In the spring of 2002, the Council of Fashion Designers of America decided to honor The New York Times' Cathy Horyn with the prestigious Eugenia Sheppard Award at that year's CFDA Fashion Awards. The vote, however, wasn't embraced by the board. Far from it. By all accounts at the time—on and off the record—it triggered a boisterous meeting that became a major controversy, which many still say was one of the most memorable conflicts for the council. "That was a shocker," then-president of the CFDA Stan Herman recalls.
The incident underscores the CFDA's history of conflicts and quarrels that sometimes flared up throughout its half-century, which is really no surprise, considering the organization is populated—and fueled—by a group of highly creative, ultrapassionate members who tend to do things their own way. Not the shrinking-violet types.
As Peter Arnold, who served as executive director from 2001 to 2005, describes the overall culture: "You had a board composed of leading designers in the country: Ralph, Donna, Calvin, Tommy, Oscar, Kenneth. These guys are not accustomed to being in a room agreeing with one another and coming to a consensus. I came from a law firm; I was blissfully unaware. It was kind of a baptism by fire."
Take Oscar de la Renta, for instance, a former president himself who nonetheless found himself at odds with the CFDA.
From its earliest days, the CFDA was associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, in 1967, staged an exhibition there called "The Art of Fashion." And in the late Eighties, during de la Renta's second term as president and through Carolyne Roehm's stint from 1989 to 1991, the awards were held at the Met. "I thought there was a natural link to the Metropolitan Museum," de la Renta says. "They have the biggest archive and are the most viable Costume Institute in the country. Then, the CFDA decided to break the relationship to the museum, which I thought was unbelievably wrong."
It wasn't the only time de la Renta was angry with the CFDA. "I left the CFDA for a while," the designer recalls. "I don't remember what the reason was —we always got angry about something—but I do remember I got out, and then I came back."
According to reports in WWD, after the 1999 fashion awards gala was widely panned for its six-and-a-half-hour duration and slipshod production, both de la Renta and Calvin Klein resigned from the CFDA board, de la Renta leaving the organization altogether. "I am really discontented with the way the awards have been handled," he told WWD at the time. "People whom I trust have told me they have lost the sense of style and seriousness. Fashion deals with style, not with bad taste."
Both he and Klein rejoined in 2001.
Marc Jacobs, too, had his rocky moments with the organization. In 2007, Jacobs' two-hour show delay backfired and Jacobs reasoned that it was because the New York shows had been pushed two weeks earlier in the collections season. "When we complain about the show schedule, our voice is not heard, nobody does anything about it, the CFDA does me absolutely no service whatsoever as an American fashion designer," he said at the time.
The wounds have since healed—Jacobs now sits on the CFDA board and was honored with its Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. He has also won the Designer of the Year awards in Womenswear, Menswear and Accessories, took home the International Award in 2009 for Louis Vuitton and captured the Perry Ellis Award.
Over the years, there were also plenty of gripes from companies whose labels didn't carry as much weight as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
"They rotate the CFDA Awards among the same three designers," Nicole Miller president and chief executive officer Bud Konheim told WWD in 1996.
This—like much else at the CFDA— has changed considerably since, particularly with the rise of a new generation of New York designers and the advent of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2004.
"I think the CFDA today is an unbelievably different institution than what it originally was," de la Renta says. "Diane von Furstenberg has been an extraordinary president. She brought a great vitality into the organization. We have a voice today. She is probably, in my book, the best president the CFDA has ever had. Far better than myself."