NEW YORK – Every year the Council of Fashion Designers of America honors the achievements of veteran designers and celebrates the potential of a class of newcomers. Monday night’s ceremony highlighted the old-school craft of clothes, the gut-instincts of an enduring merchant and a wave of American designers who are informed by the street.
It was also a slog through long speeches, stuttering gratitude, affectless reminiscences, grudging laughter and fear of Kanye.
Ultimately though, Instagram was the most interesting win of the night. Its impact says the most about fashion in our popular culture.
The CFDA ventured boldly into new territory. It gave its media award — typically presented to a writer, editor or photographer — to a company, or more precisely, an app: Instagram. Voted on by the CFDA board, Instagram had the support of some of the industry’s most influential voices, said the organization’s chief executive Steven Kolb.
Launched in 2010, Instagram was created as a photo-sharing device with a selection of filters and other doo-dads to doctor images to a user’s aesthetic tastes. Kevin Systrom said that he and co-founder Mike Krieger never envisioned Instagram’s effect on the fashion industry: “There’s a funny picture of Mike and I wearing baggy shirts and pants. So to say we were thinking about fashion would be an overstatement.”
“We started it to be for everyone,” Systrom said in an earlier interview. “The universality of images is something we hold near and dear.”
But Instagram, Systrom acknowledges, has changed fashion. “Designers are thinking of things to put in shows to encourage people to take Instagrams,” Systrom says, noting the recent Chanel show in which designer Karl Lagerfeld created an entire supermarket set including details such as boxes of Chanel rice, shopping carts and displays of produce.
There have always been designers who created elaborate sets for their fashion shows. But in recent years, in addition to Chanel’s French bistro, Givenchy’s auto carnage and Dries Van Noten’s hippie sit-in, designers are giving audiences carefully orchestrated group shots of models — perfect for Instagram.
Where it was once de rigueur for models to make one final pass down the runway at the end of a show, now they come out as a group and pose. Often they remain in position even as the audience is leaving — more opportunities for guests to swarm around a model to capture a perfect close-up for Instagram.
“I went to the Burberry show in L.A. and I was talking to [creative director] Christopher Bailey,” Systrom says. Production values of fashion shows have gone up, Bailey told him, now that images are disseminated instantly — or as quickly as all that filtering and editing will allow. Pictures go far beyond newspapers and magazines and websites to be shared — and re-shared — millions of times in ways that are not just regurgitating what the designer says but from a new point-of-view. A designer no longer lectures. Instagram helps spark a conversation and a debate.
Instagram is part of the great democratization of fashion, helping to create an entire class of fashion professionals who did not hone their chops as junior editors or assistants. They are untethered to specific publications. Their message is wholly visual and it is personal. And for some people, such as Leandra Medine and Chiara Ferragni it has become lucrative, as they become tastemakers to their hundreds of thousands of followers, brand ambassadors for labels, collaborators with fashion designers and even designers, themselves.
Instagram has given models a tool for creating a public personality long before they sign big advertising contracts, sit down for a chat on a late night talk show or otherwise raise their voice. With Instagram, they can be heard without ever having to open their mouth.
As designer John Bartlett noted, just after he posted a photo on Instagram, the fashion industry has a natural affinity for the app, with its focus — not just on the visual, but also on personal aesthetics. After all, designers can share all the photos they want via Twitter, for instance, the obsession with Instagram is in altering those images to reflect their point-of-view.
Kim Kardashian, dressed in a see-through Proenza Schouler dress, presented the media award to Instagram. Systrom noted that while he might be the CEO of the company, she is the queen of Instagram, someone who has turned the selfie “into a science.”
For better and worse, Kardashian has, with the aid of Instagram and her nearly 35 million followers, left fashion transfixed. She can hijack fashion headlines simply by showing up. She became a new kind of fashion celebrity — one without a model’s physique. She so mesmerized Vogue with her tail feathers that it declared this the era of the big booty — essentially gone blind to an entire history of prominent derrieres and their appreciative admirers.
Kardashian, the queen of Instagram can do that; Instagram can do that.
This year’s awards were also distinguished by first time host, James Corden of “The Late, Late Show.” He took aim at fashion’s Lolita-esque tendencies with pointed jokes about photographer Terry Richardson and former American Apparel boss Dov Charney, who have both been accused of sexual misconduct by those with whom they’ve worked. The laughter Corden managed to conjure up was more nervous than from the gut. Fashion folks are never comfortable laughing, at least publicly, about the industry’s foibles, weaknesses and flaws.
To make the Monday evening’s gala as festive and red carpet wonderful as possible, celebrities and notables were, as usual, recruited to hand out awards and provide a bit of Hollywood glitter. After all, most of America has never heard of Tabitha Simmons, the British shoe designer who was honored this year, And few have any idea that Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel, who met five years ago at a concert, created a handbag line that was in reaction to years of over-priced “it” bags, only to have theirs become a fashion phenomenon. They were voted best new accessory designers.
So it is helpful to have “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson, actor Joshua Jackson, Kelly Osbourne, Kanye West and even Chelsea Clinton on stage giving praise to fashion. Osbourne recalled how Betsey Johnson, recipient of the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, encouraged her to follow her own stylistic muse. Jackson pronounced Tom Ford menswear designer of the year.
And Clinton paid tribute to the late designer Oscar de la Renta, noting how he encouraged her to stop hiding in the shadows and step into the spotlight — and gifted her with a velvet dress to encourage her to do so. She also remembered his last gift: a pink knit dress he created for her baby daughter Charlotte.
While Clinton’s face was a mask of affectless restraint, her voice — precise and unhurried — was tinged with emotion. West, who gave the fashion icon award to Pharrell Williams, was pure, barely contained emotion in both tone and gesture. Dressed in a flowing black shirt, he silenced – and worried — the audience when he warned folks that he was the angry version of Williams. He was William’s anger translator. Thus began one of West’s familiar monologues on the fashion industry’s judgmental nature — its bullying and mean-girl tendencies and refusal to recognize his brilliance. But then he stopped himself — as if remembering that he was actually on stage to pay tribute to a man he admired.
The speeches were long and meandering — although undoubtedly sincere — and where there was sweet joy and surprise, the winners were often reduced to stuttering fragments. Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air was named best new menswear designer for his gender blurring luxury street style, while Rosie Assoulin took the honors for her structured and artful womenswear. Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen of The Row won for their restrained luxurious womenswear. Other honorees included Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the master merchant of J. Crew and Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli.
When the awards ended, Corden dispatched the audience to the atrium of Alice Tully Hall, where a party awaited. Folks slowly filed out to find waiters passing a light supper. The bar had reopened. It was time for congratulations and hugs before venturing out into the rain.
Everyone pulled out a phone. They started taking pictures. And posting them to Instagram.