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Fashion OPINION

Are the CFDA Awards Out of Touch?

By Jackie Mallon

Jun 6, 2017

The “fashion Oscars” took place last night and notable members of New York’s most glamorous industry descended on the Hammerstein Ballroom to dine, drink and dole out awards to each other. I recall being in the audience last year listening to Anna Wintour stir the crowd’s support for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president and can’t help thinking, Look where we are now. When it comes to capturing the zeitgeist, not many in fashion forecast that one correctly.

Does a CFDA award guarantee future success?

In this time of immense questioning and head scratching within our industry (and without), how important are the CFDA Awards? As I’m entering the event. I learn from my phone that Mickey Drexler is stepping down as CEO of debt-laden retailer J Crew which has struggled to find its position in today’s market, announcing 150 layoffs in April after a 6 percent drop in sales for 2016. Last year, the CFDA presented Mickey Drexler with the Founders Award.

2016 Womenswear Designer of the Year nominee, Michael Kors, announced this week the company will be shuttering 100-125 stores in the coming two years following a weak sales forecast for 2018 and shares falling 8 percent on Wednesday. Perhaps the fashion community is guilty of viewing some of its own as too big too fail?

Is talent enough?

Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler seem to be nominated every year. But it’s always more exciting to hear the names of emerging talents celebrated in this glittering context. Yet, in 2013, Erin Beatty and Max Osterweis, founders of wonderful label Suno, won the Swarovski Award for Womenswear only to close their business three year later.

“Talent is the engine that will not only make this industry survive, but thrive,” Diane von Furstenberg says in the opening speech, while also referring to the “impactive work of the CFDA.” But talent clearly doesn’t conquer all, and maybe now less than ever.

As Jason Wu prepares to fold his Resort into his Spring collection, as designers dawdle uncertainly between the Buy Now Wear Now experiment or the traditional model, as Demna Gvasalia, who receives the International Designer of the Year award this evening, rejects runway shows altogether (which is sure to send new ripples of confusion industry-wide), I can’t help wondering if the CFDA could be more “impactive” in ensuring the continued success of its award recipients.

In touch with society?

In terms of social justice, the ceremony certainly reflects the important issues of our time. The evening is launched with an award to an immigrant: Raf Simons deservedly wins the Menswear Designer of the Year award for his work at Calvin Klein and describes his happiness at being there, having always “been inspired by America and its people.” The Founders Award that follows is awarded to Pat McGrath whose words, “Fashion is an industry of insiders who are really outsiders” is also poignant when our government continues to promote bans and walls.

While the 350 billion dollar fashion industry provides opportunity and employment, and the CFDA as an organization is responsible for doing good in the areas of HIV, AIDS, breast cancer, and Planned Parenthood, there seems to be a blinkered aspect attached to the big event. One could argue it’s inevitable with such an exclusive red-carpet evening and in such a high-profile industry. But when Demna Gvasalia mentions the “importance of the human factor” in fashion, and when Raf Simons, presented with his second award of the evening, that of Womenswear Designer of the Year, directs his parting words to the 350 invited students up in the balcony urging them to create “how the world should look, it’s a very important task of our existence,” we should take notice.

Beware the blind spot

While the organization can move mountains for social change, it’s important that its essence, its mission to search for and reward talent, and most especially emerging talent, doesn’t get squashed underfoot by the hugeness of the operation’s world vision.

The rousing speeches from a trio of inspiring women, Gloria Steinem, Janelle Monáe and Cecile Richards, detailing the challenges we face in Trump’s America, as minorities, women, LGBTQ, immigrants and refugees, are powerful. But when Steinem speaks about the importance of “grass roots” in changing society, I can’t help wondering if returning to grass roots is also something we should prioritize for future CFDA awards; the implementing of a system with less relentless rewarding of designers considered too big to fail in favor of more attention to labels that without a sensitive environment just might. Steinem’s term for it: “leaving old hierarchies behind.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: Theo Wargo / Getty Images North America / AFP