What Do This Year’s CFDA Award Wins Say About The Future Of American Fashion?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 10: Emily Blunt and Christopher John Rogers attend the 2021 CFDA Fashion Awards at The Grill Room on November 10, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage)

On Wednesday night, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) held its first in-person Fashion Awards ceremony since the pandemic took hold. While the nominees included its usual roster of big names — Marc Jacobs, The Row, and Thom Browne — and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia won the International Women’s Designer of the Year prize, it also highlighted a lot of newer fashion faces like Theophilio and Maisie Wilen.

The ceremony arrived after the CFDA has been criticized for its lack of diversity and the same been-there-done-that lineup of designers. Last year, some improvements were made. Christopher John Rogers won the American Emerging Designer of the Year award, Telfar Clemens became American Accessories Designer of the Year (after losing the previous year to The Row), and Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond took home the American Menswear Designer of the Year statue. This year’s awards picked up where last year left off. 

For one, Telfar Clemens and Christopher John Rogers won once again. While the former designer was honored for the same category, the latter took home the American Womenswear Designer of the Year award. It makes sense: In the last year, the two designers have seen some major career milestones. Telfar Clemens’ namesake company partnered with brands like UGG, Converse, and White Castle on collaborations, as well as the Liberian team on uniforms for this year’s Olympics. Meanwhile, John Rogers dressed Vice President Kamala Harris for the Inauguration ceremony, collaborated with Target, staged a fictional show on Gossip Girl, and created costumes for the New York City Ballet. (Another nominee to make the leap from the American Emerging Designer of the Year to American Womenswear Designer of the Year category this year was Vietnamese-born designer Peter Do, whose latest collection was the most anticipated show during New York Fashion Week Spring 2022 season.) 

This year, the American Emerging Designer of the Year category was a particular highlight with some of the industry’s most exciting up-and-coming names recognized, including Kenneth Nicholson, Jameel Mohammed of Khiry, Maisie Schloss of Maisie Wilen, Eli Russell Linnetz of ERL, and Edvin Thompson of Theophilio. 

After becoming a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist this year, Thompson ended up with the big prize at the end of the night. Launched in 2016, Theophilio is inspired by memories of Thompson’s childhood years in Kingston. His New York Fashion Week debut collection, titled Air Jamaica, included references to the Jamaican and Rastafarian flags, as well as apparel in a brightly-hued palette that resembled the Caribbean landscape of his youth. In his acceptance speech on Wednesday, Thompson noted: “Theophilio is so much bigger than myself. I’m speaking to you all as still this young boy from the dirt roads, blue lagoons, sunny skies, and yard food, in Kingston, Jamaica.” If American fashion is to live up to its full creative potential, stories like this should become the norm. 

“I’m happy to be among a group of peers who are approaching business on their own terms and pushing boundaries as artists,” Jameel Mohammed tells Refinery29. The founder of Khiry also experienced a career high this year when his brand of Afrofuturist accessories, launched in 2016, partnered with De Beers Group, one of the world’s biggest diamond miners and sellers. The collection of jewelry, made from ethically sourced diamonds and titled “Black Power International,” debuted at this year’s Met Gala red carpet on actress Kiki Layne.

Like Mohammed, Nicholson is also excited to see his peers be recognized for their “variety of voices and views” in an industry that has long shut people out. “I think with this crop of nominees now, we’ve had to learn to shapeshift a lot,” Nicholson tells Refinery29, referencing the political and social upheavals that have happened parallel to their success. “It seems fitting, it’s almost like we’ve been groomed to rise above.” 

The inclusion of Maisie Wilen also came at a fitting time for the industry. Since getting Kanye West’s stamp of approval and launching her own brand, Schloss has become known for her bold use of prints and colors and playful silhouettes — loud, experimental designs that many are embracing after a year of sweatsuits. Meanwhile, Eli Russell Linnetz’s ERL scored its first nomination, after amassing a cult following with its California-cool brand of skater-ready T-shirts and jeans rather than designer wares.

This year’s awards also highlighted Brother Vellies designer Aurora James and the founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative born out of the racial reckoning of 2020 that invites companies and brands to dedicate 15% of their shelves to Black designers and entrepreneurs. On Wednesday night James, who was given the Founder’s Awards, became the first Black female designer to be honored at the CFDA Fashion Awards. Meanwhile, Harlem designer Dapper Dan received the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor that seems long overdue given his many contributions to the fashion industry. 

In yet another win for the future of sustainable fashion, Emily Adams Bode took home the American Menswear Designer of the Year. Bode, whose eponymous brand creates garments from antique fabrics, Victorian quilts, and bed linens, won the same award last year, which should encourage more brands to embrace circularity in their designers. (The CFDA also honored Patagonia with its Environmental Sustainability Awards.)

With all these wins, the hope is that American fashion continues to evolve, embracing a vision for an inclusive, experimental, and conscious industry. 

See the full list of CFDA Fashion Awards winners and nominees, here

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