At the annual fashion awards this week, where honors were handed out by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, one had the opportunity to see how those in the business of style interpret it for themselves. In truth, it's not fair to assume that designers are the best advertisement for their own work. After all, the engineer who builds the race car is not necessarily the person who drives it to its full potential. A great coach isn't necessarily a world-class athlete.
Still, it's human nature to wonder whether the designers wear any of the folderol seen in their collections. Did Donna Karan, who received a lifetime achievement award, wear a chartreuse gown that looked artfully gnawed? Yes, she did. Did the temporarily retired Tom Ford turn out in any of the porn star finery from his Gucci oeuvre? Absolutely not. The designer, who received a special award from the CFDA board of directors, wore a classic tuxedo with a matching black four-in-hand. He did, however, kiss the presenter -- Fairchild Publications' Patrick McCarthy -- full on the mouth in an Adrien Brody- at-the-Oscars manner. Not be outdone, Karan planted a similarly ostentatious smacker on presenter Susan Sarandon.
Aside from the sloppy smooching -- which makes one long for a simple, solid handshake -- members of the design industry were otherwise elegantly turned out for their evening of self-adulation. The men favored white dinner jackets, the gowns were sophisticated without too much skin on display, and the setting, in the New York Public Library, was stately. Everyone was so splendidly turned out that those who decided to forgo protocol looked less like fashion rebels and more like stubborn children. Designer Marc Jacobs wore a black V-neck sweater with matching tie and trousers, and one couldn't help but think, well gosh, is it that difficult to play along and wear a jacket? Does a jacket somehow offend you?
Isaac Mizrahi was given the task of introducing actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who was honored as a fashion icon. Instead of standing at the lectern as every other presenter did, he used a hand-held microphone and stalked the stage as if he were in his own HBO comedy special. He lavished so much praise on Parker that it devolved into the absurd. No one comes close to doing what she has done for the fashion industry -- making high-priced designers into household names in the TV series "Sex and the City" -- but Mizrahi's manic hyperbole was unnecessary. Luckily, one was distracted by the bright, shining expanse of his naked ankles bookended by his evening slippers and high-water trousers.
Sean Combs, after a handful of nominations in past years, finally won the award for best menswear designer. He danced his way onto the stage looking dapper in a white dinner jacket and bursting with the enthusiasm that makes an awards show worth watching. He won -- and he cares! Combs reiterated his admiration for the other nominees, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren. He recalled how not so long ago he was saving his dollars to buy a Polo shirt and now, here he was nominated alongside Lauren. Combs also acknowledged those who had aided in his success, among them Tommy Hilfiger and Russell Simmons, who in a knuckleheaded nod to negritude wore a cocked baseball cap with a white blazer and untucked shirt in the misguided belief that it was still 1990 and this sort of rebelliousness was creative and cool. In her enthusiasm, Combs's mother, Janice, stood and cheered, and although she looked lovely in her evening slink, her hair is still a fluorescent shade of platinum. And that is all that is going to be said about Janice Combs's appearance because it is best not to speak ill of somebody's mama.
Zac Posen -- in a white sateen suit -- bested Patrick Robinson and Derek Lam to win the award for new talent in ready-to-wear. Eugenia Kim received the new talent award for accessories. She arrived at the podium wearing a trompe l'oeil ashtray on her head, thus demonstrating the kind of creativity with which she infuses her hat collection.
Carolina Herrera was honored for her womenswear designs, and she looked perfectly elegant in her long, crisp white skirt with its cargo pockets, and a black tank. She makes one believe that with the right designer wardrobe it is possible to have had cocktails in a hot room and sat through dinner in a cold one without sweating or wrinkling.
Designer Betsey Johnson didn't win an award, but she will probably win many fans among average women when they learn that she'd removed her rhinestone heels before she went through the front door of the library.
Other honorees included Coach designer Reed Krakoff, the Wall Street Journal's Teri Agins and photographer Irving Penn. Miuccia Prada, who received an International Award, wore a beautiful ivory pleated skirt with a frumpy black crewneck sweater and an antique headband loaded with diamonds.
It may be that only dedicated followers of fashion will ever remember who wins the CFDA awards. In a way it doesn't matter. Who can recall the winner of the Best Picture Oscar from two years ago other than a film addict? But the CFDA ceremony, as it has grown glitzier and more polished, with its red carpet, Hollywood guests and gantlet of photographers, has transformed into a pop culture event. Fans line the streets to catch a glimpse of Beyonce, "American Idol's" Fantasia Barrino, Jay-Z, Seal, Natalie Portman, Mandy Moore, Susan Sarandon, Kristin Davis, Eve, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump. There will be another group of pictures to chuckle over on the Internet and in the supermarket checkout line, another batch of dresses to ogle. And whether or not anyone remembers their names a year from now, the winners get to go home knowing that they have the admiration of their peers.