NEW YORK — It was a big night for Los Angeles last Monday at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards, the apparel industry equivalent to the Oscars. Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who started making dresses in their parents' guest house in Pasadena just four years ago, took the womenswear designer of the year award.
Not since James Galanos won the lifetime achievement award in 1984 has a Left Coast label made such an impact on the 7th Avenue-centric CFDA, a nonprofit trade organization that supports American designers. Unlike Galanos, whose beaded confections were all Nancy Reagan perfection, the Mulleavys' horror-film-meets-haute-couture aesthetic reflects the dichotomy of the California dream with blood-red-streaked and graffitied chiffon gowns, shredded leather leggings and bike jackets and spike-covered stilettos.
The self-taught sisters have earned a loyal following in Hollywood with celebs such as Kirsten Dunst, who led the designers' cheering section Monday night at the ceremony in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Also in the visiting-from-California contingent: Cameron Silver of Decades, Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes and John Whitledge of Trovata.
Rodarte beat Narciso Rodriguez and Marc Jacobs, suggesting a changing of the guard in American fashion and life ahead for the struggling industry. (Winners are chosen by the CFDA's 100 or so members.) The good feelings continued when the CFDA board of directors bestowed a special award on First Lady Michelle Obama for her "meteoric rise as a style icon," said CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg. In a taped acceptance speech, Obama thanked the crowd for making fashion "liberating, inspiring, but most of all fun."
Two new generation talents tied as winners of the menswear designer of the year award: Italo Zucchelli for Calvin Klein and Band of Outsiders' Scott Sternberg. (Sternberg is the CAA agent-turned-designer who brought back Sperry Topsiders.) Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler won the accessory designer of the year award, while emerging talent Alexander Wang won the Swarovski award for womenswear over Obama favorites Thakoon Panichgul and Jason Wu. Jewelry designer Justin Giunta and menswear designer Tim Hamilton also picked up Swarovski awards, and Marc Jacobs won the international award for his work at Louis Vuitton.
There was a theatrical quality to this year's event, held for the first time at Lincoln Center rather than the usual venue at the New York Public Library. Tracey Ullman hosted, moving effortlessly from one recession joke to another, and Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, Jack White and Blake Lively were among the notable presenters. The short films featuring the nominees were light and funny. Tom Cruise, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jon Hamm paid tribute to GQ Creative Director Jim Moore, who accepted the Eleanor Lambert award while modeling the evening's favored menswear look: thick black eyeglass frames and a tie bar. Edward Nardoza, editor in chief of Women's Wear Daily, was also honored.
Could the CFDA Awards, established in 1981, finally be ready for prime time? With the interest Obama is focusing on the American fashion industry, it's possible. If there is anyone who could bring the event to American living rooms, it's Von Furstenberg, an Oscar party regular with her media mogul partner Barry Diller.
A new popular vote award was a start at making the event more accessible. But it was not as well publicized as it should have been, and just 15,000 people voted online. The winner? Ralph Lauren, who took the stage in a tuxedo jacket, blue jeans and cowboy boots. No surprise there.