Derek Lam, recipient of the Fashion Design award

Before guests wound their way through the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum to Thursday night’s seated dinner in the garden, Derek Lam discussed being this year’s National Design Award winner for Fashion Design.

He said, “Personally, it validates being a designer working in America and being recognized by the Smithsonian. It’s incredible. It’s probably one of the highest honors a designer can achieve.”

Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, Tobias Frere-Jones, architect Thomas Phifer, Google’s Ivan Poupyrev and Susan Kare were among the other NDA honorees saluted at the Cooper Hewitt’s 20th annual gala. By taking home the fashion design prize, the New York-based designer joins the ranks of previous winners like Thom Browne, Geoffrey Beene, Isabel Toledo, Maria Cornejo and Slow and Steady’s Mary Ping.

Lam said, “Just knowing, who had won in the past, was really touching, especially with Isabel Toledo passing away this year. She was one of the winners. The first time that I really heard about this award was the fact that she won [in 2005.] That really struck a chord with me.”

The award has a history of celebrating people who truly pursue design and go about their careers for the purity of that versus the celebrity side. Lam said, “That’s why I feel like an impostor here. I wanted to be a landscape architect before I became a designer. I wanted to be an architect general. So I’m amongst a group of people who I’m the biggest fan of. They are offering such an intellectual, higher plane — and I’m just trying to sell clothes. But I’ve always been very proud [not only] to be a designer, but an American designer. I want the work to speak for itself, and the reputation.”

Recalling how awestruck he was to be on a Cooper Hewitt panel with Poupyrev earlier in the week, Lam said. “Just to be able to mix with these people, I hope to get a little fairy dust from them.”

Having closed his collection business, Lam said he is in the midst of trying to solidify business with Derek Lam 10 Crosby. “So, it’s still an ongoing concern, but a lot of things are already in place. We’ve had some amazing seasons, thank goodness. Tonight kind of legitimizes our decision to stay central. To see all that is happening in fashion, it is so nice to feel centered. I was feeling very uncentered. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ ‘How do I fit into the scheme of things?’ I was being pulled in a lot of directions. A lot of it was the usual time that you have to devote to all the different aspects of business. Now I just feel more in control, and in that respect more creative.”

Taking a few solid weeks away from the city also “helped to lift a certain kind of, not depression, but anxiety,” said Lam. Some beach time with his partner Jan Schlottmann and their dog did the trick. Lisa Iwamoto, who won the NDA for Interior Design as part of IwamotoScott Architecture, then buzzed by to talk with Lam about their California roots.

As for the intersection of fashion and interior design, she said, “It’s not that fashion affects our work so much. It is more of a parallel enterprise where there’s a mutual understanding for design-solving problems using ordinary materials in more innovative ways. That to me is his work,” Iwamoto said, gesturing toward Lam. “I just like very simple ordinary things and using them in innovative ways. It’s not that you need a magic frock. You just take something and that pleat, tuck or fold and that’s what transforms it. It’s transformative and that’s inspiring,” Iwamoto said.

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