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NEW YORK — Too hot, too many films, subpar catering and waaaaaaaay too long.

But while the CFDA Fashion Awards Monday night had its negatives, there were more than enough poignant, humorous and unexpected moments to make up for them. From touching speeches by Bruce Weber, Stephen Burrows, Stan Herman, Joan Kaner and Francisco Costa to a steamy a cappella duet by a glowingly beautiful Alicia Keys with John Legend — and Harry Connick Jr.‘s hilariously improvised presentation speech — the 2006 extravaganza was one of the best efforts in years, even if it didn’t finish until close to 11:30 p.m.

After a cocktail “hour” that seemed endless, and catering that was haphazard at best — most guests didn’t get their main courses until after 9:15 — Jeremy Piven, the emcee, kicked the awards ceremony off at 9:50 (groan) with occasionally pithy one-liners that amused even the laconic fashion crowd. “The difference between a straight man and a gay man is two tequilas,” Piven theorized. Later he admitted to being “halfway to Liberace.”

Earlier, Jessica Simpson, with all her “assets” on display in an eyelet Michael Kors minidress, worked the red carpet admirably. Once inside, she couldn’t conceal her excitement. “Of course I am enjoying myself,” Simpson offered. “Every single person I admire and want a free dress from is here.”

Karl Lagerfeld made quite the entrance with Lindsay Lohan as the duo rolled up to the New York Public Library steps in an enormous black minibus that would have put a Suffolk County prom queen to shame. Before the pair presented the Accessory Designer of the Year Award, Lohan managed to change frocks from a long, demure Lagerfeld Collection gown to a short, kickier number from the same line. However, it wasn’t her fashion A.D.D. that was the problem.

“They gave me a paper with the strangest things to say, but I won’t do that,” said Lagerfeld. “I will just improvise. I am not an actor.” ‘Tis true, but Karl should have stuck to the TelePrompter. While Lohan read line-for-line between giggles, Lagerfeld chose to riff in his German accent — resulting in one of the night’s most surreal moments. “I have no idea what he just said,” Alicia Keys chuckled from the audience.

This story first appeared in the June 7, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

One of the poignant moments came when Bruce Weber accepted the Eugenia Sheppard Award. Weber, who received the only standing ovation of the evening, played on a Big Tent motif in his speech, thanking the CFDA members for “helping me run away from home, have an adventure and join this crazy circus.”

He concluded by launching into one of the night’s recurring themes — the importance of encouraging new talent. “Reach out your arms and drag them into the tent and embrace their souls,” said Weber.

Keys’ and Legend’s rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” left almost everyone in the room needing a cold shower, while Bernadette Peters smoldered equally on stage, singing “Fever” on a dais for Stan Herman, the outgoing CFDA president who touchingly said he has no plans to retire anytime soon. “My father is 102 years old and still working a five-day week,” he said. “That should give you an indication of the family genes. He’s not here tonight, because he likes to work late Mondays.”

But it was Connick who brought the house down. The singer and actor spent the evening at Anna Wintour‘s side and had stolen the Vogue editor in chief’s ubiquitous Chanel sunglasses and evening clutch to present the men’s wear award. “This is to let you know that I am a fashion whore,” he said, before going on to poke fun at Olivier Theyskens. “I hate you,” Connick said. “You must be the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” But Connick had even more reasons to envy Theyskens: “I spent about an hour on my hair tonight to get it looking like this, and he just walks out the door and lets the wind blow it.” Nor did Wintour escape Connick’s humor. Removing the dark glasses, the singer quipped, “I gotta take these off now. How do you even see through those, Anna?”

And then, in what is becoming a regular trend, the men’s award went to the night’s underdog nominee, Thom Browne — and just like in previous years, the winner acknowledged every men’s wear designer’s debt to fellow nominee Ralph Lauren.

The women’s wear designer of the year award had the most impact, though. As Scarlett Johansson read Francisco Costa’s name, the Calvin Klein table erupted into a roar and the room into thunderous applause. “This is an American dream … I thank Barry [Schwartz] and Calvin [Klein] for opening up the world to me,” Costa said in an emotional speech that at times had him close to tears.

While the grown-ups carried on downstairs, the junior set hosted the CFDA’s version of a kiddie table upstairs. Committee members Derek Lam, Jane Mayle, Allison Sarofim and Lauren Davis gathered while a simulcast of the proceedings played — although no one could hear it. Emcee Piven worked the models. “He was so nice,” laughed Karolina Kurkova later. “But he kept asking me to sit on his lap while he presented.”

And for those who had the stamina, it was off to the after parties, either at Bungalow 8 or one cohosted by Estée Lauder’s John Demsey and Diddy at the Pink Elephant next door. Zac Posen boogied atop a banquette, Stephen Dorff was smoking a doobie in the corner and Russell Simmons chatted up a leggy blonde by the wall. If there are certain New York parties at which the celebs actually don’t want to be photographed, this was not one of them. The paparazzi entered en masse, along with Diddy, and Mariah Carey, who primped for the photographers for more than half an hour.

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