Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — It looked like the graduating class of Fashion High, with Hillary Rodham Clinton as commencement speaker.
When the First Lady stepped out from behind a blue velvet curtain on Saks Fifth Avenue’s third floor Wednesday night, so many designers were crowding around the podium, there was scarcely enough room for Clinton to make her way on stage.
The lineup — Kate Spade, Gerard Yosca, Mary Ann Restivo, Jeffrey Banks, Monika Tilley, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Joseph Abboud, Diane Von Furstenberg, Herbert Kasper, Mary McFadden, Carlos Falchi and Linda Allard — was there to greet her at a reception that kicked off Saks’ five days of festivities nationwide to raise funds for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. After Clinton’s remarks about the charity, dozens of other designers piled in front of her for an enormous group picture.
Sandy Dalal bounded about like the class clown with his stocking cap, until photographer Patrick McMullen told him he’d fallen out of the picture frame.
“Now you’re out of the picture, John,” he told John Bartlett, who was crouched to one side.
More than 100 designers turned out by SFA’s count. The event was the store’s largest party, with an estimated 10,000 guests — the equivalent number of shoppers in the store at one time on any given Saturday during the Christmas season and five times bigger than last year’s British Invasion blast, although they were considerably better behaved than the group at that event.
They were all there to support the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s five-year-old Fashion Targets Breast Cancer initiative. Early estimates were that Saks raised $75,000 for the charity that night.
“It is I who come to applaud all of you,” said Clinton, who wore a navy pantsuit with a purple shirt.
“Because of the continuing commitment of so many of you,” she said, “this has only grown, not only in our country, but around the world. Each of you who has contributed can take pride in the role you have had in reaching out through a broad-based advertising campaign and enlisting consumers to do something that will benefit their wives, their mothers, their sisters and their daughters.”
Clinton then rushed off to a fund-raising dinner for her potential U.S. Senate bid, while the designers walked next door to a cocktail reception on the Sky Terrace of the United Bank of Switzerland building.
“Have you ever seen this many CFDA members in one room?” asked James Purcell. “You can’t shake a stick without hitting a designer.”
Indeed, you couldn’t.
In addition to those already named, there were Richard Tyler, Calvin Klein, Victor Alfaro, Kenneth Cole, Arnold Scaasi, Vera Wang, Robert Danes, Marc Bouwer, Douglas Hannant, Yeohlee Teng, Randolph Duke, Eric Gaskins, Mark Montano and on and on and on. Paulina Porizkova, Irina, Ivanka Trump, Georgina Grenville and Amber Valetta represented the modeling industry, while the social set, including all the Lauders, Lauren DuPont, Anne McNally, Emilia Fanjul, Serena and Samantha Boardman and Lulu de Kwiatkowski, kept pouring in.
“How could we miss it?” asked Roz Jacobs, whose late husband, Mel Jacobs, was once the Saks chief. “It’s like part of the family.”
Crowned heads were represented by a triumvirate: the reigning Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe were all in the building.
“I’m here to find some bargains,” said Kimberly Ann Pressler, Miss USA. “I went to Super Saturday a few weeks ago and found two Vera Wang dresses for $50 apiece.”
The Saks benefit will cover 26 states, with CFDA designers making appearances around the country over the weekend, during which 2 percent of sales will benefit Fashion Targets Breast Cancer and other local breast cancer charities. Several of the designers departed Wednesday night and Thursday for various weekend promotions.
“I’m busting my butt for Saks for the next four days,” said Matt Nye, who left for Los Angeles that night. “But it’s great because they’re huge supporters of this charity and that’s what this is all about — general collaborative support in this industry.”
Nye, who had previously met the First Lady at a state dinner, greeted her again at the reception, but only had the chance to say hello.
“She did say she liked my tennis shoes,” Nye said. “Her daughter has the same pair.”
At which point Diane Von Furstenberg rushed up to kiss him on the cheek.
“Oh, he’s so cute, isn’t he?”
“She’s like my mother,” Nye said.
“Oh, you give your interview,” Von Furstenberg said, slipping away.
“You’re getting as bad as Barry,” he called after her, referring to her pal Barry Diller.
Tyler, meanwhile, missed the opportunity to see Clinton, but arrived at the reception later with his wife, Lisa Trafficante.
“We got held up in traffic. It was probably her fault, actually,” he said, referring to the Clinton cavalcade of cars.
Bartlett said he wouldn’t have missed it.
“I was supposed to leave for Italy yesterday but I stayed so I could see her,” he said. “I’m just now registered to vote for the first time in like five years because I’m such a big fan of her strength, her honesty and her resilience.”
No one admitted to being a fan of her outfit.
“I didn’t notice,” Bartlett said.
“It wasn’t one of our suits,” added Rory Green, who works with and is engaged to Elie Tahari. “That’s for sure.”
The First Lady didn’t stick around to browse the Saks racks. But the designers did, and even more showed up after the reception for what turned into a surreal public appearance-a-thon, with designers staked out on each floor next to their respective departments. Donna Karan arrived and created a stir on Three, where Bill Blass had also shown up with Nina Griscom on his arm.
Cynthia Rowley was on Five, signing copies of “Swell,” along with her co-author, Ilene Rosenzweig, when an ardent fan began babbling about how great she is, and then proffered a credit card to pay for the book.
“You have to pay for that over there,” Rowley said, pointing to a register.
Porizkova, on the other hand, was working the customers like a politician on Two, where she was hawking Escada Collection Candles, with every dollar going to the charity.
“I’ve always wanted to be a salesperson and see how well I could do,” she said. “When I was 14 in Sweden, there was a program that let us try out various careers. I said I wanted to try archaeology, and I ended up in a clothing store. That’s the story of my life. I want to do one thing, and I end up doing something else.”
Customers were everywhere, taking pictures of designers, snapping up bits of sushi and strawberry coladas, riffling through the racks and repeating this refrain: “Is that him? Is that her?”
In most cases it was, as when a short woman with a Long Island accent approached Oscar de la Renta without a hint of hesitancy, handed a disposable camera to a friend, put her arm around the designer and said, “I just had to have my picture taken next to this good-looking guy. What can I say?”
“There sure are a lot of people here,” de la Renta said.
Linda Stein later laughed while telling Shoshanna Lonstein what she had seen earlier.
“Some woman went up to Donna Karan and told her she is a god,” said Stein.
“Well, she is sort of a god,” Lonstein said.
James and Stefano Ferragamo held court in the shoe department before a bevy of young lovelies who were swarming around the Italian heartthrobs, when a middle-aged shopper joined the group and began talking about her bunions.
“Feet,” said James gallantly, “are one of the most beautiful parts of the body.”