The CFDA’s Streetwear Problem
Originally published on our Medium.
Originally published on our Medium.
Of note — this piece was pitched to about every fashion and lifestyle publication out there, and no one would publish it. This shows the power that traditional legacy print media still holds — despite their massive declining cultural relevance. Ad dollars are the opiate of the industry. I have no dog in this fight, and the one time I went to the Met Gala I had to sneak in anyway, so here it is…
The CFDA Awards and its Vogue Fashion Fund have never really been that influential. The organization is at best institutional, at worst irrelevant.
Founded in the 1940s by iconic publicist Eleanor Lambert, the affairs of the CFDA were a hodgepodge of co-branded publicity stunts from the jump. In fact, the “Fashion Oscars” were originally called the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award — funded by the American fragrance conglomerate behind evocative, artisanal scents like “Taylor Swift Wonderstruck” and “Justin Bieber Someday.“
Today, all it takes is a look at the organization’s sponsored awards to understand how truly — in modern parlance — dusty the CFDA has become. The prizes carry names like Kenneth Cole, Eileen Fisher, Geoffrey Beene and Liz Claiborne — all highly influential American designers far past an even remote point of relevance. Judges for the fashion fund include a lot of names from floundering and culturally out-of-touch institutions like Nordstrom (which is around $3.9B in debt), Sak’s 5th Avenue (parent company Hudson’s Bay has about $4.6B in debt) and of course Vogue (whose parent Conde Nast lost $120m in 2017 and recently announced that its putting everything it owns behind a paywall).
With a mission to “strengthen the impact of American fashion in the global economy,” not many of the designers the CFDA has supposedly stewarded have made much of a dent. Additionally, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund is supposed to provide “business mentoring,” but past winners like Brock Collection, Brother Vellies, Gypsy Sport, Jonathan Simkhai, Paul Andrew, Sophie Theallet seem to have gone, well, nowhere while winners like Public School, Billy Reid and Alexander Wang achieved success and recognition largely on their own before winning.
Touted as a non-for-profit, the CFDA has also seemingly done little to tackle serious issues like environmental waste and discrimination in the fashion industry — instead dedicating its time to page-turning op-eds like “The Case for Fur,” in collaboration with the International Fur Federation. To be fair, it did finally launch a sustainability initiative — 2 months ago.
Anna with her buddy Kim, who she once claimed would never be invited to the Met Gala, both wearing very modern fur ensembles.
Innovation is also not its strong suit. Fashion’s Night Out was a bona-fide failure (hate to say I told you so), attempts at digital progress like a 2013 Google+ partnership focused on “Shoppable Hangouts” were dead before they even had a chance to crawl (don’t worry, prestigious American fashion brand Kohl’s got on board before this initiative went nowhere) and the country’s best designers have been fleeing NYFW to Paris, Milan and even London and Tokyo in droves.
The CFDA is clearly experiencing an identity crisis. It is positioned as a cabal of high taste, yet has to beg for sponsorships from decidedly un-chic brands in order to keep operating. It is supposed to herald American design yet can’t seem to get over an obsession with European luxury. It is increasingly reactionary (Raf Simons, Virgil Abloh — we get it). It is confused, self-contradictory and lacks a point of view.
But last year, something peculiar happened. Supreme’s James Jebbia won best menswear designer of the year. This is the moment that the CFDA either jumped the shark, or finally paid recognition to the only real movement galvanizing the fashion industry — streetwear — depending on your perspective. This year’s nominations are rife with names torn straight from the pages of Hypebeast like Virgil Abloh, Pyer Moss, Heron Preston and Hedi Slimane copycat extraordinaire Mike Amiri.
Part of Nike’s Vogue capsule collection — supposedly designed by Wintour. All the sneakers were overpriced, under-hyped and can now be found on StockX for significant markdown.
Yet they’re still not the right names. The CFDA clearly does not understand streetwear, a distinctly American fashion phenomenon born from East Coast hip-hop and West coast skate and surf subcultures. In lieu of honoring its greatest legacies — Stussy, X-Large, BAPE, Neighborhood, the now-defunct Nom de Guerre — it is still flocking to names that industry publicists seem to have lazily plucked from the first page of a Google search. Heron Preston and Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond mean well, but their designs are beyond derivative — they’re boring. Supreme deserves a win, but it came about a decade too late for the CFDA to demonstrate even an iota of foresight.
Brands like this have no place mingling with Thom Browne or Rick Owens — true American visionaries. Yet, the CFDA has no choice but to embrace streetwear for fear of sinking deeper into the abyss of irrelevance. Streetwear designers are incredible at cultural commentary, art direction and brand-building — yet few can even cut & sew. To ignore streetwear is to write-off the dominant force in fashion today. But to include it alongside painstakingly high-quality producers and studious artisans of the craft seems to dilute the very importance of such an award show. So, what to do with American fashion’s newfound quagmire?
In an attempt to not be permanently banned from the Met Gala, I have some recommendations to both bolster the brand of the CFDA and reinvigorate their award show with a little bit more bite:
Revamp Award Categories
The CFDA needs new, more dynamic award categories — and fast. Some potential builds could include:
· Streetwear Designer of the Year: Yes — give streetwear its own category. This separates the screen-printing brand-builders from the atelier-dwelling artisans without disrespecting either. This should be a unisex category.
· Accessible Fashion Brand of the Year: Solve the sinking mass-retailer sponsorship problem by awarding a brand that is decidedly affordable on purpose — think Everlane, OAK or Entireworld. Then bring them offline into a partner department store.
· Sneaker of the Year: If the CFDA wants streetwear legitimacy they’re going to have to do this. Sneakers account for a massive percentage of high-end luxury brand’s margins. Let’s stop ignoring how important they are. But please, for the love of god, don’t give it to Nike the first year.
· Upcycle Award: The re-sale market is booming and it’s good for the environment as an alternative to participating in the massively wasteful (indeed, destructive) fast-fashion supply chain. Nominees could include brands like LA cult favorite RTH, technological intermediaries like Bionic Yarn or Rent the Runway or digital DTC platforms like Depop, Grailed or even StockX.
· Unisex Designer of the Year: This should already exist. Whether the current trend of gender-fluidity will continue or not, men and women have been wearing each other’s clothes for centuries. Many of the most talented new designers will not see much of a difference between the gender they design their clothes for, especially in the streetwear category.
· Social Impact Brand of the Year: Unlike the “Swarovski Award for Positive Change,” this category should not acknowledge a lifetime of philanthropy but rather a brand that is still growing yet has incorporated positive values into its core ethos. I’d give it to Noah, personally.
· Editorial Outlet of the Year: We get it, Vogue is Vogue. But many other outlets are far more influential. Vogue should use its status to acknowledge this and help pass the torch. Think i-D, Monocle, Another Magazine, The Rake, SSENSE or, fuck it, Hypebeast.
· Collaboration of the Year: Collaboration culture isn’t going anywhere. This is a great category option that could bridge the gap between streetwear and high-fashion. It can also include artist collaborations like Uniqlo x KAWS. I would give it to Palace x Polo this year, for what it’s worth. Only one collaborator should have to be American.
· Influencer Award: Oh wait, they already made this last year and gave it to Kim Kardashian. Yeah…get rid of this category.
Create a “Youth Culture” Committee
The CFDA’s committees are jam-packed with incredibly talented people. But they’re overwhelmingly old and insider-y. This is not to say that older people don’t understand culture or innovation — just not the ones involved with the CFDA. The organization needs to take a cue from Gucci and create a youth culture committee to better understand where trends are actually coming from.
Since the CFDA merely stipulates that a brand must be based in the U.S. to qualify for an award or an individual designer be American if their brand is based abroad — there’s a lot of room for more significant recognition of the actual movers-and-shakers who actually start trends and have a unique perspective and aesthetic.
Where are names like Antonio Ciongoli (previously of Eidos, now the phenomenal 18 East), Brendon Babenzian of Noah, Maurizio Donadi of Ateliers and Repairs, Shane Fonner of Palmiers du Mal, Colin Tunstall, Morgan Collett, and Josh Rosen of Saturdays NYC or the duo behind the eponymous label Abasi Rosborough (who, to be fair, competed in the CFDA + Lexus fashion initiative last year and were shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2017)?
If we’re talking streetwear, where is the recognition for Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, Chris Gibbs of UNION LA, James Bond of UNDFTD, Alex Olson of Bianca Chandon or even (yes) Kanye West?
I love Donatella Versace as much as anyone else (no, scratch that, significantly more), but the International Award winners are consistently, overwhelmingly established Western European designers. The CFDA must take the likes of ACNE’s Jonny Johansson, OAMC’s Luke Meier, Luke and his wife Lucie at Jil Sander, Fragment Design’s Hiroshi Fujiwara, Fumito Ganryu, Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Martine Rose into account. Where’s the sublimely unique Umit Benan or the legendarily influential Hiroki Nakamura of Visvim?
The CFDAs board of directors, committee and emeritus board are all disconcertingly white — only 4% are African-American (2 out of nearly 50 people), although Asian-Americans are better represented. In 2018, Issa Rae was not only the first black woman to host the CFDAs but also by many reports the first black person. Diversity of ethnicity, thought and age are needed to better understand what is actually important in fashion today. Get Telfar Clemens more involved. Like now.
Seriously. I’m not trying to get all Devil Wears Prada right now, but Wintour’s retirement from Vogue is long past due. Her perspective on celebrity as culture-creator was incredibly apt in the 1990s. It hasn’t changed much since then. Her personal tastes skew towards esoteric womenswear designers with no real market viability and she has more losses than wins on her track record over the last 10 years. Wintour is no longer the face of what modern fashion should be. Give her a lifetime achievement award and set her out to sea.
Tom Ford is replacing Diane von Furstenberg as the chairman of the CFDA this year. DvF has done an immense amount of good for the world through her philanthropy, but cutting-edge she is not.
Tom Ford is still a revolutionary. He has busted boundaries and exceeded expectations throughout his whole career and has a much more well-rounded perspective on art and culture, even directing two truly excellent Hollywood films over the last few years. Ford has extraordinary talent and a truly phenomenal personality (“I [just] want to go off and live in the desert with my dog and sculpt things out of adobe.”) In many ways, with his audacious aesthetic, philosophical streak and tendency towards outlandish yet deeply intellectual statements — he is the spiritual successor to Karl Lagerfeld, a designer who always had his finger on the pulse of culture without losing his own glamorous perspective. He’s also an incredibly savvy businessman. There is no doubt that Ford can revolutionize the CFDA if he is given enough power to do so. The corporate leadership at the Council should cede to his vision, while encouraging him to broaden his horizon in terms of looking at the relevance new designers and streetwear.
In 2014, when the legendary John Waters hosted the award ceremony, he referred to the organization as “the Critically Fickle Design Awards.” He’s right — and it’s time the CFDA opens up its perspective on the world.
Fashion is important as an artistic movement as well as a projection of American soft power — it’s undeniable that a desire for Levi’s 501s helped bring down the Soviet Union, in its own small way. The CFDA has an important job to do, and can continue to influence the industry positively for decades to come.
In order to do so, however, it first must reckon with itself.