The Great Fashion Shift: The CFDA Fashion Awards champions inclusivity while pinpointing designers’ power to shape society

By Joseff Musa
Dec 20, 2023

Fashion is more than just fabric and style; it is a form of expression and an industry that constantly evolves. Each year, the CFDA Fashion Awards celebrates the pinnacle of creativity, innovation and talent in the American fashion world. It not only recognises outstanding achievements but also serves as a platform to highlight the importance of fashion and its transformative power.

“Fashion, like all creative acts, is a sign of culture, which is to say, a sign of life,” said actress Anne Hathaway, as she hosted the glittering 2023 awards presentation in New York last month. “The ability to express nuance with fabric is a gift you all possess which I value so deeply, and the ability to do so six times a year without repeating yourself and missing a beat? I’m in awe. Fashion is a dream we can all live in.”

The CFDA Fashion Awards honours creators in a wide range of categories, including Womenswear, Menswear, Accessories, Emerging Talent and Lifetime Achievement. The event has emerged as a definitive moment in the fashion calendar, where the crème de la crème of the US industry gathers to celebrate talent and ingenuity.

It was established in 1981 by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a non-profit trade association of more than 450 prominent American designers of jewellery, accessories, womenswear and menswear, whose main mission is to increase the influence of American fashion in the world economy. Annual nominees, honourees and winners are determined by the CFDA Awards Guild, which is comprised of CFDA members, leading fashion journalists, stylists and top retail executives.

Designer Diversity

Dubbed the ‘Oscars of the Fashion World’ due to their celebrity and model influence, this year’s gala celebrated and questioned the very definition of what it meant to be a designer, as well as the power of immigrants, women’s rights and diversity on an evening where more designers of colour were nominated for awards than could have ever happened before. It also marked the passing of the CFDA torch from Tom Ford to another Tom – Thom Browne.

“As we approached this evening, we carefully thought about the appropriateness of having a fashion celebration at a time like this, but tonight is about so much more than celebrating individuals, it’s about coming together as a collective to champion creativity, diversity and inclusion within our American industry,” said Browne, who became the Council Chairman in January 2023.

The venue, the American Museum of Natural History, served as more than just a famous site. It contextualised the event further as the CDFA marked the history of US fashion with not one, but two unique tributes: venerated models Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison and designer Stephen Burrows honoured the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Versailles – the 1973 runway show in Paris that matched hallowed French designers against the then upstart Americans – while singer Mary J. Blige toasted the 50th anniversary of hip-hop by introducing a film by Hype Williams featuring Missy Elliott, LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa.

The Winners’ Circle

Tennis star Serena Williams, who became the first athlete to be fêted by the CFDA as she picked up the Fashion Icon Award, recalled her experience with fashion, reimagining traditional tennis outfits with denim skirts, purple tutus and bodysuits and knee-high boots and beads in her hair. “I stand here with you all today, not just as an athlete, but as someone who has personally experienced the extraordinary power of fashion,” she said. “Through fashion, we truly have the opportunity to paint our own tapestry and share our unique perspectives with the world.”

Trumping Joseph Altuzarra of Altuzarra, Christopher John Rogers, Raul Lopez of Luar and Tory Burch for the coveted top prize, Khaite’s Catherine Holstein earned the Womenswear Designer Award for the second consecutive year. As the award was presented, a list of qualities womenswear must possess was rattled off: “A design that fits a variety of body shapes, skin tones, age groups, personality types, seasons, budgets, hopes and dreams, passes 24/7 endurance performance stress tests, it’s aspirational, yet grounded, fully rooted in the myriad responsibilities of a woman’s daily life.”

Among the other winners this year were Willy Chavarria for Menswear, Diotima’s Rachel Scott for Emerging Designer, The Row’s Mary- Kate and Ashley Olsen for Accessory Designer, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop for Innovation. Domenico De Sole, Chairman of Tom Ford International, claimed the Founder’s Award; Maria Cornejo clinched the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award; Mara Hoffman took home the Environmental Sustainability Award; and Alina Cho became the first Asian-American recipient of the Media Award.

Jonathan Anderson of JW Anderson and Loewe, whose halftime-show outfit for Rihanna at this year’s Super Bowl will live long in the memory, was honoured as the International Designer of the Year, while Vera Wang received the Board of Directors’ Tribute, celebrating her work in the bridal fashion. “I hope this adds a much-needed light on the bridal industry for a fashion veteran like myself, who barely made it to the altar at 40 and was probably the woman least likely to get married, let alone devote 30-plus years to creating wedding gowns,” said Wang with a smile.

Fashion Forward and Onward

As presenters and winners subtly addressed global and fashion issues, the tone of the event shifted to one of solemnity. One of the event’s most heart-wrenching moments was during Cornejo’s Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech. “I dedicate this award to peace and the many children that are voiceless, who will not have a lifetime,” said former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s go-to designer whose family fled Chile as political refugees when she was a child.

The 2023 ceremony was certainly far more star-studded than in years past. But despite the glitz and glamour, it was about using this platform to a greater cause and a call for unity. And maybe that was a clue to the import of the event: in a world that is increasingly angry and divided, this was a time for an industry to come together and make peace. But while a show of inclusivity and moving, impactful speeches is important, is it enough?