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The Long Goodnight

NEW YORK -- What happens when the contents of an aquarium are crammed into a fishbowl? Well, the species' scales become all the more evident when they're up close and personal.<P>The Council of Fashion Designers of America promised a more intimate...

NEW YORK — What happens when the contents of an aquarium are crammed into a fishbowl? Well, the species’ scales become all the more evident when they’re up close and personal.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America promised a more intimate awards ceremony this year, and the consensus among the more than 100 designers who turned out Monday night at the New York Public Library was that smaller is generally better. But it turns out after all that a marathon for 450 runners takes the same amount of grueling endurance as one for 2,000, and, as the night stretched on with more than 20 award presentations and video montages, the evening’s fortunate absence of PETA protesters was promptly replaced by the din of a different sort — hecklers.

“Good morning,” Fran Lebowitz snapped as she stepped onto a sliver of a stage, more than three hours after guests had taken their seats. “Be patient, Mr. Saint Laurent is coming out in a minute.”

Her wry dig at that tortured, interminable CFDA night three years ago, when the designer received his lifetime achievement award, was exactly the sort of insider moment of frank honesty that occasionally provided Monday evening with a remarkable high point. Anna Wintour gave a classy, witty introduction for Kal Ruttenstein, citing his only previous award when he had enlisted in the Army and went to Fort Dix, working as a cook and “frying liver for 5,000 men. In 1960, he was named Cook of the Week.” Kal, the Bloomingdale’s fashion director, was concise and sincere in his acceptance, too: “Thanks to the members of CFDA for making me really happy.” Everyone stood, even the folks from Saks.

Karl Lagerfeld graciously gave a nod to Ralph Lauren, who earlier missed out on two top awards. Accepting his lifetime achievement award, Lagerfeld said he admired the fact that Lauren, a previous lifetime award winner, could still be nominated for men’s and women’s designer of the year. “I don’t believe in lifetime achievement,” he said. “For me it is all about the next collection. Look at Ralph Lauren.There is hope for me, still.”

Yet for all the efforts to make a statement about 40 years of American fashion and the CFDA, with anecdotes about the decades from Ali MacGraw, Shalom Harlow and Lebowitz; the gallant return of James Galanos for the occasion, and fashion history lessons made in MTV-style videos, there still seemed to be a strange disconnect between the past, present and future. Those hoping the smaller proceedings would result in real mega-star power were disappointed when Nicole Kidman didn’t attend. Her publicist claimed she never accepted the invitation but keen-eyed people backstage spotted her scheduled entrance stage left to “surprise” Lagerfeld during his award. Could it have been the awkward prospect of bumping into that other Cruz — Penelope, a guest of Ralph Lauren?

As for those narrating the other segments, even some of the old-timers in the audience were confounded to guess just who they were. When Marisa Berenson came out with a photographer to endlessly riff about the Sixties — Jean Shrimpton, Viagra and meeting “Vreeland” for the first time — few knew the man with her was the legendary David Bailey.

Other things made no sense at all. Why was techno-phile Hedi Slimane introduced to the strains of white rapper Eminem’s latest single? Why, during an otherwise admirable “In Memorium” segment to those who died in the past year, did they bring up Bonnie Cashin, who died in February 2000? And why would Cathy Horyn, whose nomination caused such controversy because of her wicked writing, turn in a history lesson about Eugenia Sheppard that was downright drippy? Other presenters — like Simon Doonan and Pat Field introducing the accessories award — were tripped up by scripted Academy Awards-style teleprompter speeches.

“It’s not about the logos. Logos are a no-go! Right, Pat?” Doonan asked.

“Something like that,” Field replied.

The lowest point of the evening, though, came from Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey, who narrated a seemingly endless infomercial for the magazine — no doubt stung by that morning’s bruising news story in the New York Times. She compared her creative director Stephen Gan to “Star Wars,” Botox and Ozzy Osborne — leaving everyone wondering what they had to do with one another. “His ideas come faster than a Chanel runway show, faster than `Attack of the Clones,’ or in our case, faster than attack of the clothes,” Bailey said. She summed up by quoting Gan’s recent comment in his V magazine on how true chicness is measured in how people behave and treat others. Note to Glenda: If you want people to be nice, don’t make it so easy to be mean.

Take a cue from poor Fern Mallis, the woman who helped put the CFDA on the map with the coordination of the Bryant Park tent shows for the past decade. Not only was she seated in the back, she had to pay full price for her ticket and was practically erased from the CFDA’s history. Now that’s just nasty, but she laughed it off: “It was fun not being responsible,” she joked.

Despite all the changes in this year’s ceremony, one thing remained true to the past — the real fashion moments came off-stage. Budding fashion designer Lauren Bush sat with her consiglieri Tommy Hilfiger, who at the last minute persuaded the First Niece to change the color of her self-designed pale green toga to navy. Is she serious about designing? “Yes, I really want to be a designer,” she said. “I love fashion. I’d start with women’s wear, but I’m a student now, so it’ll have to be part time.” And who are her heroes? “Tommy, of course, and Marc Jacobs is awesome. Michael Kors and John Galliano too.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not similarly motivated. “You do not want me designing clothes,” he said.

Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, enjoyed the newfound appreciation of the American designers for her disheveled sexy-ugly style. “They used to laugh at me,” she said. “Don’t worry. In six months, I’ll be out of fashion.”

Lauren Hutton, who on stage derided her own age so many times that she guessed, “I was Lauren before Ralph,” continued the schtick while walking up the steps to the library — “It was like watching an old building, hoping it won’t fall,” she said. “These are the first high heels I’ve worn since my accident. I’m just thankful I got up the stairs.” In her Narciso Rodriguez jacket and slacks, however, she was deemed best-dressed by a number of guests, particularly for her unusual peacock feather earrings. “They’re spectacular,” said Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. “They look beautiful enough to be endangered.”

People watching — which was, of course, the evening’s main pastime — was made all the easier by the intimate setting. Puffy walked over to greet Ralph Lauren, then Lauren Bush. Zac Posen admitted to giving the eye to Sandy Dalal. And when actress Paz de la Huerta, Posen’s date, went to flirt with a young male model at Slimane’s table, Alexander Von Furstenberg caught a look and surmised, “She’s a closer.”

“Our big thing was that this party was really about the mix of people,” said Michael Kors, a co-chair with Diane Von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta. “If you can’t have everyone, you want the most eclectic group you can find. The whole night is about personalizing it, but also making people realize fashion is a kind of family. This is like a Thanksgiving dinner for some dysfunctional family — and I’m the crazy uncle.”

Continuing with that simile, after Lagerfeld got off the stage, a lot of people walked out of the room as if they were suffering from tryptophan poisoning. But this being New York, the more spirited among them headed way downtown to a party for Slimane, Lagerfeld and Gan in Chinatown, where the trio demonstrated remarkable endurance — if not the proper technique in mixology — acting as bartenders. When Amanda Harlech offered to get Hamish Bowles a drink from the bar, he considered Lagerfeld’s first effort for a moment, then requested cranberry and vodka. “Hopefully, they can handle that,” he said. “Just ask them to put a little vodka in it this time!”

Other drinks, evidently, were poured with a heavier fist. Donna Karan, who danced the night away with her mangled knee and the help of a white cane, was at one point cornered by a boisterous drunken model. “You can’t feed a dog when it’s in the doghouse, man!” he barked at her. “The dog should be home in bed!”

“The funny thing,” Karan said, “is that I know exactly what he’s talking about.”

Bailey, too, spent the rest of the night dancing her cares away, twisting and turning in what seemed to be a variation on the tango. The music, a blend of Eighties disco (Gwen Guthrie and Michael Jackson) and funky French house rarely dropped to the traditional speed for her routine, but just like the Energizer bunny she kept dancing until well after the crowd had thinned. Lagerfeld himself didn’t get out until 3 a.m., considering the tips that were coming his way. Villa Moda proprietor Majed Al-Sabah dropped $1,000 at the bar (it was for the Robin Hood Foundation) and then gave away another $10,000 on Tuesday morning at a breakfast in Harlem hosted by Andre Leon Talley that benefitted the Abyssinian Development Corporation. Somehow Lagerfeld — with two more parties scheduled Tuesday night — …made his way to “Good Morning America” by 7:30 a.m., where he even took a twirl with Dianne Sawyer, and then on to a luncheon hosted by Ingrid Sischy and Sandy Brant and attended by Helmut Lang and Edward Pavlick, Calvin Klein, Julian Schnabel, Milla Jovovich, Jimmy Fallon, Iman, Francesco Clemente and Hilary Swank, all of whom had been wrapped up in CFDA-related events since Sunday evening.

Given the length of the awards, they’re probably still going at it right now.

– With contributions from Jessica Kerwin, Alison Oneacre and Jacob Bernstein