Fashion Awards

CFDA Honors Behind-the-Scenes Fashion Stars and Understated Style

The Council of Fashion Designers Awards honored the fashion industry and the reality of how it works, reports Robin Givhan.

There was no Lady Gaga wearing a spiked thong. And Johnny Depp, proclaimed a style icon by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was a no-show. Thus, this year’s CFDA awards Monday night at New York’s Alice Tully Hall were a subdued affair spiced only by the willingness of host Seth Meyers to take a few lusty pokes at an industry that too often takes itself all too seriously.

“Fashion and comedy go together like bar mitzvahs and John Galliano,” Meyers joked in his opening monologue, referring to the former Christian Dior designer who was fired for his anti-Semitic comments. The audience responded with self-conscious groans and moans as if to suggest that Meyers had crossed some sacred line. But Meyers was not daunted. He took a swipe at Karl Lagerfeld for his obsession with weight. He teased Marc Jacobs for his eccentric ensemble—a sheer black lace dress worn over white boxers—at the recent Costume Institute ball. (He even strutted out in a version of the ensemble at the half-way mark for a moment of pure visual comedy.) And then Meyers essentially dared the audience not to laugh: “Fashion people like hating things more than they like liking things.”

Bravo to Mr. Meyers. He was spot on. The truth might hurt, but it was also mighty funny.

There was an abundance of truthfulness and realism to this year’s CFDA awards, and a lot less glitz. Those who were honored represented the often-ignored behind-the-scenes powerhouses, as well as the folks who make clothes that average consumers wear, not just the rarified few. The CFDA honored a designer who shuns the spotlight and is, perhaps, more admired because of it, along with a duo who redefined what it means to be celebrity designers.

The starlet presenters this year still sparkled and smiled, but they did not seem to shine as brightly as they have in the past. There wasn’t the sense of that powerful gravitational pull of big-name actors and actresses who tend to turn the evening into an homage to Hollywood rather than a celebration of Seventh Avenue. Jessica Chastain may be a rising talent, but it’s still hard to remember exactly which pampered Southern lady she played in The Help. Jessica Pare serenaded Don Draper on Mad Men but the fascination with her rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” is still a bit baffling. And Lily Collins is an adorable young actress, but a Google search was necessary before one was able to place her as the daughter of singer Phil Collins who also had a role in The Blind Side.

Instead, the night belonged to the fashion industry. Billy Reid, who divides his time between New York and Alabama, was honored for best menswear. His clothes are grounded in a kind of Southern Americana. His jackets are roomy; his trousers have texture. He does not traffic in hipster attitude. Reed Krakoff was named best accessory designer for his signature collection—a group of tasteful handbags and shoes that evoke good breeding rather than the sort of in-your-face edginess that turns heads and has historically made editors swoon. The top women’s-wear award went to The Row, created by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. It is a decidedly grown-up brand, one that appeals more to a 30-something woman than a girl fresh from adolescence. (In the CFDA video celebrating the brand, the clothes were modeled by the 70-something writer and artist Beatrix Ost who appears in “Advanced Style”—an homage to older women.) The Row is understated, luxurious, and inattentive to trends.

Those industry veterans receiving special awards included Andrew Rosen—a name the average person probably has never heard—and Tommy Hilfiger, whose clothes are probably in Everyman’s closet. Rosen is a third-generation, garment-industry man, but his name isn’t on any label. In presenting his award, designer Kenneth Cole noted: “So often in fashion we celebrate the frontman. Tonight we honor someone in the shadows.”

Rosen’s flagship is Theory, youthful sportswear for professional women that has been given an injection of fashion by Olivier Theyskens. But Rosen also has invested in other brands, such as Proenza Schouler and Rag & Bone. He also serves as a business mentor through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund.

Hilfiger has built one of the largest American fashion brands, but he was not always embraced by the industry. For years there was a perception within the more rarified parts of the American fashion world that Hilfiger was too mass. Too commercial. Too much. But success made a believer out of his critics. But his lifetime achievement award, presented by Vogue’s Anna Wintour, was less about his designs and more about what goes on off the runway. He has been a longstanding supporter of the Fresh Air Fund. He was a key fundraiser for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. And he underwrote the Americans in Paris showroom, which allowed young Seventh Avenue designers to introduce their work to an international audience.

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—fashion’s woman of mystery and riddles—received the international award. Director John Waters, who dedicated a chapter of his book Role Models to rhapsodizing about her work, accepted on her behalf. He also appeared on behalf of Depp, who was the first man to be declared a fashion icon by the CFDA. One wishes Waters could be the designated speechmaker for the CFDA awards, as his ability to exquisitely describe the maddening illogic of Kawakubo and the stylish sloth of Depp is wickedly funny and blissfully unvarnished.

The Swarovski Awards, which honor new designers, went to Phillip Lim for menswear, Tabitha Simmons for her footwear, and Joseph Altuzarra for women’s wear. And the media award went to bloggers and photographers Garance Dore and Scott Schuman, who both democratized and exalted street style.

This wasn’t the year that celebrated brash showmanship or the power of celebrity. Instead, the CFDA, marking its 50th anniversary, honored its industry and the reality of how it works.