Another month, another awards drum roll. But while you may know all about the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards and the Emmy Awards and the Tony Awards and the Grammy Awards and the MTV Video Awards and the Country Music Awards (more awards than there are spangles on a Britney Spears Vegas outfit), do you know about the CFDA Awards?
They take place Monday night — they are always the first Monday in June — and you should, because they are nominally the biggest night in American fashion.
Wait. I thought the Met Gala was the biggest night in fashion. What is this CFDA thing?
The Met Gala has become arguably the biggest night in public fashion — that is, famous people dressing on the red carpet for social media consumption and brand marketing. But the awards known officially as the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards are about the industry itself.
It’s the fashion equivalent of the high school prom, complete with crowned king and queen (O.K., Designers of the Year) and assorted BMOCs. There is no real Anna Wintour equivalent controlling everything like the Wizard of Oz, but Diane von Furstenberg, who is chairman of the CFDA, comes closest.
There’s a red carpet. There’s a dinner. There’s a celebrity M.C., most often a comedian poking (very gentle) fun at fashion’s oddities. There are statuettes. There are four big awards: designer of the year for women’s wear, men’s wear and accessories, and an emerging designer of the year for a newcomer, who can also be any of the above, all chosen from a list of five finalists (you can find it here). Oooh, the nail-biting anticipation!
Then there are also six special honorees, for lifetime achievement, media, good works (officially known as the Swarovski Award for Positive Change), contributions to the industry (the Founder’s Award), international designer (Donatella Versace is getting it this year), and — most exciting of all — Fashion Icon.
That last one goes to a celebrity, who gives the whole thing a frisson of paparazzi pizazz. There are speeches, but with luck they are not too long. (In 2015, Pharrell Williams would have won the award for longest acceptance speech ever, if it had existed, for a monologue that went on for about 15 minutes.)
The evening is underwritten partly by Swarovski (which also has the new designer award named after it) and is a fund-raiser for the CFDA, which is the trade and lobbying organization for the fashion industry, and its various programs. Tickets cost $10,000 and tables about $70,000; last year the event was attended by 600 industry members and 400 students (they go free), and raised $4 million. That’s nowhere near the Met Gala, which clocks in at about $13 million, but in line with many cultural fund-raisers in New York.
Designers, of course, and all the folk that love them (or depend on them for their livelihood), including retailers, stylists, photographers, fashion magazine editors and … celebrities!
The awards show has turned into a mutual back-scratching publicity opportunity thanks to a glitzy red carpet and presenter gigs. As at the Met Gala, nominees are expected to come with starry escorts, dressed in their fashion, the better to grab attention and get photographed.
So far, for example, we know that Cate Blanchett (star of the coming fashion heist film “Ocean’s 8”), Trevor Noah (occasional front row guest at Calvin Klein and star of “The Daily Show”), Lupita Nyong’o, Claire Danes and Busy Phillips are all presenting.
And Kim Kardashian West is getting the Fashion Icon award, which could mean very interesting things in the nude dressing category. In 2014, Rihanna got the same award and owned the night in sheer rhinestone-speckled Adam Selman and a white fur boa.
Ms. Kardashian West could also shock everyone and demonstrate how seriously she takes this honor by wearing a black pantsuit, as she did on Wednesday during her White House visit. We will see! We will see if Kanye comes as her date. If he does, who knows what he will say?
Also represented: Caroline Kennedy (who will give a Founder’s Award to Carolina Herrera, and wore Herrera to her wedding) and the Parkland student Delaney Tarr, who is presenting Diane von Furstenberg with the award for Positive Change. As for watching, the CFDA will stream the red carpet and the awards on its Facebook page.
So, other than the celeb ogling, why do I care this year?
A few things. Issa Rae is hosting, which will be the first time a person of color has served as M.C. (in the past, Seth Myers, John Waters, James Corden and others took the stage) and the first time a woman has done so since 2009 (that was Tracey Ullman). That, and the precedent of “Insecure,” could lead to potentially more pointed comedy than we have seen in the past, especially given fashion’s less than stellar track record with diversity of all kinds.
Then there’s the fact that both Virgil Abloh of Off-White and James Jebbia of Supreme are nominated as men’s wear designer of the year, and Mr. Abloh is also nominated as women’s wear designer of the year, the first acknowledgment by the establishment that street wear has well and truly made it into the high fashion pantheon. If either of them win (or both), it could signal a turning point in fashion, and a change in the definition of “designer.”
Also, the awards are at the Brooklyn Museum, yet more proof that the borough, already home to numerous designers, is having a real fashion moment.
That sounds like a big deal. Who decides the winners?
It’s kind of like the Oscars. Ballots go out to everyone the industry considers stakeholders: not just CFDA members but also people in related industries. They get to nominate anyone for the big awards (the criteria are a little vague, especially when it comes to defining the difference between “emerging designer” and “designer of the year”).
The ballots come back, get tabulated by the CFDA, and the finalists are the names that get the most votes. Then the ballots go out again to the same crowd to decide the winners. The special honorees get selected by the CFDA board.
(In case you are wondering, The New York Times does not participate because it is against our rules to choose sides.)
Is it normal that the same person is nominated for two awards? Is Virgil really good, or is there a dearth of talent?
This double-dipping happens a lot. Sometimes it seems as if there are more awards than there are designers to receive them. Last year Raf Simons won in both the men’s and women’s categories for his work at Calvin Klein — which hadn’t even gone into stores yet. (He’s nominated or both again!)
Marc Jacobs has won women’s wear designer of the year four times, accessory designer two times, men’s wear once, plus the new talent award, the international award for Louis Vuitton and the lifetime achievement award — and he’s nominated again for his women’s wear. Tom Ford has won the international award, the women’s wear award, the men’s wear award (twice), the accessories award (when he was at Yves Saint Laurent), a special tribute award and the lifetime achievement award — and is nominated again for men’s wear.
You get the idea. It’s not ideal because it does make American fashion vulnerable to charges of being a tiny clique with a favored few (told you: high school!), but the problem is the reality gap between the fact that fashion is a global industry with global talent, and the fact that these are essentially local awards.
Speaking of globalization, do other fashion week countries do this, too?
Britain does, and has been giving the CFDA a run for its money with its British Fashion Council awards. The British awards have been trying to position themselves as more international, and in 2016 the council dropped the word “British” from their name and announced they were simply the “Fashion Awards.” (That hasn’t entirely stuck. and people still call them the British Fashion Awards because otherwise … confusing!)
France and Italy do not, in part for the exact reason the United States and Britain have run into problems: the risk of too much sameness on display.
There is a whole school of thought that says everyone should just get together and have a single awards show for the fashion circuit and forget national identity. Because who in the world even knows how to define that anymore — not when British designers run French houses, and Belgian designers run American brands, and Italian designers run British houses, and everyone seems to show wherever they want to.
So far it hasn’t worked, though. Maybe Jared Kushner can add that negotiation to his portfolio.