CFDA Awards 2017 Red Carpet: Activism Took Center Stage at the Oscars of Fashion

Kathy Najimy and Gloria Steinem - Getty - H 2017
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Honorees included Gloria Steinem and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who said, "It's become cool to be for women's rights, and that's one thing the fashion industry can do like nobody else."

Nicole Kidman and Kerry Washington may have been the high-wattage Hollywood draw at Monday night’s CFDA Fashion Awards, but who was everyone clamoring to meet? “I’m dying to see Gloria Steinem,” said Michelle Smith, designer of Milly; she and her guest, model Martha Hunt (wearing the sequined “fractured” slip dress from Smith’s fall 2017 collection), both mentioned the feminist icon at the top of their wish list. Minutes later, actress Rowan Blanchard was spotted hovering near Steinem on the red carpet, hoping for a photo (she succeeded).

The annual ceremony, which took place this year at the Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, highlights the best of American fashion, an idea beautifully represented on the red carpet by Kidman in Oscar de la Renta, Washington in custom Prabal Gurung, and Heidi Klum in a plunging white jersey halter gown by Zac Posen. But with honorees ranging from Steinem to Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, the 2017 CFDA Fashion Awards were imbued with additional layers, choices rooted in feminism and philanthropy.

“We wanted this beautiful undertone of humanity, and you’ll see that throughout the show,” explained Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (Kolb wore a tux by Robert Geller, CFDA nominee for menswear designer of the year). “We wanted to celebrate those who have made a difference, and that’s certainly true of the tribute to Gloria Steinem, Cecile Richards and Janelle Monae, as well as Kenneth Cole as the recipient of our first Positive Change award. The night conveys a true sense of humanity and caring — and at the same time, with honorees like Rick Owens and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, it’s about the very modern feel of designers as well.”

Accompanying Steinem to the event was Kathy Najimy, wearing a red gown by Christian Siriano. “The thing about Gloria is that it’s nothing she tries to do,” Najimy said. “It’s not like she goes, ‘Oh, I’m a feminist icon, I have to be a feminist today.’ Even in the car ride over, she grabbed my hand and had three big ideas, about how to help women being sexually assaulted in the Congo, or about corporations that are polluting the air. It really runs through her veins, and that’s truly inspiring. She’s the perfect template of how to move through the world as an activist.”

Fashion designers have put their activist passion on full display since Donald Trump’s surprise win in November, but anyone who pursues creative work likely feels similarly, noted Vera Wang. “Humanity also can mean having the courage and freedom to express yourself, and to be accepted no matter what your vision is,” she said. “That’s witnessed this year by [the Rei Kawakubo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum], by Demna [Gvasalia, receiving the CFDA’s International Award], and Rick Owens receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. Those are three great artists — for people to stay true to their vision, it takes courage and it takes acceptance, but it also takes humanity.”

For the CFDA Awards, Wang chose an asymmetrical black dress and crocodile vest by Owens, accented with a lengthy serpent necklace by VBH. “I’m a huge Rick Owens fan,” she said. “I think I could start my own concession, and I’m very honored to be honoring my friend. He is one of the all-time greats of our generation.”

As Kolb mentioned, this year the CFDA created a new honor, the Swarovski Award for Positive Change. The inaugural prize went to Kenneth Cole and his work with the AIDS research foundation amfAR; Cole has served on amfAR’s board since 1987, and has been its chairman since 2005. “I’m excited to hear his acceptance speech, especially now, in these times,” said shoe designer Ruthie Davis.

“There are so many people who are working hard to give back; we felt that was so important to both acknowledge and celebrate,” said Nadja Swarovski, a member of the executive board of the iconic crystal company, which has sponsored the CFDA’s Emerging Talent awards since 2002. “Kenneth leads the way, and he’ll be a fantastic role model for the next generation. He shows it can be done, and that business and philanthropy can be intertwined.”

Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards agreed; since the Nov. 8 election, the support from the fashion industry has driven an incredible amount of awareness to the organization, she said. “What we’ve seen is that so many of these designers are making sweaters, designing T-shirts, designing all kinds of things that highlight Planned Parenthood and women’s health or women’s rights,” she said. “And to me that’s another manifestation: It’s become cool to be for women’s rights, and that’s one thing the fashion industry can do like nobody else. Out of this tonight, we’ll see a whole new generation of apparel and ways of folks representing what it means to stand for women.”

Ultimately that passion for activism can’t overlook the true spirit of the evening, said CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg. But make no mistake: It is an easy marriage. “I want to celebrate talent today,” she said. “In the end, the world is changing, the industry is changing, but without talent, there is nothing, and talent is the heart and the engine of it all. And that will make us not only survive, but triumph.”