THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

Is the New York City Marathon still two weeks away — or did it simply take another form in Friday night’s spectacular but never-ending VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards?
An event taped for television can never pack the punch of a night at the theater, but by the time Sugar Ray mounted the Hammerstein Ballroom stage at 1 a.m. (to perform a song cathartically titled “When It’s Over”), it was clear that the awards ceremony was flirting with the CFDA’s interminable homage to Yves Saint Laurent three years ago. The first half of the evening was fabulous. For one thing, it boasted the flashiest crowd in memory: Mick Jagger, Elton John, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Swank, Renee Zellweger, Josh Hartnett and Jim Carrey — as well as Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, whose presence legitimized the handing out of fashion awards in these dark days.
“Terrorism won’t be affecting my flamboyance,” said John Galliano, who received the “Rebel Designer” award in thrilling style as the De La Guarda acrobatics troop scooped him up for a trapeze ride around the room.
Though her lip-syncing was less than electrifying, it was at least a welcome curiosity to see an Eighties-haired, Dolce & Gabbana-clad Mariah Carey perform live. Macy Gray’s wonderful romp a little later included a gaggle of drag queens who wove through the crowd.
“They used to call this a freak show when I was a kid,” mused Tommy Hilfiger.
As for Alicia Keys, John Mellencamp and Sugar Ray — their stellar performances, held up until late because of production breaks, fell on too few ears. The balcony had emptied by 11:30, by which time most of the V.I.P.s had left for an after-party at the Park.
A few glitches held up the taping: Gwen Stefani had trouble getting through security, Lenny Kravitz was forced to retape his entrance, and Calvin Klein had to present Stella Tennant with her “Model of the Year” award twice.
But the evening had some touching moments as well. Marc Jacobs, who received the “Designer of the Year” award, looked genuinely moved, and Niki Taylor was met with a standing ovation when she made her first appearance since her accident last spring. Mayor Giuliani, of course, drew his de rigeur standing O (for which only P. Diddy and his posse remained seated).
Guests at the awards ceremony rain the sartorial gamut — and so did their hosts: Vogue’s Anna Wintour wore blue jeans and Sally Singer wore Madame Gres couture. Whereas Jim Carrey opened the show clad in only a fig leaf a few years ago, this time around, even Lil’ Kim didn’t show any skin.
“I wanted to look very rich and classy,” she said of her, ahem, bodysuit.
Though she offered ample cleavage, even Patricia Field went in for black pants.
“I’m feeling quiet,” she said. “After Sept. 11, there was an initial reaction that fashion is trivial. But artists and inventors add dimension to the world, so we’re going to get back to what we do.”
Iman was a little more skeptical.
“It changed people’s approach to life,” she said. “In the fashion world, I’m hoping we don’t take ourselves so seriously anymore.”
One pair of sisters in the audience continues to take itself very seriously. Those sitting near the Hilton bookends — Paris and Nicky — were on boob-watch all night. In bright, melon-hued Marc Bauer evening gowns and gawdy jewels, they looked more like Vegas back-up singers than heiresses. Paris popped out of her halter neck at least once, to the bemusement of Michael Kors.
“Just when you thought you were blase,” he sighed.