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Designers Lobby and Nudge for CFDA Awards

Just as the Oscars and the Tony Awards have their share of pre-show politics, so does the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards.

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“And the winner is” never seems to lose its kick, and apparently a little arm twisting can sometimes help land names on the nominees’ ballot for the CFDA fashion awards.

Just as the Oscars and the Tony Awards have their share of pre-show politics, so does the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards. E-mail testimonials, friendly words of advice, mailing look books for points of reference and making the party rounds are among the tactics adopted by those angling for recognition from their peers.

While fashion insiders said the industry’s campaigning pales in comparison to Hollywood’s, they also said it has gone on for ages. And as deserving as some designers or other style-minded types think they might be, most would not be so brash as to plead their own cases. They would, however, let colleagues or friends remind others of why they should win. Most of the ear bending occurs before nominees are named and usually targets the special awards such as Lifetime Achievement, Eugenia Sheppard and International Designer of the Year, which are bestowed to one individual as opposed to a three-person race. “Campaigning has been the rule, not the exception, forever — and I’ve been in fashion for 40 years,” said Vera Wang.

Tacky? Or smart? That depends on whom you ask. But with sales of the global apparel retail industry on track to top $1.18 trillion in 2013, and more American designers doing business well beyond Europe, there is much to be gained by such recognition. Given the galaxy of products designers have to sell, awards season is now more than ever “high-stakes poker,” said seasoned publicist Paul Wilmot, who’s unfazed by arm-twisting or lobbying for an award. Less-established designers’ fame could skyrocket, and social media will only accelerate that, he said.

“This is really winner take all. It’s the game changer,” he said, even more so today given the reach of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media.

“There’s an old adage in this industry, ‘No fashion designer has ever refused an award.’ That’s in the credo,” Wilmot said.

In fact, over the years designers sometimes reach a point where they think they should have their just due via the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award, according to former CFDA president Stan Herman.

Wang said she routinely quizzes others about nominees in categories she is unfamiliar with, and will not vote in a certain area if she feels she is not well-informed. Fashion types have asked Wang for her opinion about certain candidates. Recently she started to pay more attention to Accessory Designer of the Year nominee Alexis Bittar, after a stylist friend mentioned him.

“It’s political. Of course, there are politics involved,” Wang said. “It’s also emotional. People have a vested interest in who they support. They’re often friends.”

Brotherly as some might be, their endorsements only go so far, said Wang, as well as a number of others interviewed. “You can’t make anyone vote for you,” she stressed.

Wang, a runner-up for last year’s accessories award, said she has never lobbied for herself. (Though others may have reached out on her behalf, including her p.r. department, who sent e-mails to fashion editors urging them to vote for Wang for Accessory Designer of the Year.)

With nearly 200 shows, “If you do feel you have done the proper work or you think someone else has, then you know what? You’ve got to say something because if you don’t, who will?” asked Wang.

As for this year’s awards, to be held on June 7, there seemed to be a concerted effort on behalf of Paper magazine’s Kim Hastreiter, who has been awarded the Eugenia Sheppard Award. In addition, before the nominations were released, Burberry chief executive officer Angela Ahrendts wrote what she described as a “very passionate” e-mail for Christopher Bailey’s bid for the International Award and sent it to all her contacts in New York.

“I told him I was doing it. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of it,” Ahrendts said. “You say politics, but to me it’s awareness. He’s a British designer living in the U.K. I’m a transplant from New York who knows how important the CFDA awards are.”

All told, about 100 people received her missive, which highlighted the company’s growth to a $3 billion brand during Bailey’s tenure, which hits the 10-year mark next year. During a phone interview Monday, Ahrendts said Burberry ranks 79th on the London FTSE, does business in 50 countries and employs more than 6,000 people worldwide.

“I don’t think people realize what he’s doing. I wanted to make them aware of not only what he’s done for Burberry but what he’s done for the fashion community,” she said.

This year’s awards are likely to garner more coverage than ever before due to the array of bloggers covering fashion (who are being allowed to vote for the first time). In terms of landing nominations, former CFDA executive director Herman said large companies tend to do most of the “electioneering because they understand it’s part of their portfolio. Now when you win a CFDA award, it’s broadcast around the world and it helps business.”

Win or lose, how that publicity translates into sales or helps woo investors is tough to quantify. Womenswear Designer of the Year nominee Jason Wu said, “All the coverage lends to international awareness of the brand, which trickles down and helps boost all areas of my business.”

Asked whether he feels he needs to be more visible, Wu said, “As my collection carries my name on the label, I think I have a certain responsibility to be visible and represent the brand at all times. Ultimately, what I do has a direct influence on how my brand is perceived.”

But don’t bank on his fellow nominees Prabal Gurung and Joseph Altuzarra to be working the room at any industry get-togethers in the next few weeks. Both are out of the country. Last week, Gurung said he hoped his work would speak for itself, and Altuzarra said he was unaware campaigning can be part of the race, but could see how that made sense, especially for large companies. Winning this year’s Ecco Domani award “definitely” helped sales and triggered a tremendous amount of press, Altuzarra said, adding, “Everything is so viral now, but it’s not all positive. It’s not always pleasant to hear their opinions.”

But it can be, as was the case with Cathy Horyn’s recently published endorsement of his candidacy in The New York Times. “Surprised and flattered,” he said, adding Horyn was “just voicing her opinion. I was so surprised to be nominated that I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t win. I’ve only been in business for two years.”

Rag & Bone co-founder Marcus Wainwright said that, without question, being nominated for the 2006 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award and winning the 2007 Swarovski Award for Menswear were the turning points for his business. “People can say until they are blue in the face that it is all about being nominated, but at the end of the day it’s about winning,” he said. “Though I don’t think there is anything you can do to win once you’ve been nominated.”

As a contender for this year’s Menswear Designer of the Year award, Wainwright said he “had no strategy whatsoever in terms of getting nominated.”

But as a CFDA board member, he has seen his share of e-mails or personal notes plugging individuals for the special awards. He declined to reveal any, but said, “People do approach you, and they do say, ‘I think so-and-so should win.’ It’s a difficult one because it would be very easy to react to it. You don’t ask for an award just as you don’t ask for a tip. But the other side to it is they could be deserving of it. Competition is just a pretty common part of it.”

That said, Wainwright said he has not voted for anyone who has campaigned, and considers personal appeals to be “more of a turn off than a turn on.”

Sending look books to remind voters about a designer’s background and recent collection makes perfect sense to publicist Vanessa von Bismarck. “Winning awards definitely helps a designer gain more recognition. I don’t think stores necessarily pick up a designer because he or she won an award, but stores will pay more attention to a designer who won an award,” she said.

To compile the list of nominees, the CFDA typically reaches out to 800 members, media representatives, retailers and anyone who “has a connection to a collection and can form an opinion of what they think,” said executive director Steven Kolb. About 500 people suggest the nominees and actually vote for the award winners. However, designers are somewhat restricted in the nominating process in that they can only nominate for their respective specialty, as well as for the special awards such as Lifetime Achievement.

While Kolb does not vote for the awards, a handful of those who do routinely ask for his opinion of certain shows or whom they should vote for. He bows out of such conversations, “because it would not be appropriate for me to do that,” he said.

The 500 voters have the last word about who actually wins, and all votes are handled via Ernst & Young through a secure site. “You can do all the lobbying you want, but the results come down to those 500 voters,” he said.

That is quite a change from decades past, when Eleanor Lambert, Bill Blass, Molly Parnis, Oscar de la Renta and other CFDA board members would get together in a Seventh Avenue showroom to come up with the list of honorees over lunch. The precursor to the CFDA awards were the Coty awards, which were created by Lambert in 1942 and first distributed in 1943 to promote American fashion.

Last year 700 guests paid $55,000 for a 12-ticket package to watch the winning envelopes be opened at the Lincoln Center gala, and this year’s audience may swell to 800. That turnout would be considerably larger than the 450-person events of the past at the New York Public Library, and presumably more lucrative for the CFDA. Kolb declined to disclose how much money last year’s event raised.

Another matter of discussion among some is the muscle Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour has over the CFDA. Herman said, “So many people accuse the CFDA of being in the pocket of Anna Wintour. Yes, she’s an influential person. Yes, she’s a dominant force in the business. But we have a five-pocket jean, and she’s not in all the pockets. But she is an important factor….I wish we had more people who would step up to the plate and put their money where their mouth is. Nurturing talent is a very complicated issue.”

(Wintour said through a spokesman Monday that she “voted just like everyone else on the nominating committee, and thinks that this year’s winners are an eclectic, well-deserving group.”)

All in all, Herman considers the politics to be part of a healthy discussion. “I am very proud of the fact there is lobbying for these awards. That kind of interest only makes them more notable,” he said.

Unlike in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, when nominees are out and about hosting events, showing up at all the appropriate parties and catching every essential photo op, the lead up to the CFDA awards is more subdued, said Kevin Krier, who produced the CFDA awards gala for 15 years. “I don’t believe there is an overt plan of attack,” he said, especially among more established names such as Marc Jacobs — who has never won a Womenswear Designer of the Year award — and Donna Karan. That said, it is important particularly for young designers “to be out there because people’s memories are very short,” Krier said

Forgetful as many voters might be, several fashion executives noted how the same cast of characters seems to be nominated from one year to the next. Recent repeat performers include Jacobs, who is once again in the running for the women’s wear and accessories awards this year. Last year he won the International Award for his tenure at Louis Vuitton. Alexander Wang is one of his competitors for the women’s wear prize, and he is also a contender for the Swarovski Award for Accessory Design. Last year Wang pocketed the Swarovski Award for Womenswear. Francisco Costa won the Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2006 and 2008. Last year’s winners for that prize, Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, snagged the Swarovski women’s wear award in 2008. And Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez took home the Accessories Designer of the Year award in 2009, and shared the Womenswear Designer of the Year prize with Oscar de la Renta in 2007.

“It’s not as if Marc Jacobs needs the recognition. At this point, they could nominate him for a Lifetime Achievement Award,” said one executive, who requested anonymity. “There is this little group of designers and they just switch around the names every year. It’s a bit like the cool group in high school, which is so self-congratulatory.”

Not everyone is reliving their adolescence. Swarovski Award for Menswear nominee Patrik Ervell said, “Maybe this is naïve of me, but I didn’t know that [campaigning] went on. I hope it’s just about the collection and the vision of the brand. In the end, it’s 90 percent about that and 10 percent about other things.”

Loeffler Randall’s designer, Jessie Randall, tried not to leave anything to chance when she was in the running for the 2007 Swarovski Accessories Designer of the Year award. She said of her pre-nomination decision to send look books to familiarize voters with her work, “It’s pretty common to send them out to make people familiar with what you do. We’re a small brand, and not everyone had heard of us,” she said, but added, “I’m one of the people who votes, and people don’t get swayed by that kind of thing.”

Asked if the gesture made a difference, one recipient, who asked not to be identified, said, “Well, she won, didn’t she?”

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