NEW YORK — They retreated and won.

After several years of trying to compete in star wattage with the Costume Institute gala, the Council of Fashion Designers of America finally turned its primary focus back to the designers for its annual Fashion Awards and came up with the best event in recent memory. Sure, the crowd might have been light on major stars — except for hostess Sarah Jessica Parker, Renée Zellweger and Adrien Brody — and there was no significant showing from the society set, young and old. But that may have been the best thing that could have happened to the CFDA.

Instead of craning necks and puckering up to celebrities, at the forefront were the designers — 85 were in attendance — and their craft, which has ostensibly been the goal of the organization since Peter Arnold became its executive director two years ago. For once, it was a party about the designers, filled with genuine emotion, warm embraces and the bizarre little spectacles that can only come about when Sean “Puffy” Combs is introduced to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Alexander McQueen is seated next to Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik is walking around asking, “Who is this Connie Nielson?” and 19-year-old Esteban Cortazar is standing inches away from a legend of design, James Galanos, who is 77.

“Who?” Cortazar asked. “Is he old school?”

For many of the 450 guests who filled the library, the assemblage represented a lesson in American fashion history, and looking in its collective mirror, that image didn’t look so bad. Alexander McQueen, who was honored as the international designer, gave an outsider’s perspective: “America is a hard nut to crack,” he said. More seasoned designers, however, said the event harkened back to the earliest CFDA events, held there in the library, well before efforts came about to turn the awards into a media event.

After skipping recent ceremonies, Mary McFadden, Mary Ann Restivo, Victor Costa and Louis Dell’Olio all came back, getting right into the spirit.

“It’s a reunion of fashion people,” said Oleg Cassini, the 90-year-old designer who stole the show in accepting a special tribute from the CFDA board (even doing a little jig to prove he’s as fit as a 50-year-old). “Without this, there would be nothing. It’s almost like a religious happening, only with designers, where everyone is looking around trying to figure out how long their careers will last.”This was a thought that was surely on the minds of all the producers, assistants, stylists, set designers and publicists working behind the scenes to pull off the awards, considering the drawn-out and tired affair of last year, when the CFDA first tried its small-scale format.

Things did not look promising early on, as guests took their typical time in making their ways to an elaborate dinner table that stretched two blocks long through the library’s Great Gallery. It was a fun idea, with gorgeous tables covered in antique sterling silver trays and tumblers filled with varying sprigs of topiary, but the sweaty heat of the old library, combined with uninspired catering, brought to mind two words: food fight.

Fortunately for KCD, which produced the event for the first time, guests instead practically bolted from their chairs, winding their way through the hall to get as quickly as they could to the Celeste Bartos Forum, where the awards presentation was staged. By 9:20 p.m., most were in their seats (banquettes, actually, with yummy cookies and champagne) and Parker was on stage delivering the first of her jokes. While she was game and charming, clearly the writers from “Sex and the City” weren’t involved in her script.

“This is like the Academy Awards of fashion, the only difference being when the nominees are asked, ‘Who are you wearing?’ the answer is ‘Me,’” Parker said, to a fair response of laughter.

“Word is, Zac Posen had to borrow Oleg Cassini’s ID to get a drink at the bar,” she said, to moderate applause.

“Apparently, Ralph Lauren is still upstairs passing me the salt,” she said, to silence.

“Do you get it?” she continued. “Because the table was really long!”

But someone must have blessed SJP, who not only has a bod made for four fashion changes — Oscar de la Renta champagne cocktail dress, Carolina Herrera polkadot gown, Vera Wang strapless and Calvin Klein black bombshell — but also the good sense, according to backstage sources, to skip the rest of the jokes in the ensuing script. Her best line of the night came without any words at all, when Klein said she could keep the dress, and she held up her wrists and flashed some impressive jewels, then slyly raised her eyebrows pleadingly.Hers was not the only attempt at comedy relief. Brody, in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, said, “Security was so tight they were actually checking my label at the door. I explained I’m wearing an Italian designer, which makes me an ally to American fashion.” And Claire Danes, presenting the accessories award, said such things as “When you don’t have a man on your arm, you can always have a bag,” but she was a little looser after a New Age cartoon about the nominees: “That video puts me in a similar coma to a good shoe.”

Scripted moments were never a strength for the CFDA, but the emotional ones of the evening made up for that in spades. Ralph Lauren endearingly touched Cassini’s cheek as the elder designer made his way to the podium for a tribute that started out with as much promise as a press release, but quickly had the audience on its feet, cheering Cassini’s triumphant career as he told one howler after another, wrapping it up too quickly with a story about a snippish newspaper article by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that speculated his success with women such as Gene Tierney and Grace Kelly must have had something to do with his mustache.

“Finally, I wrote her a letter,” Cassini said. “I wrote, ‘I give up. I’ll shave mine if you shave yours.’”

Conversely, the winners in this year’s categories reacted with tight, charming speeches. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who won the Perry Ellis Award for Ready-to-Wear and a $20,000 prize from Swarovski, which underwrote the whole event, could barely speak. “I’m not sure what to say,” Hernandez said. “Tonight is crazy. It’s amazing to be part of an industry that rewards its young.”

“I am never at a loss for words,” said Michael Kors, picking up the men’s wear award. “Now I am.”

Narciso Rodriguez, the first two-time consecutive women’s wear designer of the year, could barely hold back tears when Klein, his former employer before Rodriguez struck out on his own 10 years ago, presented the award to him. “Coming from him, it means a great deal to me,” Rodriguez said, and embraced Klein, who, it should be noted, created quite a stir 30 years ago when he won the first of three consecutive Coty Awards.Even Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief whose stoicism is the stuff of legend, gave an uncharacteristically emotional acceptance to the Lifetime Achievement Award, dedicating it to her children, Charlie and Bea Shaffer.

“New York is the city that shaped me,” she said. “This city and industry are unfailingly welcoming, probably because so many of you came from some place else.”

Wintour’s honor included an acknowledgement of her efforts to support the Costume Institute, AIDS charities and the American fashion community, championing many small designers. Annette de la Renta who, along with her husband, Oscar, introduced Wintour, said Bloomberg had asked them “to say he was going to help younger designers,” although the mayor, when asked what that meant after the show ended, was pleasant but less specific. (Annette de la Renta said Bloomberg should help the older designers, too, at which point Oscar pointed to himself.)

“Fashion is very important to New York City,” Bloomberg said. “It creates a lot of jobs. It sets the tone for the rest of the world. New York is the fashion capital of the world, and it is becoming more so every day. New York is a city for dreamers and doers, and young designers have that option here, more than anyplace else. We’re trying to find ways to reduce the barriers and raise capital and raise access, to make sure this is a city that allows young designers to have that success.”

The prospects certainly helped the evening end on a high note, at 10:35 p.m., no less. But was it perfect? Please. There was, of course, the catering issue, the fact that most of the voice-overs on the videos weren’t identified and the oddity of Zellweger and Ingrid Sischy competing to deliver their introductions in a manner best befitting a romance novelist.

“Gone were the parasols which I had seen her wear with such panache,” Sischy intoned about visiting Nicole Kidman on the set of “Cold Mountain,” recounting how the actress asked for a loaf of bread or piece of pork (yes, really) be inserted into the pocket of her long coat. “Nicole wanted to feel the weight in her pocket, to transport her and then us into another world.”She couldn’t get to New York to pick up the award, however, because she was shooting in Los Angeles, and Lauren Bacall was recruited to accept the Fashion Icon tribute on her behalf. But the person who proved himself to be one of the night’s class acts turned out to be Puffy, who, after losing at four consecutive awards ceremonies, has begun to refer to himself as the Susan Lucci of fashion. Yet he still managed to not only show up, but also throw a raucous after party at Lobby.

There, Donna Karan danced gloriously in her black gown and gladiator sandals among a throng of models. Next to Karolina Kurkova, in a vintage white Azzedine Alaïa toga, it looked like a designer orgy as Rodriguez, Hernandez, McCollough, Adrienne Landau, David Meister, Nielson, Marisa Tomei, Rachel Weisz and Christopher Bailey filed into the club. At 1:15 a.m., Combs took to the house sound system and started yelling shout-outs to Zac Posen every five minutes: “You ain’t got s--- if you ain’t got Zac Posen in your closet,” he said. When it looked as if the club management was about to protest — Posen, dancing with Claire Danes on a banquette, wiped a sconce clean off the wall — Combs screamed again: “I want shots in everybody’s hands! It’s open bar! Tequila! Don’t worry! I’m good for it!”

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