CFDA designers offer one another accolades at a show the public, mostly, ignores

DRESS RUN: Diane Von Furstenberg, head of the CFDA, announces the 2010 nominees.
DRESS RUN: Diane Von Furstenberg, head of the CFDA, announces the 2010 nominees. (Andrew H. Walker - Getty Images)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Each year, after the fashion industry has costumed all of Hollywood and anyone else with the slightest chance of walking a red carpet, it takes a bit of time to celebrate itself. It does so with the awards given out by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In order for the public at large to gain some sense of what the CFDA awards are all about, they have been given a shorthand: "the Oscars of the fashion industry." Except that they aren't. At least not yet.

Every industry has its trade organization, which is essentially the role of the CFDA. The group lobbies on behalf of designers, helps to focus the industry's philanthropic efforts and ultimately is the place where young designers go in search of counsel. The awards are a celebration of the fashion industry by its members. Designers are recognized by their peers. Fashion muses are honored by the folks whom they inspire. And editors -- including this one -- are sometimes given a pat on the back by the very designers about whom they write, even when it is in not-so-glowing terms.

This year's nominees were announced Wednesday evening in New York and include Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan for womenswear; Michael Bastian, Tom Ford and the design team behind the label Rag & Bone for menswear. Joseph Altuzarra, Prabal Gurung and Jason Wu are up for the Swarovski award honoring up-and-coming womenswear designers, and Richard Chai, Patrik Ervell and Simon Spurr are nominated for their fresh take on menswear.

Others who will be honored when the awards are handed out June 7 at Lincoln Center include the late designer Alexander McQueen, Michael Kors, Burberry's Christopher Bailey, model Iman, Vogue's Tonne Goodman and the longtime editor of Paper magazine and champion of fashion's underdogs, Kim Hastreiter.

The biggest difference between the CFDA awards and the Oscars is not the degree to which the red carpet is saturated with beautiful people wearing bewitching clothes, but rather the ripple effect. There's plenty of glamour on fashion's big night out. Much of it, however, tends to be reflected glitz. It's thrown off by the actors and actresses who serve as presenters and as arm candy. They, of course, are dressed by the designers.

Names on the labels

The men and women whose names are on the labels tend to be more eccentric than dazzling, impeccably groomed but not polished to jaw-dropping perfection. The women are not all size 2. And the men are not all characters from "Zoolander." Often, the designers will purposely look a bit ragged, choosing to be conscientious objectors on a night that could easily turn into a style-based arms race. Designers are the mythmakers. They are the wizards behind the magic rather than the beneficiaries of the styling hocus-pocus.

While actresses are expected to have an arsenal of entertaining bons mots for their promenade up the red carpet, most designers -- aside from Kors, who, as any fan of "Project Runway" can attest, resides in a league of his own -- get a pass if they manage to put together one or two earnest-sounding sentences.

Mostly, though, the CFDA awards don't rumble across the pop culture landscape the way the Academy Awards do. Each year on Oscar night, the populace makes its picks in office pools, gathers in front of television sets and pretends to be a gang of film experts even if they've seen none of the nominated works. Not being engaged by the Oscars is a sign that one is disengaged from popular culture. Most everyone puts up a good front.

If there are any office pools on who will win womenswear designer of the year, those offices are situated within about a one-mile radius of the Garment District. That's a surprising insularity considering the reach of the fashion business.

Some 10 years ago, the industry attempted to carve out a broader niche and the awards were taped for broadcast on cable. It was, perhaps, the most disastrous of evenings, one that plodded on toward midnight and left the audience exhausted, bored and disgruntled. After scathing reviews from within the industry, the awards show reduced its aspirations.

Now, the CFDA is working to up the ante. Snippets of the awards have appeared on the Sundance Channel. The CFDA is working to get a significant presence on television. The timing couldn't be more natural.

Fashion goes democratic

Everyone has to deal with the frock trade, even those who never wander into designer boutiques or who wouldn't consider spending more than $50 for a pair of shoes. Ever since fashion went democratic, the fanciest designers have broadened their audience by offering their style sensibility to everyone from Kohl's shoppers to those who can afford custom-made clothing.

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