NEW YORK — If anything can change the “image” of an awards event, it’s bringing in a throng of celebrities.
The American Apparel & Footwear Association’s annual American Image Awards Monday night, normally a serious black-tie affair at the Grand Hyatt hotel here, this year took a surprise turn toward the eclectic.
For starters, there was a man wearing wraparound sunglasses and a long velvet cape embroidered with a peace symbol in rhinestones spinning around on the dance floor. Then Sharon Stone and Lauren Bacall acted as a peanut gallery from Oscar de la Renta’s table, reality television stars were peppered throughout the room and New York Mets star Mike Piazza, who accompanied Man of the Year honoree Kenneth Cole, confessed he’s interested in starting his own fashion line.
While the event typically draws retail and designer heavyweights who support the industry lobbying group and its association with various charities, this year’s attempt to jazz up the celebrity quotient created some strange groupings.
At one table, “The Apprentice” runner-up Kwame Jackson was seated with Victoria Gotti, Patricia Field, emcee Kelly Ripa in a green de la Renta dress, country singer Julie Roberts and, just to keep everything properly grounded, AAFA president Kevin Burke. Asked what he was doing there, Jackson replied, “Celebrity puppet, I guess.”
The cast of the Bravo reality program “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” on the other hand, was honored with a Fashion Maverick Award, presented by Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc. Carson Kressley, one of the show’s stars, accepted with castmate Jai Rodriguez by describing Charron as “a real hottie.”
“He’s like the first metrosexual, although I don’t like that word — it sounds like having sex on a bus,” Kressley said. “When they told us we were getting the Fashion Maverick Award, I thought, ‘It sounds like the football team at FIT.’ Then I realized, there’s no football team at FIT.”
Stone also was honored during the event, which raised $500,000 for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the AAFA’s educational programs, with the Spirit of a Woman Award in recognition of her longstanding commitment to campaigning for AIDS charities. Presenting the award, Bacall said, “This is clearly one of the most enduring roles Sharon will ever play. Its impact will be felt for years to come in Africa, in the former Soviet Union and here in the United States.”
After Stone, in a red embroidered de la Renta gown, responded with an emotional speech, the two returned to the designer’s table to watch the rest of the program, including tributes to de la Renta, Cole and Bergdorf Goodman, and proceeded to get into a festive spirit. When George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA, stepped to the podium to present the award to Bergdorf’s, Stone shouted out, “Send me some shoes!” And as Burt Tansky, chairman and ceo of Neiman Marcus Group, accepted with a lengthy tribute to the New York store, Bacall announced to the table, “I think I just had a flashback from ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’”
The actresses and the rest of the room were no less enthralled when Tansky concluded his speech by introducing Bergdorf’s newly appointed ceo, James Gold. Retail veteran Philip Miller, who was next at the dais, began his remarks by noting, “Jim Gold just got an endorsement from my dinner partner, Dawn Mello, who said, ‘He’s cute.’”
“He’s cute?” Bacall groaned.
Bogie or not, Gold was already working the company line, remarking earlier in the evening that the positive results of the ongoing renovation of the store were attributable to its existing executive team.
“Bergdorf Goodman is being recognized for setting itself apart among retailers in the most exciting city, in the most competitive city, in the most challenging city in the world,” he said. “Bergdorf Goodman has risen above the crowd.”
Not incidentally, the retailer just broke another designer record with a $3 million trunk show for de la Renta the week before, which Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director, credited to the designer’s widening demographics.
“The surprising thing we saw was a younger customer, where women who were 25 to 30 were going for the very best items from Oscar and to mix back with their wardrobe, and the existing customers were buying complete outfits,” Burke said. “You felt like they were buying collectors’ pieces.”
Designers including Catherine Malandrino, Maggie Norris and David Meister rounded out the room, alongside the TV stars waltzing to renditions of Barry White and Bacall engaging Stone in an impromptu pirouette. Meister said the scene was “indicative of what the American viewing public wants and I think it’s kind of cool.”
Perhaps the only person who appeared more interested in the designers was legitimate heartthrob and likely Hall of Famer Piazza, who — licensing pros, please take note of his ability to speak and his pearly white teeth — is kicking around the idea of putting his name on a fashion label.
“I’ve thought about it and I’ve had a lot of offers,” Piazza said. “It’s not something I’d want to just dabble in, unless I did a lot of research. I love the way that fashion is at the forefront of what’s happening and that it makes us feel better about ourselves. There’s so many cool designers out there and what I really like is that they are so supportive of each other. It’s like a fraternity.”