Roughly halfway through the annual CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday night, my better angels were whispering such sympathetic thoughts I half believed the American fashion industry’s efforts to promote diversity and positivity were beginning to pay off. By the end of the night, my worse angels were over it.
What can I say? I’m a Gemini, and I’d like to think that means I can see both sides of a story, or at least a little bit of the good and the bad in most situations, and in the case of the Fashion Awards, there is always plenty of both to be found. No matter what you make of the endless speeches, the repeat honorees and winners, or the act of awarding a style prize to Kim Kardashian West—the awards nevertheless serve as a fairly excellent reflection of the health of the industry they celebrate, and in this particular moment in time, one that is completely off the rails.
VIDEO: The Must-See Looks from the 2018 CFDA Fashion Awards
This year, on the plus side, the awards found a new setting at the Brooklyn Museum, which brought back some of the elegance that had been missing during its recent years in a sad midtown ballroom, and the smell of freshly painted backdrops was delightfully bracing after a long, long car ride from Manhattan. The one-course meal service was plated faster than most microwave dinners, and no less tasty for that matter, and before you knew it, the awards were being handed out.
On the minus side, the sound was so distorted in the museum’s grand galleries that most of hostess Issa Rae’s monologue was difficult to hear, though her dig at Kanye West’s recent acts of controversy came through loud and clear, when she said, “I’m about as fashionable as Kanye is black—only when it’s convenient.” Referring to West’s comment on TMZ Live that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice,” she said, “That joke was my choice, just like slavery.”
In fact, the clearest narrative of the night came from the CFDA’s efforts to promote diversity, encouraging voters to cast their ballots for designers that don’t fit the old-white-dude mold. Special awards were given to supermodel Naomi Campbell and Edward Enninful, the first black editor in chief of British Vogue—presented by no less than Oprah Winfrey. In one of the most powerful moments, Enninful, in his acceptance, said, “Fashion has the opportunity to contribute now more than ever to a more inclusive, diverse, and tolerant society. I want my work to advocate this change.”
It is to the fashion council’s credit that throughout the room, black designers and black models were seated prominently, a purposeful statement that did not read merely as convenient, or at least not just for the sake of its optics. And a gown worn by Rae by the Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond included a ribbon belt printed with “Every N--- Is a Star,” the title of a Boris Gardiner song from the soundtrack of Moonlight.
But some gestures did read as calculated, namely when an award for “Positive Change” was presented to Diane von Furstenberg by Parkland student, Delaney Tarr, or when yet another first-ever award was created especially for Ralph Lauren, something that has happened at least three times since 1992. I’m not begrudging Lauren his due—his megabrand is celebrating its 50th this year—but even von Furstenberg remarked that calling it the CFDA Members Salute was “a little silly.” Lauren, at least, sensed the magnitude of the moment, and addressed the uncertainty hanging over the futures of so many young designers in the crowd, struggling just to survive five months.
That’s a better angel's way of looking at things, and props also to Kardashian West, who, among many reasons for being absolutely deserving of being on this stage, is a role model for how to take criticism. “I’m kind of shocked that I’m winning a fashion award when I’m naked most of the time,” she said.