CFDA film chronicles American fashion history
In just under ten minutes, longtime fashion industry insider, show producer, and filmmaker Nian Fish beautifully summarized the impact of American sensibility on the global fashion scene. She was tasked with the project by Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) CEO, Steven Kolb, who initially screened the film at last November's Council of Fashion Designers of America awards which also marked 60 years of the CFDA.
On Wednesday, the organization invited members and press who missed its premiere to view it at the Crosby Street Hotel, followed by a chat with Fish and CFDA editorial and communications director Marc Karimzadeh. Key takeaways included the strength of women in the U.S. fashion industry, especially CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert; American leadership concerning diversity; American designers as activists; and a cautionary warning regarding dwelling on 90s nostalgia.
Fish recalled the female that most affected her career choice, the late stylist and publicist Kezia Keeble whom she credits with recruiting and mentoring her.
"[Keeble] asked me to do her bookkeeping and then taught me to be a stylist. She and Paul Cavaco were one of the first famous styling teams. The three of us did everything together; music, casting, lights, styling, and steaming. It was exhilarating fun," she told the audience. (Keeble and Cavaco are the K and C in KCD. The late John Duka, a former New York Times columnist-style reporter, is the D and another agency co-founder.)
She almost skipped taking the assignment as the initial request was a three-and-a-half minute movie. "I said no four times. The terrifying thing was not including certain designers; I knew I would miss some," she recalled. "Steven flattered my ego and said, 'you are the only one to do this.' I replied, 'It's because I am old and remember," she quipped.
The film production also helped cement what a force Eleanor Lambert and the CFDA was to American fashion as we know it today.
"[Lambert] got the press to look at American designers. She realized they were artists. The Versailles show was all her clients; her PR ability made that happen. The Met Ball and Best Dressed List were also to promote her clients," she said, adding, "I am so in love with American fashion, and I feel like many people aren't. We still fight the second-class citizen status to Europe, Paris in particular."
Narrated by John Waters, the film begins before Lambert's tenure glancing as far back as the Gibson Girls—distinctly American concepts during the Gilded Age—when most who could afford to buy clothes versus sew them at home sought them in Europe.
World War II defines a pivotal American fashion moment when former-art-publicist-turned-original-fashion-publicist Eleanor Lambert seized the opportunity when European-made garments were not being imported to promote stateside fashion with designers such as Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Adrian (costume designer who dressed Hollywood off-screen, too), and Lilly Daché, among others, who rose to prominence with the retail absence of European designers such as Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. The barrier-breaking female publicist established the Best Dressed List, The Coty Awards, New York Press Week, and The Met Gala to promote her designer clients and the industry at large.
By 1962, she would lobby state senators to consider fashion and art eligible for the National Endowment of the Arts recognition. She founded the CFDA with founding members including Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. Other key highlights include First Lady Jackie Kennedy's support of Americans Oleg Cassini and then milliner, Halston. As dubbed by Diana Vreeland, the 'youthquake sixties' with designers such as Betsey Johnson, Stan Herman (later the CFDA president from 1991 to 2006), and Rudi Gernreich, whose topless bathing suit became iconic.
The seventies ushers in Halston's dominance, especially at Studio 54 and the famous Battle of Versailles, a fundraising event for the then crumbling palace, dreamed up by Lambert and John Fairchild, then the editor of WWD. The Reagan-years 80s saw brands such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan becoming household names, and American-made hip-hop influenced fashion globally.
1981 marked the first CFDA fashion awards, with Fernando Sanchez winning for his womenswear and Jhane Barnes for menswear. As the nineties ushered in supermodels, it also sounded the alarm bells for the fashion community to rally support for AIDS victims—which claimed the lives of Halston, Perry Ellis, Patrick Robinson, and Willi Smith, among others—and Breast Cancer initiatives. The CFDA helps support through Seventh on Sale in conjunction with Vogue, and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, respectively.
American design talent is tapped to lead European houses for the first time: Tom Ford to Gucci and then Saint Laurent; Michael Kors to Celine; Narciso Rodriguez to Loewe; and Marc Jacobs to Louis Vuitton. A few years later, guests would celebrate Marc Jacobs' Spring 2002 collection and new perfume on a pier in the Hudson River with a view of the twin towers, just before they came crashing down in an act of terror on September 11.
This event spurned the establishment of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund to support emerging designers. In 2020, an unimaginable global pandemic helped foster A Common Thread, designed to help navigate designers through the unprecedented event.
The project also drove home the American leadership in terms of diversity.
"Yves Saint Laurent used Black models because he watched the Americans use them in the Versailles show," she explained. (Editor's note: The 1973 show was a contest, and the Americans declared the winners.) "Black models could move and be like dancers showing the clothes on the runway," she continued adding, "Halston's runways were more diverse than more recently. We didn't talk about it; it just was."
What she does see American designers talking about is the environment.
"We are the activists for the real cause, which is the planet I realized making the film. This is the mission of American designers," she said. The film noted Eileen Fisher was the first American designer to win a sustainability-related CFDA award. She opened the talk with Karimzadeh by mentioning her age. "No women tell their age. That is the next diversity aspect: to include age," she asserted.
Fish's age, though, does afford her to have born witness to some of American fashion's most significant moments, such as Calvin Klein's seminal 1992 show. She considers the American most famously known for transforming designer jeans and sexualizing cotton underwear a mentor.
"In those days, you worked directly with the designers on the shows. We were putting together looks, putting slip dresses on voluptuous Amazonian models like Cindy Crawford and Nadja Auermann in high heels," she recalled.
"Then comes Kate Moss; she is very young and 5" 7'. The stylist said to put her in flat sandals, and I said to cut out the lining of the dress. He changed the entire casting to recast everyone looking like Kate. And the waifs were born." She remarked that this period is heavily referenced because of that moment and was a huge contribution to American fashion.
She'd love to see Calvin Klein Collection revived but is quick not to get trapped in the '90s woes' as she called it. "Sure, we miss the 90s as it was purer then, but I worked past my nostalgia through this film. It's a waste of anyone's life to go back except to learn. We have to go forward," she concluded, offering a vision of the future with a nod to the past.
"Americans have an independent spirit. The T-shirt and jeans that we made a look translate into ease, but I'd like to see Americans dress up more and be different, to create that uniqueness like in the Sixties, which were diverse. We can do it!"
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