Lady Gaga arrived at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on Monday night dressed in what could best be described as a black latex leotard with a spiked thong bottom. It was hard to imagine—yet somehow it was true—that Lady Gaga sat politely in the audience for what must have been a full hour on that studded thong, before she was presented with the 2011 fashion icon award by the New York fashion industry. Lest her little monster fans worry, as she stepped on stage, her derriere did not appear to have been impaled.
The annual awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America honor those designers, photographers, editors and red carpet walkers who have made a career out of glamour, sex appeal and a stubborn insistence that looking good—or at least looking interesting—is merely good manners.
Celebrities, from Sofia Coppola and Naomi Watts to Kanye West and Gerard Butler, came to honor the men and women who doll them up for the red carpet. But mostly, this was a night when the designers were able to take center stage and the actors, musicians and all the rest stood back and applauded.
Even Lady Gaga brushed off the gushing accolades and tried, as best she could, to return the attention to the folks who make the clothes—and how those frocks serve as a fanciful refuge for those who are insecure or just feeling lost. “I always felt like I’d already made it, before I made it, because of you,” Lady Gaga said to the fashion industry insiders gathered in the auditorium. “You made me feel like a star.” The audience thrilled to such sweet sentiment. If only she’d stopped there. But no.
She made mention of a big black rat named “Black Jesus.” She intoned “Amen” to fashion. And then she strutted off stage in her black platform shoes—at least 10 inches tall—that looked as if the back of the heels had been bitten out by one of her little monsters. What, pray tell, just blew across the stage? It didn’t matter to the audience. It was a Gaga love fest.
Kanye West was on stage to introduce Phoebe Philo , who was given the International Award celebrating her work with the Paris-based brand, Celine. Philo has turned the moribund label into a powerhouse of minimalism. But given West’s history there was a good chance that he might take the opportunity to go rogue about how some other designer was more deserving or that he himself deserved the award. Would there be some sort of signature West wackiness? No, no. He was on his best behavior. Indeed, Philo’s skill was dynamic enough that it practically made West go weepy as he shared his love for her work and admitted to even trying on some of her womenswear at the Celine store in Paris, even though he knew he’d have hell to pay on the hip-hop blogs.
It was an especially warm and giddy show for an industry known for being both cynical and judgmental. Sofia Coppola gave Marc Jacobs his Lifetime Achievement Award, and he turned emotional when speaking of his dedicated business partner, Robert Duffy, who has supported him through tough times, both professional and personal.
Hilary Alexander, who is retiring after 25 years as the fashion editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, spoke lovingly about her passion for the fashion industry. InStyle’s Hal Rubenstein, honored with the Eleanor Lambert Award, made folks swoon when he spoke of his parents and how his mother gave him a love for words but his father passed on the simple joy that comes from loving someone unconditionally. And Arthur Elgort was celebrated for the spirit and pleasure he brings to his photography.
The awards welcomed several new designers into the spotlight. The Swarovski awards for best up-and-comers went to Prabal Gurung for womenswear, Robert Geller for menswear, and Eddie Borgo for accessories.
Menswear designer of the year was Michael Bastian for his modern take on Ivy League style. Alexander Wang was accessories designer of the year, thanks to his ability to capture the mood and attitude of a club-kid-the-morning-after in a pair of leather-trimmed stilettos. And Proenza Schouler won for best womenswear with a collection that was both wearable and artful.
It was a good night for American fashion as a new generation of designers stepped into the top ranks—at least creatively. Their businesses still have a ways to go before they compare to stalwart brands like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Still, it was a testament to the support that the CFDA provides young designers through mentoring and grants that so many of them are still standing after the recession. And it’s a testament to the industry as a whole that folks are no less creative and are all the more enthusiastic about the future.