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WWD Milestones issue 09/10/2012

The first annual CFDA Awards was held on a snowy night in January 1982, when about 200 designers and industry professionals gathered at the New York Public Library for simple acceptance speeches—no surprises, since the winners had been announced two months prior—and dinner by Eighties caterer-to-the-glamorous Glorious Food. At the time, the rules handed down by then-president Mary McFadden stipulated that only the legal husbands and wives of Council of Fashion Designers of America members were allowed in on the same ticket, a notion that seems rather quaint by today’s standards. The most recent CFDA Awards gala, held in June, drew an audience of 800; scores of designers showed up with celebrity guests primped and primed for the almighty photo op.

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Originally conceived as an alternative to the Coty Awards, the fashion awards show organized by publicity maven Eleanor Lambert in 1943, the CFDA Awards is at its core a fund-raiser, generating $1.3 million in 2012, though it’s easy to lose sight of that amid all the spectacle.

The road from small “frat party,” as Stan Herman, CFDA president from 1991 to 2006, describes the show’s original incarnation, to the self-annointed “Oscars of Fashion” was relatively short. By 1984, the CFDA Awards had put the Cotys out of business. In 1999, the date changed from January to June. Venues have shifted from the NYPL to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur, back to the Library, and then to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, its home since 2009. Originally underwritten by the Wool Bureau, sponsorship through the years has changed hands to Hearst and Dom Perignon, and since 2002 the underwriting honor has belonged to Swarovski, for which no shiny new thing, whether crystal, trophy or emerging talent, has gone unbranded.

The awards got its first Hollywood injection—a harbinger of the direction the show has taken—in 1985, when the CFDA chose to honor Katharine Hepburn with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The next year it was Marlene Dietrich’s turn, which came at a price.

“With Marlene, our relationship was on the phone because she didn’t want to see anyone,” says Robert Raymond, executive director of the CFDA from 1984 to 1990. “She had to be talked into it, and we had to pay her. Bill Blass paid her money so that we could honor her. That wasn’t agreeable to a lot of people, but on the other hand, we needed someone with a big name we could honor.” (Dietrich was never going to actually attend the awards, by the way. She asked that Mikhail Baryshnikov accept on her behalf.)

In its 30-year coverage of the CFDA Awards, The New York Times often goes with some variation on the headline “Fashion Honors Its Own.” Technically, this is still true. The designers and journalists who take home statuettes are nominated by industry vote, tallied by Ernst & Young to guard against any funny business. But it’s long been customary for the awards to be presented by a celebrity guest, often chosen either by the CFDA producers (that would be Diane von Furstenberg in recent years) or by the big prize winners themselves. In many instances, the result has been a real wow. For instance, when Audrey Hepburn presented Ralph Lauren with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992—onstage, Lauren put his arm around her waist and said to his brother in the audience, “Jerry, I got her”—and when Oprah Winfrey presented Lauren with the American Fashion Legend Award in 2007. Lady Gaga was an uncontested hit in 2011 when she showed up to collect the Fashion Icon Award. There’s no question that the star power has upped the show’s stakes. There’s nothing fashion loves more than to bask in the glow of a celebrity—except possibly to gloat over a poorly dressed one—but the fame game can also upset the fashion food chain.

In 1995, Princess Diana attended the show to present Liz Tilberis, the late editor of Harper’s Bazaar, with a special award. Di appeared with a new slicked-short hairdo, for which she was promptly eviscerated the world over. The opportunity to glimpse the Princess in the flesh sent ticket sales skyward and egos into a tailspin. “One of the most extraordinary things I had to do was deciding who was on the receiving line when Princess Di was there,” recalls Herman. “She could only shake so many hands and everybody felt like their hand was shakeable. Add to that the fact that Liz Tilberis was one of the most beloved women in our industry. The combination was toxic.”

Seating a roomful of such outsize yet fragile personalities is also a matter of political acrobatics. “One year, I somewhat foolishly, with KCD, conceived a table in the library that went from 41st to 42nd street,” says Peter Arnold, executive director from 2001 to 2005. “The controversy of who will sit next to whom.…You know when you go to a dinner party and there is always that not-great dinner guest who switches the cards? There was so much of that going on that we had to have a security guard at a certain celebrity’s spot because so many people were vying to sit next to her.”

Through all the tweaks and transitions, one thing has remained the same: The show goes on before a tough crowd—”the toughest in the world,” in the words of Nian Fish, who has been creative director and executive producer of the CFDA gala since 2003. “The fashion crowd knows everything about art, architecture. They know that Cate Blanchett is doing a special appearance in Uncle Vanya. They know that Pina Bausch died of cancer, and they know why Lil’ Kim is in jail—which means that they know all the high levels of culture and they know everything about pop culture. I consider the fashion industry in general to have a tremendously high IQ, and there’s 1 percent of those people in this audience. So all of this gets heightened.”

In tracing the history of the awards, one finds that the moments most chronicled by the style scribes of record—this publication included—are those that have landed with a thud. Everything from the staging to the food is fair game. “Every once in a while I’ll hear someone complaining about the french fries. And I’ll think, ‘Really? The french fries weren’t crispy enough? That bothered you?,'” says Fish. “I call it the glass-half-empty point of view.”

To be fair, there have been some clunkers.

In the beginning, the gripes were almost cute. Ticket prices were too high. New Yorkers wore too much black. Attendance was thin. Would a little mood music have killed anyone? In 1984, a few hides were chapped when the Sunday night awards conflicted with the fifth installment of The Jewel in the Crown on television.

But as the production grew, so did the criticism, with scalpels at the ready in 1999. Having arranged to televise the event, dubbed the American Fashion Awards for the occasion, on the E network, executive director Fern Mallis and Herman moved the whole shebang to the 69th Street Regiment Armory and tried to juice it up, Oscars style—spending $2 million in the process. Julianne Moore was brought in to host. Cher and Sophia Loren were honored with awards (both no-showed). The strategy was TV 101, save the best for last: Yves Saint Laurent as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. After being introduced by John Fairchild, Saint Laurent himself took the stage at midnight, six hours after the gala had begun. By that time, half the room had headed for the door.

“Amateur Night” hissed WWD’s headline.

“The awards evening has a reputation for being longer, duller and ultimately less fun than almost any such event, and it surpassed expectations this year as technical delays…turned it into a six-and-a-half-hour ordeal of dinner, speeches and wilting hairdos,” ripped Cathy Horyn in the Times. People were outraged, including Pierre Bergé, whose request to move Saint Laurent up in the program was denied. Asked for a postmortem the following day, Fran Lebowitz told WWD: “I did say to Calvin [Klein], in the fifth big hour, that I was curious to find out who was president [of the United States]. You felt an entire era had passed.”

Herman remembers it as “the night from all hell. I felt like putting stones in my pockets and walking into the water,” he recalls. “The tape of that show is still available. It’s a miniseries somewhere.”

Live and learn. Fish and her producing partner Nina Santisi, along with Julie Mannion, who’s been directing the awards show since 2003, put the ideal run time at one hour and 15 minutes. Anything over that and the audience gets bored. Still, even when the show comes in on time, that’s 75 minutes of potential disaster. Some of it is the nature of live entertainment. No one could have predicted that Ellen Barkin wouldn’t see that there was a tie for Womenswear Designer of the Year on the cue card in 2007, or that Cher would show up to present Chrome Hearts with Accessories Designer of the Year in 1993 with two minutes to spare, or that PETA would ambush Arnold Scaasi during his 1997 Lifetime Achievement speech.

The room is just as capricious.

Bruce Vilanch, the veteran Hollywood writer who’s contributed to at least a dozen Academy Award shows, including penning material for Billy Crystal, worked on a CFDA script in the Nineties and reportedly vowed never to come near the awards again because the fashion crowd was so vicious.

“The word is out that this audience is tough, so the hosts need a lot of confidence (or, in Jeremy Piven’s case, maybe a few drinks) to pull it off well,” says Santisi, who oversees the writing.

“In our crowd, sarcasm seems to rule as the main sense of humor,” says Fish. “There are hosts that are sarcastic, but somehow people aren’t laughing, and you wonder, Did they not drink enough? Did they have a bad day?”

Sandra Bernhard comes to mind as a host who passed muster two years in a row in 2000 and 2001. Anderson Cooper did well in 2011. He also left shortly after his opening monologue to tend to his day job hosting Anderson Cooper 360. This year, Seth Meyers won over the crowd by donning the lace Comme des Garçons getup Marc Jacobs wore to the Costume Institute Gala. John Waters nimbly navigated his way through accepting awards for two marquee no-shows, Johnny Depp and Rei Kawakubo, this year. Tracey Ullman, a fashion fan and seasoned comedian, bombed in 2009. Poor Christine Baranski, who was charged with what turned out to be an utterly thankless honor in 1998. An excerpt from WWD’s coverage: “The first boo-boo was the choice of the night’s emcee. Christine Baranski—who?—was just not up to the task….And her clothes! Couldn’t the CFDA find someone to lend a word of advice?” Yikes. Even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who presented in 2008, got the Mean Girls treatment when their accessories schtick barely got a laugh.

Then there’s the content of the show, which, under Fish and Santisi’s slick creative direction, has tended toward films, many of which are done by high-profile directors including Bennett Miller, who was nominated for an Oscar for best director for his 2005 film Capote. Douglas Keeve has long been behind the films: A parody of HBO’s In Treatment, wherein Tom Ford professed his love for his therapist (Gabriel Byrne), brought down the house. No such luck for an accessories film, featuring half a dozen children on a treasure hunt through Central Park, Woodstock and back to Alice Tully Hall, which didn’t resonate.

One of the most cringe-worthy moments in recent memory was a 2007 skit that drew the short straw: Following the magical Winfrey/Lauren moment, Nicole Parker, a darling of the indie improv scene, introduced the accessory award with an impersonation of Ellen DeGeneres, white suit and all. Her first joke was received with silence. “You could hear a pin drop,” says Santisi. “I felt like we threw her to the wolves.”

Often the event’s most heart-warming moments have come from the recipients. Bill Cunningham rode his bicycle onstage to accept his Eugenia Sheppard Award in 1994. A 90-year-old Oleg Cassini broke into a jig to accept his special tribute award in 2003. Keeve’s video for Pauline Trigère, who was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, ended with the poignant line, “When you’re blue, wear red.” That year, the show earned rave reviews: “Two thumbs up, three cheers and four gold stars,” according to WWD columnist Aileen Mehle. So seamless went the show, the only complaint she could file was against Cher’s outfit…and that Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista looked too au naturel.

But had there been a french fry out of place, the fashion folk would have found it.

“Our job is to have them not complain about anything by some miracle,” says Fish. “There are some designers who get slam-dunk reviews, an A-plus-plus in their fashion shows, Marc Jacobs being one of them. So it is possible. But he’s not serving french fries.”