know what the lead-up *actually* looks like, including how much coffee he’s drinking right now plus what happenings are giving him a much-needed adrenaline boost ahead of kickoff later this week! Here’s a day in the busy, busy life…  

You’re from Germany! What’s your most European trait?
I’m always very punctual. That’s probably more German than European. Mostly, I’m ahead of schedule and it annoys my team!

How did your career originally begin? Did you ever think you’d be so immersed in the world of fashion?
To be honest, no! I studied Culture and Event Management and my goal was originally to have a career in music. I moved to Berlin in 2008 and back then the city was still raw—it was a creative melting pot with a crazy energy. Besides music, fashion was the most interesting industry to work in at the time. I started working at IMG as a production assistant straight out of university and never left.

You’ve been instrumental in NYFW, in particular, since 2014. In what ways has NYFW expanded since then?
When I took over as executive producer of NYFW: The Shows, there were some 80 shows in the tents at Lincoln Center. I think we’ve come a long way since then and have succeeded in completely re-imagining the event with a strong focus on thoughtful curation, venue design, and infrastructure, and providing an elevated experience for guests, press, and even more recently, to consumers. We now offer a multi-tiered product to our designer clients—from an enhanced nyfw.com with over 120 original content pieces published per season to a highly curated NYFW: The Talks series and customized showroom spaces. NYFW: The Shows is so much more than just a show venue. Last September, we introduced newly-designed flexible runway spaces with customized scenic and lighting elements at Spring Studios. Combined with our creative and production agency FOCUS., our Brand Partnerships team, and the consumer access we’re offering, NYFW is truly a year-round platform.

What else has brought NYFW to the next level over the last few years?
We significantly invested in nyfw.com, our OTT network, through shoppable videos which we rolled out during the pandemic, and live stream capabilities. Shoppable videos and see-now-buy-now collections have proven to be a successful DTC angle for our clients. For the upcoming immersive experience “THE ART OF RODARTE” [editor’s note: an immersive retrospective of Rodarte] we have developed an innovative phygital exhibition in close collaboration with Afterpay and Yahoo. I can’t say more yet, you need to come and check it out!

Proenza Schouler’s show in September 2021 (Courtesy)

FOCUS. was launched in 2018. Can you tell us about what this production arm entails?
FOCUS. is our creative and production agency at IMG. My team produces NYFW: The Shows and Australian Fashion Week, and also services a range of external clients globally. We provide design, event and show production, content production, and creative strategy.

What have been some of your favorite recent projects?
We’re lucky to have worked on so many unique projects in the past. To name just a few is difficult, but here are some of my personal highlights; we conceptualized and produced the first ever event at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi with DVF and Etihad Airways—an incredible location; for Jason Wu’s Tulum-inspired runway show on the rooftop at Spring Studios in September 20220, we brought in over 1,000 palm trees and 20,000 lbs of sand; I still have goosebumps from Christopher John Rogers’ FW ’20 show; Proenza Schouler’s SS ’22 show which took place at Little Island, what a collection and a magical sunset! Alber Elbaz’s x LeSportsac collab in 2018; and not to forget, The Blonds’ show at Moulin Rouge on Broadway. That was the first (and still the only) runway show on Broadway.

The week before NYFW, what does a typical day look like for you?
The week before NYFW is a seven day back-to-back marathon of client meetings, final venue walkthroughs, studio visits, music meetings, and show pacing sessions. The work hours become intense—usually 7AM to 11PM days which makes for a good warm up for the actual show week! Most of my day is spent making sure that my team has everything they need to execute our clients’ visions. We’re a team of about 30 producers, technical directors, creatives, and coordinators. I spend a lot of my time leading the individual producers and show teams, while also working with the our designer relations team to finalize the show schedule for the week. Figuring out who needs to be where at what time is a mission of its own!

Then during the schedule, what does a typical day look like?
My alarm goes off at 6AM and I quickly go through my inbox. My assistant picks me up at 7AM with lots of iced coffee and we’re off to the first show of the day. On a busy day we produce up to four shows back-to-back plus dinners or parties in the evening. I go into production mode which feels like having adrenaline induced tunnel-vision where I run (well, drive fast!) from rehearsal to show to rehearsal to offsite venues all around the city. Day five is always the toughest. Long days sometimes end well after midnight. The key to surviving this demanding schedule is my incredible team, who make sure we all stay on track!

The last two years presented many roadblocks for designers who wanted to do a physical show. Can you tell us about some ways you managed to create memorable productions despite the pandemic?
For Spring 2020, we quickly pivoted to creating digital content in many different forms for our clients. Despite small production budgets, we were able to shoot great image pieces and short films. We also continued to produce smaller live shows, sometimes with only 25 guests. I’m really glad that it seems we’ve gone through the worst of it—onwards, and not so much looking back is my mantra!

Staud show setting in September 2021 (Courtesy)

What were some brand experience highlights from last September in particular?
There were so many! Staud took it to the next level with a beautiful collection, amazing cast, and a stunning show setup including fireworks for the finale. Joseph Altuzarra returned to NYFW and he delivered a beautiful collection, shown in a very stripped-down warehouse location. We also produced a Block Party and fashion presentation with Maison Kitsuné in the Meatpacking District: a full day of music programming that was free to the public on the street. This activation demonstrated that NYFW is so much more than only runway shows for a select, invited group of people.

Can you tease some things we should be excited for this season?
I can’t reveal too much about the shows but I’m really excited about the immersive exhibition, The Art of Rodarte, conceptualized and produced by FOCUS. It will open on Saturday, February 12 to the public. Together with Kate and Laura Mulleavy, we’ve created an exhibition showing their genius craftsmanship and their work as movie directors and costume designers. I’m also excited about our continued work with IMG Fashion Alliance Designers—we’re producing for Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Proenza Schouler, Altuzarra, and Markarian. I’m looking forward to seeing the hard work of the past few months, and the collections, finally live on the runway.

How long does it usually take to execute an idea once your team and a designer decides on a theme?
It really depends on the client. For some, we start creative development four or five months ahead of the show, while others like to wait until much later on when their collections are basically done and the show is just a few weeks away. Having more time to plan and execute often makes the overall process easier on many levels, but a compressed timeline often brings a strong and creative force within the teams that unleashes surprisingly amazing ideas!

 

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Tell us about some other elements you’ve implemented at Spring Studios to improve the NYFW experience for all?
We spent the better half of 2020 on developing health and safety plans in close collaboration with the Governor’s executive team. The most important thing for us was to provide a safe work environment for everyone on site. I always joke that some of my team members have earned their PhD in H&S measures. Besides that, we’re constantly improving our operations from season to season. For example, the private model dressing rooms we introduced at Spring Studios are now standard at many shows (they were not a few years ago) and we’re really proud of leading the way. It’s so important that not only the guests but all of the back-of-house teams from the cleaners to the technical personnel are being taken care of.

What helps you get through NYFW with your sanity intact?
My curated Spotify playlists to tune out for a few moments in the car between locations. The right music brings me down or hypes me up within just a few minutes. Also my driver and my secret trick: two pairs of sneakers per day!

How will this year be different to years before?
I wish I could predict the future! I hope that this upcoming NYFW season will be the last event during COVID, even though we’ve adapted so well to this new normal and are approaching our fifth season throughout the pandemic. In late spring, I think we’ll see a similar situation as we did last summer—a massive increase in events, shows, and activations. We at FOCUS. have been strategically growing our team and services over the last six months, and we have ambitious plans for the upcoming 18 months.

What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of NYFW?
I’m most excited about continuing to break down barriers and relentless re-invention!

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