The Council of Fashion Designers of America awards (the CFDA) are the fashion industry's equivalent of the Oscars: big, glittery, hugely prestigious. The red carpet before and after the ceremony is avidly watched. Unlike the Chambre Syndicale, which regulates France's couture and related industries, the CFDA is more of a reflector, an influencer — and, perhaps, a bellwether.
On Monday night, fashionable celebrities and celebrity designers walked the red carpet in front of Lincoln Center to celebrate the industry's best. Awards were handed out to myriad designers (Raf Simons of Dior, Joseph Altuzarra, the Olsen twins, Ashley and Mary-Kate, whose fashion house The Row has become influential). One of the most significant was given to someone who is in and of the industry, but she's an activist and advocate, too.
The Founder's Award was given to Bethann Hardison, a former couture model, model agency owner and now, activist for diversity in an industry that is periodically criticized for having little or none. (There is a smattering of Asian and pale Latina models on runways and in print ads, but proportionately speaking not many.)
We reported last fall on Hardison's open letter to the industry, sent with supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell just before Fashion Week opened in New York. The three bluntly told designers, bookers and advertisers their vision for models' palette ran the gamut (as Dorothy Parker once quipped about an unfortunate actress' emotional range) "from A to B." Designers often say their vision should remain unfettered, and sometimes a monochromatic line shows off the clothes better. They feel it's a creative decision, not one intended to be racist.
"No matter what the intention, the result is racism," the letter insisted.
And they named names: Calvin Klein, Prada, Chanel, Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, among others.
So it's especially significant that the body Hardison et al were criticizing thought enough of her efforts to honor her last night. Hardison accepted the award to thunderous applause, and was joined onstage with Iman and Campbell and more recent supermodels Joan Smalls and Liya Kebede.
This was a particularly sweet moment because Hardison has been toiling in this vineyard for years. She told Kebede, who interviewed her for the online magazine Document last fall.
"From '99 to '07, casting directors would say they were seeing models, but they would tell you no blacks, no ethnics." A big meeting in September 2007 got reluctant designers to move toward diversity again, and the runways became more integrated. But then the momentum stalled.
"Activism has to remain active, " Hardison insisted to Kebede. "That's the trademark slogan and that's the mantra, because if your foot doesn't stay on the pedal, the car will stop."
For the past few years, Hardison's elegantly-shod foot has palpably been on the pedal, pushing firmly to get fashion to open up to all the colors of the world. One of her fondest wishes, she told Kebede, was to sit down with those key figures in the industry that are still reluctant, "to let them know how important it is to embrace diversity, not for people of color, but for our entire, global society. It just feels better! If you try it, it looks better. It just gives things a life."
Designer Tracy Reese is African American and a CFDA board member. Her feminine dresses have been a special favorite with career women who want a softer profile—women like Michelle Obama, who has worn several Reese designs. Reese says Hardison's award last night is a very big deal.
Reese told The Washington Post, "I think everyone listens when the CFDA speaks."
Having a sustained conversation about diversity is important. Reese added, "I think it's one of those things, unless you talk about it nothing really changes or improves."
But talking about it is only part of the solution. Interested observers will be watching in September to see how diverse the runways and the fall issues of the big fashion bibles are--and whether the industry is finally practicing what Bethann Hardison is preaching.