NEW YORK — Christopher Reeve has the unique distinction of being the image of Superman and a symbol of courage over personal hardship.

So it was appropriate that nearly every honoree that took the stage at the American Image Awards Monday night praised Reeve for his off-screen acts of heroism, while inevitably making reference to his most famous role as the Man of Steel, which he first brought to the silver screen in 1978. Coincidentally, that was the same year as the first annual American Apparel & Footwear Association benefit.

This year, the AAFA changed the beneficiary of the Image Awards, raising close to $1 million for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, said Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., an emcee of the evening. For that, the actor, who has campaigned for paralysis and spinal cord research since he was paralyzed in an equestrian accident in 1995, graciously welcomed the fashion industry’s embrace.

“I think it is really extraordinary because I certainly don’t have any connection to the fashion world, yet they have reached out to our foundation,” said Reeve, who nevertheless pointed out he had selected a Hugo Boss tuxedo and a Donna Karan shirt for the occasion, while his wife, Dana Reeve, who was honored at the event, wore a dress from Diane Von Furstenberg.

“I’m not a fashion person or known for my fashion sense, per se,” she added. “Nor is my husband.”

But the point of the awards is to recognize extraordinary leadership and achievement, those whose image means more than simply style. George Jones, president and chief executive officer of Saks Department Store Group and chief operating officer of Saks Inc.; Bruce Klatsky, chairman and ceo of Phillips-Van Heusen; Von Furstenberg, and Valerie Steele, director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, were also honored this year.

As the event, originated by the AAFA’s predecessor, the American Apparel Manufacturer’s Association, celebrated its silver anniversary with more than 1,200 guests, several prominent industry figures said the awards served as a reminder of just how important image can be to designers and manufacturers.

“It’s very important,” said John Pomerantz, chairman of the LF Brands, who celebrated his first big night out since he was hit by a car in January. “When I think of all the charities I have been involved with in my life, I can say that it has had a positive affect on my business. But I didn’t do it for that reason.”Stephen Ruzow, president of women’s wear at Kellwood Co., said from his point of view the importance of image most closely relates to product.

“Product is more important today than it ever was in the past,” he said. “If you don’t have the right product, it doesn’t matter what name is on the label.”

Hal Upbin, chairman, president and ceo of Kellwood, when asked the same question, said image was important because, “The perception that you are a winner goes hand-in-hand with the kind of image you must portray today.” Asked how that compared with Ruzow’s answer, Upbin said, “He’s product and I’m style.”

Abbey Doneger, president of The Doneger Group, added, “Image and perception are really important, but perceived image is really what it’s all about, whether you’re in retail, design or wholesale. When you back it up with quality product, you have a winning formula.”

As for the rest of the guests, the image they struck at the event was just as important. Steele, for instance, paired 18th century emeralds with her Yeohlee sarong, while Kenneth Wyse, senior vice president of licensing and public relations at PVH, wore tuxedo buttons made up of the pieces of a ring that previously belonged to his mother, which must have been some ring.

TV journalist Paula Zahn, who joined Charron to emcee the event, wore a Donna Karan gown because she had struck up a friendship with the designer after breaking her knee in a skiing accident recently under similar circumstances as to what happened to Karan last year.

Meanwhile, Calvin Klein, wearing a black suit, shirt and tie, arrived to support Klatsky and PVH, which completed the acquisition of his company in February. “It’s a nice crowd,” Klein said, his eyes stopping on Klatsky’s wife, Iris, who the designer confided has become one of his top customers.

That should be good news, at least, to Charron, who ended the evening with a simple plea: “I have been asked to tell you to shop tomorrow. And for those of us who are paying for all this frivolity, shop at full price.”

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