“The very first owl was a living owl. Eight years ago a guy called Jay was in Gainesville, hiking in the woods, and an owl was straight above him. He had never seen one before, and he was struck by it elegance,” recalls Steven Kolb, the C.E.O. of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a guy who is in a position to know a thing or two about elegance.
September is a big month for Kolb — the CFDA is a nonprofit trade organization of more than 350 designers, many of whom are staging shows during New York’s fashion week, which started yesterday — but just a few days before it all began, he agreed to explain why he has surrounded himself with at least 1,000 owls (a conservative estimate), some of which reside in his Manhattan apartment, many others that prefer his country house in Pennsylvania.
Driving home that fateful owl-spotting day almost a decade ago, he and Jay stopped off for a little shopping — “We like to go to fleas, junk sales, garage sales,” Kolb explains — and he nabbed a cheap owl, a souvenir that would prove to be the start of a very significant obsession.
“I couldn’t even tell you which one that first owl was, it was so long ago,” adds Kolb, who today is wearing a pair of faintly owlish spectacles. (He swears this is accidental! He is not trying to look like an owl! You are nuts to even suggest this!)
I don’t think it’s a particularly unusual collectible,” Kolb says, explaining that owl figurines were very popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, and, with the interest in midcentury accessories today, they’ve come back into fashion. He certainly doesn’t have a lot of trouble finding them: “Sometimes I think I’ve bought somebody’s grandmother’s entire collection.
“Whatever their provenance, he now owns Rosenthal Netter ceramic owls, owl jigsaw puzzles, salt and pepper shaker owls, owl clocks, owl mugs, owl candle holders, owl toilet paper covers, even Beanie Baby owls in cap and gowns. A very large orange clay owl, which was not always this hue (Kolb spray-painted him) and was once marginally useful (long ago it was a lamp), graces the bedroom; owl lithographs by the artist Charley Harper hang on the wall.
Did Kolb ever meet an owl he didn’t like? “I don’t like the fake furry ones. And I’m not big on stuffed animals — they take you in a different direction. You’re afraid you’ll become like the doll-collector guy Stanford dated on ‘Sex and the City.’”
Kolb finds some of his birds on eBay and also frequents a place called Trudy’s on Route 6, near his country house: “The Pennsylvania prices area half what you pay in New York.” Any number of owls have been gifts, which is how Kolb came to own a Russian stacking doll owl, a Swarovski crystal owl and a Waterford owl, courtesy of Kolb’s mom.
But of course, as with so many collections, there’s always the one that got — or in this case flew? — away. “There was a place near us in Pennsylvania that looked like an old castle and they sold big reproduction stone fountains with horses and lions, meant for a really tacky house, I guess.” Kolb remembers wistfully. “And they had an owl fountain — the water came out of the owl’s head, and it was $720. At first I said, ‘$720, I’m not going to spend $720,’ but then I decided, ‘OK, we’re going to get it!’ So we went back, but it was too late.” Wait, someone else wanted a fountain that spouted water from an owl’s head? “No. The place wasn’t open anymore.”