The puffery and self-congratulation were flying as fast as a PETA pie last Thursday night, when the rag trade toasted itself at the American Fashion Awards. A scratchy mix of art and industry, the awards recognize genuine creativity on the one hand (they singled out Bruce, the author of a tiny line of carefully wrought pleated and padded outfits) and the nakedest corporate greed on the other (a special award to Bernard Arnault, whose company, LVMH, has gobbled up everything from Hard Candy nail polish to Donna Karan underpants). Full disclosure: the author is an American Fashion Awards voter (all the voters are journalists), though few of her favorites made it to the finals.
It was an odd night, with Ingrid Sischy, the editor of Interview magazine, comparing Calvin Klein to the Statue of Liberty, and Diana Ross seemingly unaware that she was presenting a special award to Bob Mackie, not the other way around. The Perry Ellis Awards, given to promising newcomers in three categories (women’s wear, men’s wear, and accessories), provided, as usual, the most genuine excitement, since the winners are hardly a foregone conclusion, and the roster of nominees can be delightfully nutty—the Sean John label, hardly unknown, was nominated for men’s wear along with deeply obscure contenders.
No one would accuse Nicole Noselli and Daphne Gutierrez, who operate under the rubric Bruce, and won the Perry Ellis prize for women’s wear, of being famous. If their quietly detailed downtownish clothes have at this point what can only be described as an extremely limited commercial presence, it’s intentional. “We want to continue to be designers and not deal too much with the retail side,” Noselli recently told a reporter, and in that the team thus far has been wildly successful.
Starting small in fashion isn’t such a bad idea: People speak darkly of the curse of the Perry Ellis Award, since a host of previous winners, including Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, John Bartlett, Marie-Anne Oudejans, and Christian Francis Roth, have either tanked or are hanging by a thread. In selecting Bruce, the judges passed on Imitation of Christ, a design duo that offers deconstructed Goodwill clothes and has been vocal in its contempt for the entire fashion industry. (Nonetheless, they were on hand, just in case they won.)
When it came to the Perry Ellis Men’s Wear Award, the voters, apparently unmoved by the recherché glamour of a music mogul staging a fashion show while on trial for bribery and gun possession, stiffed Puffy Combs. Nor was the panel seduced by the avant-garde musings of the other runner-up, a team that calls itself ORFI, which stands for Organization for Returning Fashion Interest, a name so fatuous you’re predisposed to hate the clothes. In the end the voters went for the sober men’s wear of William Reid, a designer without prison or street cred. The winner of the Perry Ellis prize for accessories lacked, along with street, jailhouse, or any other cred, the merest name recognition. The victor, a guy named Edmundo Castillo, seemed nice, though it turns out he is the promulgator of stiletto-heeled, spiky-toed, lace-up torture chambers for women.
OK, now for the big fish.
For the Men’s Wear Designer of the Year, John Varvatos, a designer of perfectly serviceable Seventh Avenue men’s clothes and a veteran of nine years at Ralph Lauren and four at Calvin Klein, took home the gold. Curious as to what enraptured the voters (they passed up Marc Jacobs’s frisky men’s wear in favor of Varvatos) we looked up his Web site, but alas, the fashionspeak therein failed to shed any light. “Our philosophy is about reaching back to move forward. We have something different to say with a sensibility that is both old and new. There’s a vintageness and a modern edge to our clothes.” Anyway, Varvatos seems to have avoided the Perry Ellis curse so far, having won that honor last year.
Marc Jacobs had another chance at the rodeo, since he was nominated for accessories designer of the year as well, but alas, the voters overlooked him here too. This was a bit surprising, since Jacobs, in addition to being responsible for a successful series of buckle-heavy shoulder bags and Minnie Mouse shoes, is the guy who brought Stephen Sprouse, a dissolute pop fashion designer who’s been in and out business more times than even he can probably count, to Louis Vuitton. Sprouse came up with a graffiti-splattered Vuitton satchel, a send-up that has resulted in the longest waiting list in the history of the firm. But, apparently, that wasn’t enough for the voters. They went with someone called Reed Krakoff, the guy hired by the 60-year-old Coach leather goods company to do what Tom Ford did for Gucci—take a moribund line and breathe life into it. Thus far, Krakoff’s double C pattern is no match for Gucci’s double Gs.
Tom Ford himself, oozing charm and enthusiasm, skipped to the dais as if he owned it to receive the Women’s Wear Designer of the Year Award for his efforts at St. Laurent ready-to-wear, a plum handed to him by Domenico De Sole, who owns St. Laurent along with Gucci, where Ford also reigns. (The wunderkind Ford sprang from nowhere and succeeded in resuscitating the house of Gucci, which, by 1990, the year Ford took over, had become a faded jet-set brand famous for a family scandal that included murder.) Now Ford has brought his knife-edge designs and his retrograde ideas about women as sex objects to St. Laurent. Even though the brilliant Yves is still kicking, he’s been relegated to the couture line and to clandestinely sewing up versions of his old faves—”le smoking,” “le safari”—and selling them from his Right Bank boutique. Not a word about this éminence grise did Ford utter when he grabbed his statue.
Which brings us to our last award, the prize that plays out in a larger area, the International Award, the only accolade non-Americans are eligible for. Our money was on Karl Lagerfeld, the legendary designer of Chanel and Fendi, but the prize went to Nicholas Ghesquière for Balenciaga. Though no trace of Balenciaga’s austere signature remains in the line that bears his name, this didn’t bother the folks at Women’s Wear Daily, who lauded Ghesquière’s most recent triumph as “a fleet of the sweetest disco dresses around, all in white, glistening with sugary pearls and fluttering with Chantilly streamers and strings of pom-poms.” If you want to see them close up, some of these dresses, their streamers a bit bedraggled, their pom-poms pooped, are hanging like wallflowers on the sale rack at Barneys, where they’ve been waiting for suitors since February.