CFDA film chronicles the history of American fashion

​In a little less than ten minutes, long-time fashion industry insider, show producer and director Nian Fish beautifully summed up the influence of the American sensibility on the global fashion scene. She was commissioned for the project by Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Executive Director Steven Kolb, who originally screened the film at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards last November, which also marked the CFDA’s 60th anniversary.

Marc Karimzadeh and Nian Fish – Jason Crowley for BFA

On Wednesday, the organization invited members and journalists who missed the premiere to watch it at the Crosby Street Hotel, followed by a conversation with Fish and CFDA director of editorial and communications Marc Karimzadeh. Key takeaways included the strength of women in the American fashion industry, particularly CFDA founder Eleanor Lambert; America’s leadership on diversity; American designers as activists; and 90s nostalgia warning.

Fish recalled the woman who most influenced her career choice, the late stylist and publicist Kezie Keeble, whom she credits with recruiting and mentoring her.

“[Keeble] she 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 exciting fun,” she told the audience. (Keeble and Cavaco are the K and C of KCD. The late John Duka, a former New York Times columnist-style reporter, is the D and another co-founder of the agency.)

She almost skipped the assignment because the original request was for a three and a half minute film. “I said no four times. The scary thing was that I didn’t include certain designers; I knew I was going to miss some,” she recalled. “Steven flattered my ego and said, ‘you’re the only one doing this’. I replied, ‘That’s because I’m old and I remember,’ she joked.

The film’s production also helped solidify Eleanor Lambert and the CFDA’s power for American fashion as we know it today.

“[Lambert] made the press look at American designers. She realized they were artists. All the plays at Versailles were her clients; her PR ability did it. The Met Ball and the Best Dressed List were also meant to promote her clients,” she said, adding, “I’m so into American fashion, and I feel like a lot of people aren’t. We are still fighting against the status of second-class citizens in Europe, especially in Paris.”

Narrated by John Waters, the film begins before Lambert’s tenure by looking back to the Gibson Girls—distinctly American concepts during the Gilded Age—when most of those who could afford to buy clothes instead of sewing them at home looked in Europe.

World War II defines a pivotal moment in American fashion when former art publicist-turned-original fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert took the opportunity when European-made clothing was not being imported to promote American fashion with designers such as Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Adrian ( the costume designer who dressed Hollywood and off-screen) and Lilly Daché, among others, who became notable for the absence of European designers like Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga in retail. The barrier-breaking publicist has 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 as eligible for National Endowment for 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 the Americans Oleg Cassini and then the miller Halston. As Diana Vreeland called them, the ’60s youth shock’ with designers such as Betsey Johnson, Stan Herman (later CFDA president from 1991 to 2006) and Rudi Gernreich, whose topless swimwear became iconic.

The 1970s ushered in Halston’s dominance, particularly in Studio 54 and the famous Battle of Versailles, a fund-raising event for the then crumbling palace, dreamed up by Lambert and John Fairchild, then editor of WWD. The Reagan years of the 80s saw brands such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan become household names, and American hip-hop influenced global fashion.

Nicole Miller and Steven Kolb – Jason Crowley for BFA

1981 marked the first CFDA fashion awards, with Fernando Sanchez winning his womenswear and Jhane Barnes winning his menswear. As the 1990s ushered in the emergence of supermodels, a wake-up call rang for the fashion community to rally support for AIDS victims—which claimed the lives of Halston, Perry Ellis, Patrick Robinson, and Willie Smith, among others—and breast cancer initiatives. The CFDA is helping to support through Seventh on Sale in collaboration with Vogue, namely Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.

American design talent leads 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 will celebrate Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2002 collection and new perfume on a dock in the Hudson River overlooking the Twin Towers, just before they fell in the terrorist act of 9/11.

This event kicked off the establishment of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund to support emerging designers. In 2020, an unimaginable global pandemic helped develop A Common Thread, designed to help designers navigate the unprecedented event.

The project also brought home America’s leadership in diversity.

“Yves Saint Laurent used black models because he saw the Americans using them at the Versailles show,” she explained. (Editor’s note: The 1973 show was competitive, and the Americans announced the winners.) “Black models could move and be like dancers showing clothes on the runway,” she continued, adding, “Halston’s runways were more diverse than they had been recently. We didn’t talk about it; it just happened.”

What American designers are talking about is the environment.

“We are activists for a real cause, and that is the planet that I realized while making the film. That is the mission of American designers,” she said. The film noted that Eileen Fisher is the first American designer to win a CFDA Sustainability Award. She started the conversation with Karimzadeh by mentioning her age. “No woman tells her age. That’s the next aspect of diversity: to include age,” she asserted.

Still, Fish’s age allows her to have been a born witness to some of the most significant moments in American fashion, such as Calvin Klein’s pivotal 1992 fashion show. He considers the American best known for the transformation of designer jeans and the sexualization of cotton underwear to be his mentor.

“In those days, you worked directly with the designers on the shows. We put together looks, put slip dresses on gorgeous Amazonian models like Cindy Crawford and Nadja Auermann in high heels,” she recalled.

“Then comes Kate Moss; she’s 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 cast to make them all look like Kate. And tramps were born.” She noted that this period is remembered a lot because of that moment and that it was a major contribution to American fashion.

She would love to see the Calvin Klein collection revived, but is quick to avoid being trapped in the ’90s woes’, as she calls it. “Of course, we miss the 90s because they were cleaner then, but through this film I got rid of my nostalgia. It’s a waste of life for everyone to go back except to learn. We have to move 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 we made look simple, but I would 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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