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NEW YORK — Beyoncé Knowles timed her entrance into the New York Public Library perfectly Monday night.
She mounted the paparazzi-clogged steps and swept into Astor Hall just as 420 guests — who had already spent an hour sweating through cocktails and a two-hour dinner — were making their way to the main event, the presentation of the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards in a supper club-style theater downstairs.
But if the venue was reminiscent of dinner theater, the goings-on at times were more akin to a comedy strip club. Forget long-winded speeches and staid moments; this year’s CFDA Awards had enough X-rated, riotous scenes to keep the industry buzzing for months.
And while the night might have belonged to others — Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Carolina Herrera, Sean Combs, Sarah Jessica Parker and Fantasia Barrino among them — no one held a candle to Beyoncé when it came to serving as a personal metaphor for the evening, themed around the city of New York at twilight. Wearing a shiny yellow stretch silk satin gown designed by her mother, Tina Knowles, and capped with a silver broach, she looked like a taxicab complete with medallion.
Just about everyone tried to flag her down.
“This is my first time here and it’s just amazing,” said the 22-year-old actress, singer and fashion entrepreneur, until her mother tut-tutted her, reminding Knowles of the days when she fronted Destiny’s Child and performed at the awards when they were held at Lincoln Center.
But that was back in 2000, and these days, Knowles is busy filming “The Pink Panther” and coming up with a name for the collection she and mom are creating with Kids Headquarters, having recently discovered their original name, A Touch of Couture, was a tad off-base.
“Hopefully, one day my mother and I will be up here winning an award,” she said.
That’s the great thing about New York — anything here is possible — and that certainly played out over the course of five hours as the CFDA led what felt like a double-decker bus tour through every neighborhood in Manhattan, plus a couple of neighboring boroughs.
Old scores were settled, with Combs and his protégé, Zac Posen, each picking up awards after walking away empty-handed the last few years. “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino belted out a rendition of “New York State of Mind” that was flawless, as Paula Abdul would say. Donna Karan was to be found in the women’s rest room with Susan Sarandon, the New Yorkiest of all designers having hiked herself up on the sink to repair her chartreuse confection of a dress that had been whipped up in the studio in a day.
But things got hinky right from the start, with PETA protesters outside and, later, police suddenly swarming the library area in a preparedness drill for the upcoming Republican National Convention. If only they knew about the man-on-man action that was going on inside, the Republicans surely would have made a run for it.
Using the city as a motif for the evening worked well, as designers offered surprisingly varied takes on what the city means to them, both in their acceptance speeches and in videotaped montages that were far more captivating than in recent years, led by a breathtaking one of 148 iconic images made by Irving Penn that were set to a haunting tribal soundtrack mixed by Manny Miranda and Phyllis Faliglia on a home computer.
Much of it was exciting, yes, but like life in New York, there were also moments that were annoying and others that tried too hard to fit into the theme. The idea of twilight was conveyed mysteriously through a consistent palette of purple, blue and silver, and a cast of young women were stationed around the library in Marc by Marc Jacobs dresses the shade of a blushing rose, paired with blue shoes.
“Look at those shoes,” gasped Pamela Dennis. “Where on earth do they match?”
Designers of all shapes and sizes gamely made their way through cocktails, their embroidered floral gowns wilting in the heat. Barrino attempted a passable pronunciation of Swarovski, describing her clutch, which the evening’s main underwriter had provided, but she was more impressed by her bronze Michael Kors gown, one that Kors — fashion’s number one reality show fan — didn’t know Barrino was wearing until he saw her on the red carpet.
“This is better than Babe Paley,” he said.
Miuccia Prada, the International Award winner, turned up wearing a casual sweater paired with a stunning antique Fred Leighton headband made of sparkly swirls of diamonds, not to be confused with any old Swarovski-provided prop.
“It’s real, it’s antique — all diamonds,” she said, then blanched. “Maybe people think it’s Swarovski.”
No matter, like all the New Yorkers in the room, she was thinking about summer vacation, but when asked where she and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, would be sailing this year, she replied, “Oh, the boat. I’m trying to convince him to take another kind of vacation.”
Ralph Rucci, who was nominated for Women’s Wear Designer of the Year, was attempting to round up his guests, who ranged from James Galanos to Martha Stewart. His brow was covered with sweat, but Stewart calmly pointed to the linen cocktail napkin in his hand and instructed him in that familiar tone: “Take the napkin and blot it along your forehead.”
What are friends for?
There was something warmly protective about Stewart on Monday night, except maybe for the moment when she asked designer Tracy Reese if she was singing at the event — but then anyone can make a mistake or two in this town and usually live it down.
“I am a friend of Ralph Rucci’s and have been for a long time,” Stewart said. “I like to sew, and I like to get my dose of fashion every now and then, since I’m always in the garden or the house. I wore Ralph Rucci out the other night, but they wrote that it was Ralph Lauren.”
Even a kindly waiter went to help actress Kristin Davis with her Michael Kors train as she posed for photographers.
“Bless you!” Davis said. “What a sweet thing.”
“I was a costume history major,” he said, under his breath.
Dinner was served for the first time in the library’s history in the neighboring Gottesman Exhibition Hall, every surface bathed in blue and green lights with accents of crystal bearing down on pale blue linen tablecloths — the only flaw being the giant hurricane glass centerpieces filled with water dyed blue or green that made it difficult to talk across a table without seeing a self-reflection upside down.
“It looks like there should be a comb in here,” scoffed Isaac Mizrahi, tapping a vase as if it were filled with Barbicide.
As for the food, caterer Hank Tomashevski made such a point of serving the champagne-poached halibut hot this year that it took an eternity to feed everyone, but at least they ate well.
“Award shows usually put me to sleep, but you can feel the excitement in the air tonight,” said actress Radha Mitchell, wearing Carmen Marc Valvo.
The awards themselves ranged from the formulaic to the raucous, kind of like the perfect grid of Midtown streets compared with the crooked ones of the West Village. There’s bound to be trouble in store when Mizrahi addresses Combs from the stage, saying, “Sean Jean won an award, you know what that means, Sean. That means you’re gay. I’ll meet you in the bathroom in about 20 minutes.”
Posen and Eugenia Kim were gracious in their acceptances of the Swarovski’s Perry Ellis Awards, as Posen noted in a white silk tuxedo with a white tank top and his hair slicked back, “We have to move the imagination forward. This is an amazing time to be a young designer in American fashion.”
But Combs set the aggressive tone for the night when — on his fourth CFDA nomination — he took home the Men’s Wear Designer of the Year award. In white jacket, Combs danced his way across the stage as Russell Simmons and Betsey Johnson cheered him on from the sidelines, with Johnson yelling, “Finally!” (Seated nearby, Heidi Klum and Seal were busy French-kissing throughout the ceremony. “She’s a goddess,” he said.)
“I had some things on my mind for a couple of years now, or five years,” Combs said. “I’m from Harlem, New York. A couple of years ago, I was in the Polo store saving my last bit of money to get me a Polo shirt, Ralph Lauren, and now I’m nominated with him. This is like the American dream.”
His acceptance went on to describe Lauren as the “sexiest man on the planet,” praise Kors and thank Sean John executive vice president Jeffrey Tweedy, mentor Russell Simmons, Tommy Hilfiger, Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley, Paul Wilmot, Nian Fish at KCD, André Harrell and Posen. He told Ford, “I’m going to miss you, boy. I hope one day I’ll grow up and be just like you.”
Well, that would be something. As he accepted a special tribute, a friskier-than-usual Ford got right into the evening’s raucous mood with an over-exuberant greeting of award presenter Patrick McCarthy, chairman and editorial director of WWD parent Fairchild Publications — a full-on Adrien Brody on Halle Berry mosh that left the stunned McCarthy dazed as a deer in Bryant Park.
But that was nothing compared with Mizrahi’s overly infatuated introduction of Sarah Jessica Parker for the Fashion Icon award.
“How could something so lovely, so fabulous, be real?” he asked. “Of all the people who deserve this award, Sarah Jessica Parker deserves it the most. They made this award up in anticipation that she would come along.”
With her typical good grace, Parker took to the stage and told Mizrahi, “Clearly you’ve gone mad, and none of it’s true.”
She described fashion as her fatal weakness, something she has loved since childhood, and found herself in the enviable position in her professional life of having become the poster child for the American fashion industry thanks to her role in “Sex and the City.” She thanked a number of designers from the stage — Oscar de la Renta, Narciso Rodriguez, Mizrahi, Ford, Calvin Klein, Karan and Marc Jacobs among them — but she sagely turned up for the event wearing a vintage gown from the late Hollywood costume designer Howard Greer, one she rooted out and researched herself, so as not to offend any of the designers in the room.
“I wanted to wear American, but I didn’t want to hurt any feelings,” Parker said. “Every time I borrow a dress, I always think it is most magical, the most special dress that has ever been made. Yet, at the moment, I find great comfort looking around this room and knowing there are more dresses.”
After an introduction by Susan Sarandon that seemed to reprise her role in “Bull Durham,” with a languid description of how Karan “showed us that curves are something to embrace,” the designer accepted her Lifetime Achievement award in rare form, spinning a complicated web that began with, “God, I hate the way I look,” then weaved through enough “thank yous” to rival Combs, traced her family tree from parents to grandchildren and wound up with a riff on Barbra Streisand — “The first time I saw Barbra, I thought I would die.”
By comparison, Carolina Herrera’s simple acceptance for the final award of the night, Women’s Wear Designer of the year — “I love it, thank you.” — was a big relief, even if Knowles, in introducing her, pronounced her Christian name like one of the Southern states.
The party could have stopped there, but, hey, this is New York. The entire room seemed to turn up half an hour later at the Maritime Hotel, where Ford and Elizabeth Saltzman regrouped for an open-air party in the Cabanas that went on well past 1:30 a.m., with Amy Sacco sitting with Scarlett Johansson and Brian Atwood. And if there were any doubt that Ford had changed his allegiances, the designer showed up in a tuxedo he bought that day at Brooks Bros. on Madison Avenue.
Barrino had changed from her sparkly Michael Kors into a green and black stretch dress — “This one doesn’t have a name,” she said, tickled by having met Combs. “He asked me to do a track with him. I haven’t been out in four months.”
From there, the tireless crew made their way to Marquee, where Combs and Posen hosted their bash, the designers dancing on the banquettes with Beyoncé, Jay Z and Natalie Portman. The scene recalled Combs’ comment delivered in a video montage during the awards: “At the end of the day, the best-dressed person on the street wins.”