A Cut Above: Fashion Awards Honor Young Designers

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

NEW YORK -- The fashion industry handed out its top honors this week, and for the first time in almost a decade, familiar faces such as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs were not in the winner's circle. Instead of celebrating the tried and true, press darlings and fashion's biggest moguls, the industry applauded a new generation of design talent. That made for an evening filled with idealism, optimism and emotion.

The annual gala, hosted Monday night by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is the industry's most prestigious event and attracts designers, retailers, editors and just enough Hollywood glitter to warrant a red carpet and attract a crowd of screaming fans in front of the New York Public Library.

The onlookers were there to catch a glimpse of arriving guests like Jessica Simpson in the teeny-tiniest white Michael Kors minidress and Scarlett Johansson with brown hair and searing red lips. Even designers were eyeing Janet Jackson, who was just recently the subject of an Us magazine cover story in which she discussed losing 60 pounds with the help of a trainer who often tricked her into exercising by saying, "Hey, let's go for a walk." She was dressed in a red Bill Blass gown with a plunging halter neckline that proved certain parts of the female anatomy are capable of defying gravity.

But most of the folks in fan delirium behind the metal barricades would have been hard-pressed to identify any of the evening's biggest winners. With the exception of womenswear designer of the year Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein, it isn't even easy to find their clothes. But they are the industry's future.

After years working behind the scenes, Costa took over the creative reins at Calvin Klein womenswear in 2003 when the founding designer sold the company and took on a consulting role. Costa's first collection was lackluster and its presentation rough. Models teetered down the runway and more than a couple wore clothes that ripped apart with each wobbly step. But Costa soon found his way. His spring 2006 collection, focused on ethereal white dresses, proved he is an exceptional talent. Johansson, who in one of those wonderful fashion coincidences just happened to be wearing a Calvin Klein dress, presented the award to Costa, whose voice cracked as he expressed appreciation to the New York industry for welcoming him. "If there's an American dream, this is it for me," said the Brazilian-born designer.

Earnest displays of emotion made this year's ceremony especially engaging. In the past, some designers have accepted their silver statuettes with little more than a wry nod while dangling a cigarette between their fingers. Others, having made the trip to the podium so often, seemed to be reading from a stock script. But there's nothing like the threat of tears to give an awards show a little sizzle and pop.

Thom Browne beat out another newcomer, Alexandre Plokhov of Cloak, and veteran Lauren to be named menswear designer of the year. Browne, who once worked for Lauren, gained notice for his luxuriously tailored suits with abbreviated proportions. Accepting his award, Browne modeled his own handiwork. His jacket just grazed the hips; the sleeves revealed an abundance of his French cuffs, and the trousers were cropped above the ankle.

Performer Harry Connick Jr. presented the menswear award wearing Chanel sunglasses he claimed to have stolen from Vogue editor Anna Wintour. How can you see in these things, Connick teased. (In the fashion industry, this is considered a really audacious joke. The crowd roared with laughter. Folks loved Connick.) Browne thanked his parents for their support, even though earlier this year his father, a lawyer -- confused, distracted and baffled in the endearing way that only parents can be -- casually wondered who made the clothes in his son's last show.

Tom Binns received the accessory designer of the year award, besting Kors and Jacobs, with his iconoclastic jewelry that mixes fine materials with images of skulls, daggers and grenades. Binns dashed onstage to accept the award from Lindsay Lohan and Karl Lagerfeld. He grabbed the statue with a wave and a shy smile, leaving Lohan to play Miss Manners and relay his thanks to the crowd. Lohan and Lagerfeld, by the way, wore coordinating black ensembles. He also chose black fingerless gloves; she had bits of black leather wrapped around her hands. She made fun of her vast collection of handbags. He settled into a brief monologue, something German-accented, fast and far, far away from the microphone.

Overheard observation from singer Alicia Keys: "I have no idea what he just said." She was not alone.

Actor Jeremy Piven of "Entourage" ("Let's hug it out") hosted the evening. "What's the difference between a gay man and a straight man? Two tequilas," Piven said and quickly took a swig from his drink.

Later in the evening: "I'm halfway to Liberace." (The fashion crowd loved his shtick. Piven killed.)

The tenor of the evening has changed over the five years it has been underwritten by Swarovski, which produces the bulk of the rhinestones designers use to embellish their frocks. Nadja Swarovski, whose family founded the company, has actively courted young designers, giving them access to the company's wares and sponsoring the Perry Ellis Awards for emerging talent. That support, as well as the coming of age of a new generation of design school graduates, has resulted in an abundance of young entrepreneurs hanging out shingles and offering up intriguing new points of view. Swarovski's Perry Ellis Awards, given for womenswear, menswear and accessories, have become the most competitive of the evening because the roster of capable new designers has become more crowded.

Singers John Legend and Keys handed out all three awards, but not before performing an abbreviated but mesmerizing a cappella duet of "The Way You Look Tonight." Keys wore a draped Vera Wang gown in white georgette -- with Swarovski crystal embellishment. (Notice the synergy?) Legend did not appear to be wearing any rhinestones, and he diplomatically avoided making any assessment of the fashion crowd other than to commend it for stylishness.

Doori Chung won for her womenswear, which she injects with sensuality -- no matter if she's draping an evening gown or tailoring a pair of trousers. The four-man team behind the California-based Trovata won for menswear. The line mixes preppy style with lackadaisical informality and humor. And Devi Kroell, best known for her python hobo bags, was honored for her accessories.

Olivier Theyskens, the designer of the Paris-based Rochas, received the International Award. Presented by Wintour, who was wearing one of the designer's elegantly reserved gowns, the prize acknowledged the impact Theyskens has had in reviving the French house and on the overall mood of fashion. Through his work at Rochas, Theyskens has popularized a more covered-up, dignified sensibility. The designer, with his long mane of brown hair and scruffy beard, accepted the award in a charmingly too-big tuxedo. Photographer Bruce Weber, in his signature bandanna, accepted the Eugenia Sheppard Award in journalism for his body of fashion images. The public may know him best for his work on the Abercrombie & Fitch half-naked-teens-at-play catalogues.

Stephen Burrows, the first African American designer to gain international recognition, received a special Board of Directors tribute for his groundbreaking career in fashion. The award celebrated his profound influence on sportswear beginning in the 1970s and his iconic jersey dresses with rippled "lettuce" hemlines.

Retired Neiman Marcus fashion director Joan Kaner received the Eleanor Lambert Award for her enthusiastic support of young designers. And Stan Herman, the outgoing president of the CFDA, received a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the fashion industry. Herman leaves a legacy that includes sportswear, loungewear and uniforms for companies including FedEx, JetBlue and McDonald's. But even more important is his influence on philanthropy. The CFDA has raised more than $12 million for AIDS research and more than $40 million for breast cancer research during his 16-year tenure.

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