Laurels and Darts: Awards Overlook Black Designers

Stephen Burrows with his special CFDA Award, presented by Alva Chinn (left), Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison.
Stephen Burrows with his special CFDA Award, presented by Alva Chinn (left), Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison. (Evan Agostini -- Getty Images For CFDA)
By Robin Givhan
Friday, June 9, 2006

While the fashion industry was patting itself on the back at its annual awards gala earlier this week, one couldn't help but notice a certain something that was lacking: African American designers.

During the evening, sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, one could see precisely what the upper echelons of the industry looks like.

The inner chamber is not populated by a rainbow coalition, but it has splashes of color. This year, the African American designer Stephen Burrows received a special tribute from the CFDA Board of Directors. His award was presented by a trio of former models and longtime friends: Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Bethann Hardison. All three are black. So in some ways this was a stellar year for blacks in fashion. Four of them managed to get on stage.

Over the course of an influential but rocky career, Burrows won several Coty Awards, which were established in the early 1940s to honor American designers. The CFDA Awards, born in 1981, are their modern equivalent. During the era of the Cotys, black designers such as Burrows, Jeffrey Banks and Willi Smith were honored.

But only one black man has ever won one of the three main CFDA Awards -- for menswear, womenswear and accessories. Sean Combs won in 2004 for his Sean John menswear line, a collection that reflects his personal aesthetic but that he does not actually design.

No black female designer has ever won a CFDA Award. None has ever even been nominated -- not in 25 years.

One could argue that Tracy Reese, who has been building her own business for more than a decade, has been overlooked, at least for a nomination. She offers a distinctive point of view with her feminine, embellished sportswear that is both creative and wearable. And over the years she has had some stellar collections. But somehow her profile has never been high enough and her collections never caused quite enough jaws to drop -- or at least the right jaws.

Winning a CFDA Award or even being nominated for one does not guarantee a long and lucrative career. But it is a sign of respect and admiration. It is a recognition of influence and stature. It puts the designer on the record as important.

The lack of black designers in the winners' circle, or even on the list of nominees, is not a matter of the industry overlooking a vast pool of name-brand African American talent. It is more complicated than that. The reality underscores the nature of the awards themselves and the kinds of careers that many African Americans are building within the fashion industry.

The awards are voted on by the approximately 250 CFDA members, as well as by a selection committee of retailers and editors -- including this writer. The honors have always celebrated one of two things: glossy trends or the rarefied elite of the fashion industry. There is tremendous emphasis on high-end designers, boldface names, exuberant creativity and the most elusive of factors: buzz. Like awards handed out in other industries, the CFDAs are a reflection of the way in which the industry views itself. And mostly the American fashion industry likes to see itself as a bastion of glittering luxury, creativity and magical cool. It emphatically does not want to be viewed as a commercial, democratic enterprise.

Big sales, affordability and wearability barely figure into the equation for who wins awards. Linda Allard, the former designer at Ellen Tracy, one of the biggest brands in fashion, never received a Coty or a CFDA, notes Banks. He would sometimes raise Allard's name as a possible nominee and other members of the CFDA board "looked at me like I had four heads," he says. No matter. Allard retired in 2003 as an extremely wealthy woman.

S o where are the African American designers who are flouting reason -- and sometimes good financial sense -- in favor of bold creative flourishes?

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