The night before the midterm elections the winds of change were blowing through the halls of Casa Cipriani on South Street at the tip of Manhattan, whooshing over the step-and-repeat of celebrity entrances at the 67th annual Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards, more colloquially known as “the fashion Oscars.”
They blew past Drake, attending as a friend of Chrome Hearts; past the whole clan Kardashian, there to support Kim who was receiving the Amazon innovation award for Skims along with her co-founders, Jens and Emma Grede; past Trevor Noah, a presenter, in blue velvet and Keke Palmer, another presenter, in ballooning blue florals.
The dress code may have been “Archival American,” but there is a new generation of American designers on the rise: designers uninterested in looking back, designers who took nontraditional routes to the runway and who don’t necessarily have much truck with fashion’s old rules and traditions. And the annual awards, which for years have seemed mired in a miasma of déjà vu, with the same names nominated and winning year after year, have finally caught up to the change. Not least in terms of diversity.
“There’s a lot of Black people in this room, so ya’ll better give me some energy,” said Law Roach, resplendent in polka dots and overcome by emotion, after receiving the inaugural stylist of the year award from Kerry Washington, who took to the stage in a blazer and ruffled micro-shorts.
Patti Wilson, aglow beneath a gold metal Schiaparelli helmet as she received the media award, said it was a marked change from the years when she was “the only person of color” in pretty much any fashion room.
Indeed, half the awards went to designers of color, and only one of the winners, Emily Adams Bode Aujla, who was named men’s wear designer of the year, was a repeat. (She won the men’s wear gong last year, and, in 2019, the emerging designer of the year award.) Catherine Holstein of Khaite won the women’s wear award and was so shocked she said she couldn’t talk and promptly exited the stage.
If there was a theme of the night, it was the American dream promise of fashion, with the increasingly endangered American melting pot promise bubbling beneath.
Mr. Roach, for example, told the story of accompanying Zendaya to the CFDA awards in 2016 as her stylist, watching from the kitchen as busboys ran by with trays of food and promising himself that one day he would be on the stage too — and there he was. “Somewhere there is a little Black gay boy in the ghetto,” he said, being told he wasn’t going to amount to anything, and he was there to tell that boy “anything is possible.”
Raul Lopez of Luar, who won accessories designer of the year for a handbag created in honor of his grandmother and his mother, called himself “the son of two immigrants from the Dominican Republic who wasn’t allowed to attend fashion school because it was too gay” but who nevertheless had snuck into the libraries of Parsons and FIT to learn his craft.
Elena Velez, the emerging designer of the year, who works in New York and Milwaukee, talked about being raised by a single mother who was a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes and about the need to expand the notion of where, exactly, fashion can happen beyond the coastal capitals of New York and Los Angeles.
Ms. Kardashian, who received her award from Martha Stewart (who confessed to be being a Skims customer), talked about the importance of size inclusivity and called on the industry to do better, to think of “size equality as a fixture and not a trend” — a comment met with some raised eyebrows given her own noticeable weight loss.
And so it went: Phillip Lim called on the audience to vote and “join us in fighting for democracy” after receiving the Positive Social Influence award as part of a group called the “Slaysians.” The group also includes the fashion insiders Prabal Gurung, Laura Kim, Tina Leung and Ezra William, and worked during the pandemic to combat rising anti-Asian hate.
“Don’t forget to vote, don’t forget to vote,” chanted Stan Herman, a former president of the CFDA, before handing the pioneering Black designer Jeffrey Banks his Special Anniversary award.
Backstage before the show began, Laurie Lynn Stark of Chrome Hearts was sitting with Cher, and said that she and her husband and co-founder, Richard Stark, had been “shocked” when they got the call about winning the Lifetime Achievement award. They had never thought, she said, that they “fit into that mold” — “that mold” being the whole establishment fashion thing.
Well, said Cher, when it came to the Chrome Hearts haute biker style, “it took a long time for people to catch up. A lot of people didn’t get it in the beginning.” Sometimes you have to break the mold to remake it — Cher herself, bedecked in buckle-heavy Chrome Hearts black leather, a case in point.
(She was matched in the leather stakes only by Lenny Kravitz, wearing LaQuan Smith, who was handed his Style Icon award by Bradley Cooper, who gave him a big hug and claimed there was no one else “alive today who wears leather and leopard like Lenny.”)
For her part, Ms. Stark was wearing a sheer strapless dress that she said was the first couture gown she had ever designed. She made it, she said, in memory of Virgil Abloh, the Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s wear designer who died unexpectedly last November and who “always encouraged me to make couture gowns.”
Though he had been nominated numerous times for CFDA awards during his lifetime, Mr. Abloh never won. In recognition of his contributions to fashion, the council awarded him a posthumous recognition in the form of a special Board of Trustees award.
Aurora James, the designer of Brother Vellies, presented the silver statuette to his widow, Shannon Abloh, saying Mr. Abloh had changed forever the definition of “who gets to be a fashion designer.”
And if the people in the room had learned anything from his life, she went on, it is that the goal should not be to try to fill the shoes he had left, but rather “to reimagine walking completely.”