For the first time in their 18-year history, the fashion industry's highest honors, the awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, will be televised. Renamed the American Fashion Awards, because no one outside of Seventh Avenue has ever heard of the CFDA, they were taped Wednesday in New York to be televised June 13 on E! Entertainment.
The good news is that there were moments of earnest emotion and joyful surprise. Betsey Johnson executed three of her signature cartwheels onstage to celebrate her award for Timeless Talent. Andrew Tilberis movingly captured the generous spirit of his wife, Liz, who posthumously received the Humanitarian Award. Liz Tiberis, the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, recently died of ovarian cancer. There were squeals of delight from the friends and fans of Josh Patner and Bryan Bradley of Tuleh when the duo were announced as winners of the Perry Ellis Award for Womenswear. And Michael Kors, Womenswear Designer of the Year, talked of still being thrilled to see one of his creations in a magazine or on a customer even after 18 years in business.
But the great debate during the evening of cocktails, dinner and statuettes was how would an awards gala, which honors folks who mostly are not household names and who create a product that is by definition exclusive, translate to the masses? It probably won't, at least not without ruthless editing of a presentation that dragged on until Wednesday night passed into Thursday morning.
But the greater problem -- beyond the Oscar-like length of the program -- is not the lack of familiar names and faces. It is the lack of enthusiasm from the industry itself. There was precious little visible joy among the garmentos. Folks were so jaded, they looked positively green.
Consider the opening lines of Marc Jacobs's acceptance speech for Accessory Designer of the Year: The "only good thing" about receiving this award, he said, is the opportunity to thank many people. Egads! That's the only good thing? How about the admiration of one's peers or kudos for a job well done? Are manners that much of a burden?
Besides, does it take an award show before Jacobs, full of ennui and dangling a cigarette between his fingers, can muster a bit of appreciation? Are a few handwritten note cards that daunting?
Besides, since these are the American Fashion Awards, why was Jacobs honored for accessories that he created for Louis Vuitton, a French company?
Other disappointments included the absence of Sophia Loren, recipient of an award for a lifetime of glamour, and Cher, honored for her influence on fashion. They were the biggest mainstream draws, the lures for the program, and unfortunately a video montage could not make up for their not being on hand.
The show also dragged on because honorees had to scramble through the crowded room to get to the stage. Since all the winners had been previously notified, except for the recipients of the Perry Ellis Awards, couldn't they have been escorted backstage early so that the audience didn't have to watch them squeeze their way through the tables? Ticktock, ticktock.
The sweat on everyone's brow? That's because the space at the 69th Regiment Armory wasn't adequately air-conditioned. The look of annoyance on folks' faces? The lighting was so dim during the cocktail hour -- when everyone was standing -- that it was impossible to see what people were wearing. And after all, that is the point of a fashion event.
The most spirited moment during the first half of the show was a live version of the Gap's Khaki a-go-go advertisement. And the most emotion elicited from the audience came during the second half, when it was announced that Loren was not in attendance. A huge boo swept through the room.
The fashion industry relied on film and television stars to provide the glamour for the evening and Hollywood came through, supplying people like Anjelica Huston, Mary J. Blige, Claire Danes, Julianne Moore, Martha Stewart, Angie Harmon, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Rita Wilson, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Hurley, Bette Midler, Chris Rock and others. But it was not simply who was there, but also who they wore. Huston was in a Kors design. Thiessen was dressed in James Purcell. Stewart wore Ralph Lauren, Harmon was in Randolph Duke and so on.
Like the Oscars, which succeed or fail based on the finesse of the host, the American Fashion Awards struggled with presenters who were stymied by a TelePrompTer tucked into the glare of the spotlights, a script that required constant clarification with asides such as: That was a joke. And host Moore seemed to be thinking mostly of how she was going to murder her agent for this impossible booking.
Even the usually amusing Chris Rock was cursed. He began with an awkward joke involving Calvin Klein, zippers and "weed." And then a slightly startled Klein appeared to accept the award for Menswear Designer of the Year. But Rock did manage the most prescient line of the evening as he summed up the impending excitement: "For the finale, Yves Saint Laurent is going to hem a pair of pants."
If only it had been that thrilling.
CAPTION: The cast of characters from left to right: Designer Yohji Yamamoto and Halston's Kevan Hall; actress Tiffani-Amber Thiessen with designer James Purcell; actress Anjelica Huston with designer Michael Kors; and cartwheel-turning Betsey Johnson with daughter Lulu.
CAPTION: Designer Yves Saint Laurent with a bevy of chaperones.