The American Fashion Awards were handed out Thursday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. And while the event celebrates the best of American design, the presentation should have been called the Miss Diana Ross show. Rhythm and blues's own Norma Desmond arrived in a cloud of purple sequins, marabou and hair to present a special award to designer Bob Mackie, who has created so many of her costumes.

Ross swiveled onto the stage with her hips ricocheting from side to side and her head thrown back, tossed back, violently whipped back so that her purple-streaked mane trailed down her back. She didn't even have the award statuette with her -- an assistant emerged with it after the fanfare, so as not to mar the taut line of her Mackie mermaid gown. The entrance really should have been accompanied by the boom-chicka-boom of a drum kit.

Her delivery of kudos was erratic but earnest, even a bit sniffly, and she underscored the importance of Mackie in creating her enduring diva image. It was clear and charming that the two have a warm, personal relationship. But her intimacy knows no boundaries. Ross shared the news that she has gained a bit of weight and that Mackie and staff had to shoehorn her into the purple gown with its flares of silver sequins.

Before anyone gets hopped up in diva defense mode over the suggestion that Ross's gown was a tad too tight, understand that Ross went into graphic detail of popping sequins, a straining zipper and her tummy being sucked in, in, in to get the dress situated just so. She went on and on with her tale in a revelatory, ooh-girlfriend, Oprah-and-Rosie kind of way. And somewhere about the time she got to the image of Mackie biting on sequins to hoist up the zipper, about the time four decades of glamour was about to be erased with one far-too-honest tale, one wanted to shout: Miss Ross! Keep hope alive! Don't destroy the dream!

Ross was the highest-wattage star at the awards, which also included presenters Mena Suvari, Chris Noth, Brendan Fraser, Jimmy Fallon and Heather Graham. After a brief play for television coverage and a mass audience, the awards, which are presented by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, have returned to their status as an industry event rather than one likely to lure a general audience. The Academy Awards are a far more satisfying venue for the casual observer to enjoy fashion at its highest form. The American Fashion Awards are for aficionados.

While on the red carpet, designer Calvin Klein, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award, was grazed with tofu pie shrapnel. The pie was launched by an animal-rights activist and was reportedly aimed at Karl Lagerfeld, who designs for Fendi, which is known for its furs.

Other honorees of the evening included the recipients of the Perry Ellis Award, which celebrates new talent: shoe designer Edmundo Castillo for accessories; William Reid for menswear; and Daphne Gutierrez and Nicole Noselli, who design womenswear under the Bruce label.

John Varvatos, last year's Perry Ellis menswear winner, was named menswear designer of the year. Tom Ford was honored for his women's collection for Yves Saint Laurent. And Reed Krakoff of Coach won the award for accessory designer of the year. This year's international award went to Nicolas Ghesquiere for his work at Balenciaga.

Awards to Saks Fifth Avenue for its leadership in the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign and to cosmetics mogul Evelyn Lauder for her humanitarian efforts in fighting breast cancer highlighted the broad impact of the fashion industry. Dawn Mello, the former president of Bergdorf Goodman and Gucci, who was honored for her work in nurturing new fashion talent, made an eloquent plea for increased support of unproven American designers. That was met with cheers from the balcony, which was filled with students from fashion schools.

For the second year, the show was hosted by comedian Sandra Bernhard, who opened the evening dressed in a gold bra with her torso lassoed in gilded rope. The ensemble was created by Mackie, who managed to dress the evening's two liveliest women.

After a preshow cocktail and buffet reception -- champagne flowed and mounds of sushi shriveled inside a steamy but grand tent -- the awards were to begin at 8. As if the big awards were just another fashion show, the presentations started one hour late.

8 p.m.: Guests at the VIP reception are shooed to their seats: "The show will begin momentarily." Everyone knows that this is a lie. No one moves.

8:10: Guests continue sipping champagne and vodka.

8:15: Calvin Klein settles into his seat, having recovered from the pie assault. He is brought a bottle of San Pellegrino water and a glass. There are approximately two dozen people in the vast auditorium.

8:28: A woman who bears a striking resemblance to Farrah Fawcett runs down the aisle in a T-shirt with L.A. Lakers spelled out in rhinestones.

8:31: "Farrah" trots back up the aisle.

8:35: "Farrah" lingers in the aisle as ushers desperately try to persuade people to sit down. No one moves, as the last man standing is clearly the most important.

8:40: Miss Ross swans down the aisle closely followed by a trail of men and women in headsets.

8:47: Sean Combs, a k a Puff Daddy, a k a P. Diddy, arrives with his mother, Janice Combs. He's wearing white. She's wearing his fame.

8:48: Producers begin flashing the lights. The crowd grudgingly moves.

8:50: Puffy sits.

8:55: An aide brings Mother Combs something cool to sip.

8:58: The dancing girls enter stage left.

Most presenters refrained from attempting wit and stuck to the straightforward script. The fashion crowd is not the sort to give up a polite chuckle for a gallant attempt at humor. A fashion audience will sit silently, letting the poor hapless soul writhe in the stink of a bad joke.

But on this night when the industry honors its brightest talents, the jokes don't really matter. Everyone is reminded that fashion is most satisfying when it reaches beyond the runway, celebrates the passion of creativity and offers a stage for those who are ready for their close-up.

Diana Ross sang the praises of designer Bob Mackie, who has designed so many of her costumes, at the 20th annual American Fashion Awards.Bob Mackie feels the love at the American Fashion Awards, where he was honored for his "exuberance."The fallout from an animal rights activist's tofu pie hits unintended target Calvin Klein at the awards show.