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NEW YORK — In the quarter century that has passed since the American Image Awards began, a lot has changed about the way the U.S. public perceives the fashion industry.
Designers have achieved celebrity status and their names appear on everything from clothing to pens to bed sheets, and major newspapers and magazines now follow the runway shows almost as closely as they do major trials.
But the industry and the concept of design has also begun to be taken more seriously.
Valerie Steele, one of the people who will be honored at Monday night’s ceremony, recalled that when she began her graduate studies at Yale in 1978 — the same year the awards were first held — many people sniffed at her decision to focus on fashion history.
“At that point, people weren’t studying it in a scholarly way,” recalled Steele, who today is the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. “The professors mostly thought of it as a ridiculous topic, an absolutely despicable, frivolous topic to work on.”
Steele, who is to receive the Artistry of Fashion Award at the ceremony at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, is one of five people to be honored by the American Apparel & Footwear Association. The AAFA is also lauding Saks Inc.’s George Jones as Retailer of the Year, Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.’s Bruce Klatsky as Man of the Year and Diane Von Furstenberg as Designer of the Year, as well as Dana Reeve, who is up for The Spirit of a Woman Award.
The event will raise money for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which funds medical research into developing treatments for paralysis.
The emcees for the evening are to be Paula Zahn of CNN, and Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc. Other special presenters will include R. Brad Martin, chairman and ceo of Saks Inc., and actress Bebe Neuwirth.
Jones joined Saks Inc. as president and chief executive of the Saks Department Stores Group, which includes the Parisian, Proffitt’s and McRae’s chains in March 2001, after a seven-year stint at Warner Bros., where he oversaw the retail and licensing businesses. Prior to that, he worked at retail chains including Target, Dillard’s Department Stores and the now-defunct Roses Stores.
Klatsky has worked at Phillips-Van Heusen for more than 30 years, was named ceo in 1993 and took on the chairmanship in 1994. Last year, he successfully orchestrated the company’s acquisition of Calvin Klein Inc.
The Belgium-born Von Furstenberg began designing in the Seventies and rose to fame on the strength of her wrap dress, which landed on the cover of mainstream publications including Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. In recent years, she’s expanded her brand’s reach to include categories like licensed luggage and eyewear.
Steele was promoted last week to the post of director of the Museum at FIT, after serving as chief curator since 1997. She is widely cited as a fashion authority by major publications and broadcast outlets and has written more than 12 books about fashion. She holds a Ph.D. in modern European, cultural and intellectual history.
AAFA president and chief operating officer Kevin Burke said: “One of the things the American Image Awards does is reward those who have contributed greatly to the apparel industry and to the community in general.”
While the industry’s image has improved over the past 25 years, honorees admitted that it still has some problems.
All nominees are working to improve the image of the fashion business by making structural changes within their respective fields.
From the retail point of view, Jones said one of the key image problems the image faces is consumer confusion brought on by tiers of sales and seas of coupons: “We’ve created a situation in fashion throughout stores where from a customer standpoint we’ve made it really hard for them to understand our pricing….The customer just doesn’t have a lot of confidence in the prices she sees out there being great value.”
The biggest image problem to arise over the past two decades, according to Klatsky, is labor.
“Clearly, there has been a lot of notoriety about working conditions around the world,” he said. “We have a major responsibility to be sure that our product is produced in a great environment and that we are actively involved in societies where we produce to be sure that these societies can evolve just the way the U.S. evolved.”
Further, in a time of economic uncertainty, part of the industry’s challenge is to ensure that its products are sufficiently appealing to lure even jittery consumers out into the stores.
Von Furstenberg said that’s where the substance of fashion takes precedence over the industry’s aura of glamour.
“American fashion is really about how you put pragmatism and style together,” she said. “By the mystery way of giving them [consumers] what they want. And in the end, it’s all about product. Something that will tempt them to buy.”