On the Runway: Fashion Gives Its Top Award to a Man Who Says He Isn’t a Designer

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On the Runway

The Council of Fashion Designers of America gave top honors to Raf Simons, The Row, Narciso Rodriguez, and — the man behind Supreme?

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Supreme founder James Jebbia, accepting the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

What does it mean to be a “designer”? What is the real role of an “influencer” in fashion?

The CFDA awards — a red carpet gobstopper of a night of mutual appreciation and Champagne for American fashion — is not normally the place for big macro-questions about how the industry defines itself. But Monday night at the Brooklyn Museum, that is exactly what happened. The questions were raised by the winners themselves.

Especially the — well, what do we call him? — company founder whose win as Menswear Designer of the Year was the biggest upset of the night: James Jebbia of Supreme. A.k.a. the skate lifestyle brand known for its highly anticipated limited product drops, and ability to splash its red and white logo across everything from sweatshirts to baseball caps and bricks (also, in a collaboration, Louis Vuitton products).

On stage, in his gray suit, almost imperceptible against the vibrant video backdrop, Mr. Jebbia thanked the CFDA for his statuette and noted: “I’ve never considered Supreme to be a fashion company or myself a designer.”

But the definition of a designer is changing, and Mr. Jebbia’s win is the most potent expression of that shift.

Earlier in the day Narciso Rodriguez, who took home the Lifetime Achievement Award for his 20 years in business, had acknowledged a different side of the same evolution. He said that, as an independent, “I always worked more from the heart than from the balance sheet. I don’t have anyone telling me I have to show in a different country, with a collection made by a ‘creative team.’” The point being, a lot of others now do.

Narciso Rodriguez, center, won the Lifetime Achievement Award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

For most, though, it’s not just about the clothes any more; the ability to drape or cut along a razor edge. It’s also about buzz and communication and membership in a group; it’s about the street and comfort and cool and how to get it (or fake it).

And it is “hard,’’ as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of The Row said when accepting their award for Accessory Designer of the Year (for the second time.)

Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, together again.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
Ralph Lauren, center, is honored with the CFDA Members Salute.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

Think of it this way: While receiving his Members Salute from a host of designers including Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg and Thom Browne — a new award created, Ms. von Furstenberg said, because Mr. Lauren had “already won everything else” — Ralph Lauren wore a tuxedo jacket, his signature faded jeans, and sneakers.

That’s why this year, for the first time at the CFDAs, an Influencer award was created. Probably that’s the one Mr. Jebbia, whose business approach has had more effect on the way fashion is sold than any other brand, should have won. But he didn’t; Kim Kardashian West did, largely it seemed because of her millions of Instagram followers. (Instagram being a metric deeply beloved — perhaps misguidingly beloved — of the fashion community.)

Kim Kardashian West won the CDFA’s Influencer Award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

Busy Philipps introduced Ms. Kardashian West, noting she was the woman who convinced everyone that “bike shorts and heels” was a good look (though actually it hadn’t worked for Ms. Philipps personally). The Wife of Kanye arrived in a long white skirt and white top knotted under her bust, exuding humility and, in a moment of sly humor and self-awareness, saying pointedly she was “kind of shocked I’m getting a fashion award when I’m naked most of the time.”

Hard to argue with that one. Was her prize really about her influence on fashion, or using her influence to get a lot of people to pay attention to fashion at that moment? Probably the latter, if we are being as honest as she was.

Oprah Winfrey, left, presents Edward Enninful with the Media Award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times
Naomi Campbell received the Fashion Icon Award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

Going into the evening, the expectation had been that the issue of diversity would be at the heart of the night. Issa Rae was the first person of color to ever host the awards; Virgil Abloh, the first black man to be named artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear, had been nominated as Designer of the Year for both men’s and women’s wear (he’s so celebrated at the moment, the other big surprise of the night was that he didn’t win either prize); Edward Enninful, the first black man to ever run British Vogue, received the Media Award (from Oprah Winfrey!); and Naomi Campbell, the Fashion Icon award.

And they did call the industry out, kind of, with Mr. Enninful saying, “We must learn that we are more alike than we are different,” and noting that acceptance of diversity of all kinds, including point of view and body size, was his goal. Ms. von Furstenberg, given the Swarovski Award for Positive Change, charged everyone in the audience to start each day with an email to help someone else.

Lupita Nyong’o, left presents Donatella Versace with the International Award.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

Also not surprising: Donatella Versace continuing her global victory lap, after being honored at the Fashion Awards in London last December and co-hosting the Met Gala in May, by taking home the International Award; Sander Lak of Sies Marjan winning the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent; and Raf Simons of Calvin Klein receiving the Womenswear Designer of the Year nod for the second year in a row. Repeats are par for the course at this particular awards night.

Cate Blanchett and Raf Simons, of Calvin Klein. Mr. Simons won the Womenswear Designer of the Year.CreditNina Westervelt for The New York Times

The existential questioning on display amid all the glamour, however — with presenters such as Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong’o, and Caroline Kennedy — was an accessory no one had anticipated. But for an industry in flux, with no easy answers, facing up to ambiguity was not a bad look.


The 2018 CFDA Winners List

  • Womenswear Designer of the Year: Raf Simons for Calvin Klein

  • Menswear Designer of the Year: James Jebbia for Supreme

  • Accessory Designer of the Year: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for The Row

  • Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent: Sander Lak for Sies Marjan

  • Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award: Narciso Rodriguez

  • International Award: Donatella Versace

  • Influencer Award: Kim Kardashian West

  • Fashion Icon: Naomi Campbell

  • Media Award: Edward Enninful

  • CFDA Members Salute: Ralph Lauren

  • The Founder’s Award in honor of Eleanor Lambert: Carolina Herrera

  • Swarovski Award for Positive Change: Diane von Furstenberg

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman

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