How political should fashion get? At least when it comes to acceptance speeches. That was the elephant — or woolly mammoth, or orca — in the room Monday night at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, a.k.a. the Oscars of fashion.
“We carefully thought about the appropriateness of a fashion celebration at a time like this,” Thom Browne said as he presided over his first ceremony as chairman of the C.F.D.A. Especially one that doubled down on the glitz and glamour. The event, held in the American Museum of Natural History in the cavernous room just beneath the belly of the great blue whale, was hosted by Anne Hathaway in a Ralph Lauren denim gown and many carats of diamonds.
And, as Ms. Hathaway said, it was chockablock with the mononymically famous: Gwyneth (Paltrow, in a black turtleneck and black satin skirt), receiving the Amazon Innovation award for Goop; Kim (Kardashian, in halter-neck Chrome Hearts), a presenter; and Tom (Ford, in a velvet tux), there as a former C.F.D.A. chairman and to hand a statuette to his ex-business partner Domenico De Sole.
The Hollywood red carpet’s loss, thanks to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, may have been the C.F.D.A.’s gain, given that the presenter list also included Demi Moore, Ayo Edebiri, Laura Linney, Mary J. Blige and Naomi Watts.
But, Mr. Browne said, despite all the glitter, the evening was about “coming together as a collective to champion creativity, diversity and inclusion within our American industry.”
It was a reminder, he continued, that fashion was a way to make “the world see through new perspectives.” That it could be a way to unite people rather than drive them apart. And not just the people in the room, though there was a lot of air-kissing and oohing about outfits going on over the chicken potpies.
Maybe that’s why, though there were some repeat winners — Catherine Holstein of Khaite, who received the women’s wear designer of the year award for the second year in a row; Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of the Row, who won accessory designers of the year, their sixth C.F.D.A. award, and weren’t even in attendance — the evening largely avoided the sense of déjà vu or “let them eat cake” that it has been associated with in the past, when the same names seemed to surface in an uninspiring way year after year.
Instead, Mr. Browne’s opening words set the tone for the evening, which alongside the major awards also celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Versailles, when American designers faced off against the French.
Willy Chavarria, the winner of the men’s wear designer of the year award, wearing an enormous white rosette on his lapel and clutching his statuette, underscored the point. “I know that we’re all sitting in the shadow of some really awful things that are happening in the world, and there are some things we can do and some things we cannot,” he said. “And I think we all need to stand with those people that are being hurt — in any way. And we need to do whatever we can through our business, through our human context or our daily lives, to make others feel loved and empowered.”
Alina Cho, the first Asian American to receive the Eugenia Sheppard media award, noted that as one of few little girls in her elementary school class who looked different, she discovered in fashion a way to belong. Similarly, Serena Williams, the first athlete to receive the fashion icon award, swathed in a giant satin Thom Browne boa speckled with crystals, said: “I knew when I was a little girl that I was different. So I saw fashion and style as a way to, you know, kind of distinguish myself.” (Ms. Williams was seated next to the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whom she called “my mentor, champion and loving friend.”)
And Rachel Scott, the founder of Diotima and winner of the emerging designer of the year award, whose work incorporates artful, three-dimensional crochets, observed that her win represented the fact she had been seen. “For me to be seen means that the people of Jamaica and the Caribbean are also being seen,” she said.
Still, the most emotional moment of the evening came from Maria Cornejo, receiving the lifetime achievement award after 25 years in the business. “It’s so hard to celebrate right now,” she said, noting her past as a political refugee who fled as a child from Chile to England with her family. She said she was crazy enough to start a career as a “Latin independent designer” when her son, who was also her date for the evening, was 8 months old and her daughter was 6. Though it had been very hard to stay independent, she said, they showed her “why it was important to care.”
“I dedicate this award to peace and the innocent children that are voiceless right now,” Ms. Cornejo said, her voice breaking. In the end, that idea may have been the biggest winner of the night, rather than any single designer.