Eric Wilson is InStyle's fashion news director. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

By Eric Wilson
Updated Jun 07, 2016 @ 4:30 pm
Beyonce CFDA
Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty

It was a bad omen when guests arriving for the 2016 CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday night were directed to enter the event through a parking garage.

Designers and their celebrity friends had been warned well in advance that things would be different this year, going back to a seated dinner, but with the ceremony moving to the rather dumpy Hammerstein Ballroom (a high-low combo if ever there was one). Needless to say, things did not go entirely well, at least not for arrivals.

Several guests left their cars to walk to the event, and so it was on West 35th Street that I found myself trailing Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Michael Kors as they made their way into said garage, nearly colliding with Marc Bouwer and his date, Laverne Cox, whose flowing brown train (the color of the Namibian desert, per the designer) required an entourage of handlers, two to carry the train and one to block traffic. The garage was just a plain old garage, hot and sticky, as if they had installed heat lamps on a 70-degree evening, and a strange place for guests in black tie to be asked to pick up their seating cards.

Now, I’m no stranger to the CFDA Awards, and I’m pretty sure the CFDA is not either, so why it’s so complicated for security handlers to recognize some pretty famous people at a fairly intimate event is beyond reason. But at the same time, the fashion festivities marked a small step in righting the perception of an event that had long ago lost its sense of pomp and/or circumstance, since there were so many, many famous people, from performers Jennifer Hudson and Michael T. Hall to guests like Naomi Campbell, Jessica Chastain, Michelle Monaghan, Alicia Silverstone, and Olivia Wilde, to surprise honoree Beyoncé, who brought Blue Ivy and Jay Z. Admittedly, not everyone knows what Donna Tartt looks like, but she did win a Pulitzer Prize, after all, and I spotted her from the next table.

For a while there, during its awards-and-dash years at Alice Tully Hall, a smaller and less star-struck CFDA Awards made sense. But lately there has been a consensus that it needs to change, at least so guests can feed the beast of social media by posting blurry pictures of something other than a designer on a stage.

This year, its ambitious organizers had originally sought to create a live television broadcast of the show, but, for whatever reason, the networks passed. That left the CFDA to put on its razzle-dazzle production solely for its core audience of fashion insiders, though sometimes the results sounded as if they were still trying to speak to the layman. Some bits were intended as a fashion primer, or worse, played on lame stereotypes, like the tired jokes of host Joel McHale (fashion people don’t eat, Bravo is gay, blah, blah, blah, yawn).

Actually, one of the best moments of the night came in a video, when Isaac Mizrahi asked strangers on the streets of New York if they knew what the CFDA was. Most did not, and one man referred to the designer as Isaac Maserati. Reunited with Unzipped director Douglas Keeve on the clip, Mizrahi also recited the CFDA’s mission statement during a throw-down challenge to a drag star. Really, if there can be a sequel to Zoolander, why not Unzipped?

“Any drag queen worth her salt can lip sync what I say without knowing what I’m going to say,” Mizrahi says. She can and she did.

Many aspects of the awards were moderately successful. The turnout was terrific and guests dressed up more, with the exception of Marc Jacobs, who checked in to claim his women’s wear designer of the year award in a T-shirt. Most of the acceptance speeches were cute, especially those of the Swarovski Awards winners, especially a visibly nervous Brandon Maxwell, who said, “I feel so happy, and incredibly nauseous.” (Shout out to Swarovski for also announcing its sponsorship of the emerging talent prizes will now come with mentorship and inspiration trips for the winners, too.)

Most impressively, the event managed to keep Beyoncé's involvement a surprise until the very end. That was a deserved moment, one that closed the night with a charming acknowledgment that Beyoncé gets fashion almost as much as fashion obsesses over her. At least now it does. When she and her mother, Tina, were knocking on showroom doors back in the days of Destiny’s Child, the doors didn’t always open the way they do now.

“High-end labels didn’t really want to dress four black, country, curvy girls,” she said, though noting that designers have since come around. She wore a sparkling suit from Givenchy and a broad fedora like that in her “Formation” video. And she had presence, something that fashion can help create, she reminded the designers.

“Y’all our fairy god mothers, magicians, sculptors, sometimes even our therapists,” she said. “I encourage you not to forget this power you have.”

If there was a theme of the night, it was that. Designers are trying to re-assert their power, more so in an era when fashion has become more the domain of influencers, whether those on the runway or those with a social media following.

Who knows? Bringing the CFDA Awards to TV might help, someday.