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

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 13, 2010; E03


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.

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.

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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.

The industry gave Marc Jacobs the womenswear designer of the year award for a collection that was a study in restraint and elegance. It was the most mature collection from Jacobs in recent memory, one that wasn't informed by rock bands or animated films. The focus was the clothes and their relationship to the woman. The industry was honoring the designer not for being cool or hip or the most favored son, but because he produced a collection -- in shades of gray and without any contrivances -- that took one's breath away with its purity.

When Jacobs showed his fall collection in February, he used a mix of models, some of whom were long past that spindly filly stage. That choice made the collection even more compelling because it offered proof that a skilled designer can craft a dress that can be both spare and complex. Without excessive frills and complicated embellishments, a dress can still have a depth of artistry that allows it to speak to a young woman just coming into her own as well as an older one filled with confidence in her own charms.

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In a sense, the fashion industry recognized the beauty of diversity by bestowing the title of "fashion icon" on Iman. She strode to the stage in a strapless black gown with black tulle ruffles swirling around her legs. Iman has never been known for a particular wardrobe flourish. She retired from modeling, by her own account, some 20 years ago. But Iman built a successful makeup line, involved herself in international philanthropy and, in recent years, has been encouraging the fashion industry to broaden its definition of beauty.

She is an international celebrity who broke through color barriers and sees it as her duty to help other black models clear the remaining hurdles until they are fully and enthusiastically embraced by the fashion industry. Iman is an agitator against the status quo. And the industry applauded her for that.

So often, the CFDA awards have the feeling of insiders congratulating other insiders who adhere to the party line. But this time, Seventh Avenue seemed to understand that what it needs most are folks willing to not-so-gently nudge it into doing the right thing.

Kim Hastreiter, the co-founder of Paper magazine, won the Eugenia Sheppard award for journalism. In her acceptance speech, she declared herself an outsider, a discomforting thorn in the side of the establishment.

Hastreiter is known for having a keen eye for new talent, but she is also a tireless cheerleader for those who operate on the fringes. While onstage, she took aim at those industry kingmakers who are swayed by the young, cute, rich and connected. Don't be fooled into thinking you are a talented designer simply because you have the raw materials of hype, she warned. And editors and retailers need to trust their eyes, not the buzz.

An audible gasp swept through the audience in response. People were stunned -- and, yes, admiring -- that Hastreiter had the courage to speak the truth. The question, though, is whether anyone will take her words to heart.

There was a lot of truth and realism at this year's CFDA awards. Burberry's Christopher Bailey was given the International Award for his successful reinvention of the historical British brand. Alexander McQueen received a posthumous tribute for his artistic honesty. And Vogue's Tonne Goodman was celebrated for her career as a fashion editor, during which she crafted countless photos that seamlessly merged fashion and contemporary life.

It would be presumptuous -- and even sad -- to say that the fashion industry had transformed into a no-nonsense business of nuts and bolts and a place of political correctness. But the industry has come to terms, at least a little bit, with its cultural responsibilities. When CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg delivered her opening remarks, she threw in a reminder to designers that racial diversity and healthy physiques should be part of the basic requirements when casting a runway show. The audience murmured its assent.

Fashion is changing. Slowly. Too slowly, perhaps. But all for the good.

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