September 20, 2020

American Fashion Nominates the Designers of the Year. They Really Make You Think.

When the coronavirus prompted the Council of Fashion Designers of America to postpone the 2020 CFDA Fashion Awards, the annual “Oscars of the Fashion World” (industry prom) originally scheduled for June 8, it seemed like another glittering evening of voyeurism and celebration had fallen to the pandemic.

On Monday, however, the organization revealed that while the party may be over, at least for this year, the concept would go on.

“In this time of unprecedented challenge and change for our industry, we feel very strongly that it is important to recognize the nominees representing the best of fashion creativity,” said Tom Ford, chairman of the CFDA, in a news release. It announced the names, and said winners would be named on Sept. 14, the start of New York Fashion Week.

And the nominees are….?

Almost exactly the same designers who have been nominated (and won) in years past. Which means that rather than demonstrate the strength and resilience and depth of imagination of American fashion, the award nomination list mostly revealed exactly what is wrong with it. Or some of it.

ImageAshley Olsen, left, and Mary-Kate Olsen at the 2019 CFDAs.
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

In a time when the system itself is under scrutiny in a multitude of ways — from the way its constant churn of collections and shows devalues creations to its racism — nominating a handful of very familiar names as the very best fashion has to offer simply serves to perpetrate that system.

For anyone taken aback by the recent news that it was only this month that a Black photographer was chosen to shoot Vanity Fair’s cover, or that since Tyler Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in 2018, there hasn’t been another; for anyone thinking that the fashion industry is rife with cronyism, entrenched gatekeepers reluctant to give up power and a deep investment in maintaining the velvet-roped-off status quo, this list of nominees gives substance to the allegations.

Simply consider the fact that the nominees for the three big awards are:

American Womenswear Designer of the Year: Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen for the Row, Brandon Maxwell, Gabriela Hearst, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford.

Credit…Mike Coppola/Getty Images

American Menswear Designer of the Year: Emily Adams Bode for Bode, Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss, Thom Browne, Todd Snyder and Tom Ford.

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Updated 2020-07-20T18:29:58.694Z

American Accessories Designer of the Year: the Olsens again, Gabriela Hearst, Jennifer Fisher for Jennifer Fisher Jewelry, Stuart Vevers for Coach and Telfar Clemens for Telfar.

And consider that, of the above, Mr. Ford has not only won a Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2014), which should, it seems to me, disqualify the winner from being nominated again, but has already won six other CFDA awards.

Mr. Jacobs has also won a Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as seven others. Mr. Browne, who has won the men’s award three times, has been nominated for it every year since 2013. The Row has won the accessory award three times, and the women’s wear award once. Mr. Maxwell won the women’s award last year, and the emerging designer award in 2016. (Ms. Bode won that last year.)

Credit…Landon Nordeman for The New York Times

Mr. Jean-Raymond and Mr. Clemens were nominated for the same awards last year, and both have won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Mr. Snyder has been nominated multiple times.

I could go on with almost every name, but you get the idea.

Even the Global Awards, now expanded to include both men’s wear and women’s wear — which were created to enlarge the nominee base and make a night that can feel stiflingly parochial reflect the reality of an international industry — feels stuck in a rut created when the world was a very different place. Which it was, since the nominations were received before March 13, when Covid-19 was just beginning to penetrate everyone’s consciousness.

For women’s wear, after all, there are Daniel Lee for Bottega Veneta, who won four — count ’em — awards at the Fashion Awards in London last December; Dries Van Noten; Miuccia Prada for Prada; Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino and Rick Owens. Who has also won the Lifetime Achievement Award in the past.

For men’s, there are Craig Green, Dries Van Noten, Jonathan Anderson for Loewe, Kim Jones for Dior and Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton.

Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times

I am not saying that the nominees — chosen by CFDA Fashion Awards Guild, which is made up of CFDA members, retailers, journalists (not from The New York Times; our rules prohibit us from voting in such industry competitions) and stylists — are not genuinely talented or that they haven’t built impressive and potent businesses. They are, very much, and they have. They deserve respect and applause, though perhaps not multiple statuettes.

I am not saying there are no new names: The emerging designer group, which includes Christopher John Rogers, Kenneth Nicholson, Peter Do, Reese Cooper and Sarah Staudinger and George Augusto for Staud, does that job. (Mr. Rogers did win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award last year.)

I am not saying that among the many recidivist winners are not some newish, disruptive names, as well as designers of color. But you can count their number on one hand, which means they feel more like token additions than an actual shift.

And I know that fashion, like many industries, is dominated by a handful of companies and creative leaders whose names naturally leap to mind when asked to identify the best of any particular year. Which is, in any case, a term so broad and undefined that it is bound to lead to the most obvious common denominators.

So maybe the results were inevitable, given the current … well, system.

But Mr. Ford is right in saying this is a time of unprecedented challenge, of questioning. So why not question, and change, these awards, too?

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

In the past, the CFDA awards have included both broad design categories selected by the guild, and special “honoree” awards chosen — and often invented to fit the times — by the CFDA: the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Award for Positive Change, the Founder’s Award for service to the industry, the Fashion Icon Award.

This time the CFDA decided to eschew the special awards entirely in favor of the traditional designer awards, but that seems to me the wrong choice. What if instead it had decided to tackle the current situation head-on and gone all in on the idea of change, enlarging that category to encompass a designer who genuinely was rethinking how his or her business operated and who was part of it?

What if it had created a Supply Chain Award, for a company that knew every link in its production cycle? A Front-Line Employees Award that could have gone to the men and women in the fulfillment centers who worked through the pandemic, packing boxes for the e-commerce sites that kept many brands afloat? I could go on.

It might have to look beyond the usual suspects for the winners; break down the velvet ropes and barriers to entry. But the redefinition of what makes “designers,” and where they come from, has already begun. (James Jebbia did win the men’s wear award for Supreme in 2018.) This is an opportunity to take it further.

The CFDA awards are potent fund-raisers for an organization that does meaningful work fighting on the front lines for fashion’s causes: intellectual property protection, immigration, education. The group is helping a whole swath of designers weather the shutdown. Their awards should not be abolished.

But maybe they can become something more than simply notches in a designer’s belt, or an insider’s club that may feel, to those looking in, like a secretive fashion cabal.

If we are rethinking everything, it certainly would seem to be the simplest way to start. No one was expecting the awards to happen at all. The nominee announcement came as a surprise.

Just imagine if it had been a real one.