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Fashion's awards gala highlights industry's resilience in the face of recession

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 13, 2010

NEW YORK

The fashion industry congratulated itself Monday night at its annual awards gala -- a mix of Seventh Avenue heavyweights, models, retailers, editors and the actresses who provide the business with its pop culture resonance. Indeed, it was a year worth celebrating.

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The frock trade survived the recession -- with neither bailouts nor mass bankruptcies -- and emerged with a more mature approach to style. And, even more important, the industry as a whole exhibited a greater sensitivity to diversity in race, age and even size.

This year, of all the awards handed out by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the honors given to designer Michael Kors and model-turned-entrepreneur Iman were particularly resonant. They served as representatives of the kind of tenacity, intelligence and breadth of experience that the fashion industry came to value in 2010.

The CFDA gave Kors the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award just as he approaches his 30th anniversary in business. From the beginning, Kors had a signature aesthetic sensibility: comfortable and luxurious sportswear. He is the master of the perfect cashmere turtleneck, flannel trousers that can work voodoo on the derriere, Hollywood aviator sunglasses and the glittering evening sheath. Kors has never engaged in tricks and gimmicks to lure customers. A designer doesn't have to, if he's offering customers smart clothes that make them feel glamorous.

Kors has stood firm with his signature style through grunge, his own bankruptcy, the industry's recent obsession with rock-star glitter and a host of other dodgy trends and business hurdles. He made it through and prospered. It may be that much of the population knows Kors only as the witty and biting judge on "Project Runway." But all those aspirants would be smart to listen to the wisdom tucked between the charming patter. Kors earned the respect of his colleagues by being a dogged, talented and enduring designer.

When Vogue editor Anna Wintour presented the award, she noted that Kors has a love for his customers that few other designers can match. He is the rare fashion titan who revels in hands-on public appearances. He dives into the crowds of women who come to see him at boutiques and specialty stores and he listens to their concerns, their desires and their giddy enthusiasm. And he takes it all to heart.

If there is anything that comes across in a single encounter with Kors, it is that he not only loves women, he respects them. And that sentiment is evident in every garment that he sends down his runway.

Kors's American sportswear doesn't always make fashion editors salivate; he is not interested in costumes, nostalgia or the avant-garde. But his easy-to-wear clothes make civilians swoon. No wonder that first lady Michelle Obama chose to wear Kors's black jersey sheath for her official White House portrait. She needn't worry that a decade from now she'd look at it and ask herself, "What was I thinking?" Kors's brand of fashion may not always be trendy, but it is always in style.

* * *

This year, style was a particularly valued commodity -- not fads, not cheap provocation. Rag and Bone was honored for its dark-hued urban menswear and Alexis Bittar for elegant and playful accessories. The winners of the Swarovski awards for up-and-coming talent included Jason Wu for womenswear, Richard Chai for men's clothes and Alexander Wang for accessories.

Wu sees himself as an old-world dressmaker with a modern sensibility. Chai's menswear is down-to-earth and straightforward. And Wang's accessories, despite being shown on a runway where ear-splitting rock shakes the speakers and models have just rolled in from the club dishevelment, are practical and commercial. In each case, style wasn't elevated over substance.


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