The Council of Fashion Designers of America is a 56-year-old nonprofit known for championing the creative endeavors of the country's foremost designers across numerous categories. In addition to being the official organizers of New York Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week: Men's, it's also host to the annual CFDA Fashion Awards, which honors best-in-class design in womenswear, menswear, accessories, and beyond.
It's also awarded the likes of Rihanna and Pharrell with “Fashion Icon” awards, singling them out for their influence in shaping the fashion zeitgeist at large. This year's nominees were announced via Instagram, with CFDA-nominated accessories designer Irene Neuwirth breaking the news for the menswear award:
Raf Simons for Calvin Klein is defending his crown for Menswear Designer of the Year, nominated alongside Thom Browne, Tom Ford, Virgil Abloh for OFF-WHITE, and most surprisingly, James Jebbia for Supreme. Meanwhile, the nominees for Womenswear Designer of the Year include Raf Simons for Calvin Klein (who also won the category last year), Gabriela Hearst, Marc Jacobs, Virgil Abloh for OFF-WHITE, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen for The Row.
“The Awards should reflect the times,” says Steven Kolb, President and CEO of the CFDA. “Having James and Virgil, two exciting talents, nominated reflects the crossroads of change that is happening in our industry. CFDA is proud that the members of our Awards Nominating Guild recognized that creativity is no longer just defined by traditional models of business, and were modern in their thinking.”
The final nominees are decided by the 500+ members of the CFDA, and in the interest of full disclosure, the author of this piece also voted for this year's nominees, including Simons, Jebbia, Abloh, among other categories. But still, Jebbia's nomination after nearly a quarter-century of running his highly successful label is both a curious and timely choice. And more importantly, will Supreme come out on top when the winners are announced on June 4?
It's no secret that the lines between streetwear and high fashion, which once operated in very different circles, are blurring even further, if not eradicated altogether. The controversial nomination is already drawing criticism from people within the industry, including Eugene Rabkin, fashion writer and Editor-in-Chief of StyleZeitgeist.
Rabkin recently penned a piece signaling Supreme's death knell in relevancy, and re-promoted the article on Facebook after the nominations were announced, adding: “This year in a lame attempt to be cool the CFDA nominated Supreme for a menswear designer of the year award. Is this validation or a further nail in the coffin of Supreme's street cred?”
He builds a case putting Supreme in the context of “mass-taste celebrities” and Instagram influencers, writing that any meaning and subversive attitude once represented by the label is now lost on a majority of its most high-profile wearers. “The brand’s coolness now derives solely from the scarcity of its product and of bragging rights one acquires by owning something others do not,” posits Rabkin.
Meanwhile, Jon Caramanica, pop culture critic and recurring style journalist at The New York Times, acknowledges the symbolic weight of Supreme's nomination while acknowledging it wasn't in the conversation until recently. Caramanica is one of the voices at the Times that recognizes the unique line Supreme toes between mass culture and subculture, and wrote a piece in 2015 about hip-hop culture's rise to runway legitimization.
“The Louis Vuitton collaboration helped, and the private equity money likely did, too,” he comments. ”But the broader fashion industry’s move towards the sorts of clothing Supreme has been making for years matters too.”
Indeed, it would be hard to measure if Supreme's design sensibilities have noticeably evolved in the past few years in a way that makes it more worthy of a nomination. Granted, it's had some great collaborations with notable designers like Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER, Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARÇONS, and even pseudo-insider menswear names like Adam Kimmel. But at its core, it has largely maintained the same aesthetic—wearable graphic-laden apparel and accessories with roots in workwear, military surplus, and classic sportswear.
While Supreme hasn't necessarily pushed the needle in terms of design, it's always been about putting clothing in a different context rather than reinventing the wheel. Its work pant for example, an enzyme-washed hook-and-bar closure trouser that is clearly based on the Dickies 874, is rendered in two woven check fabrics this season. It elevates the silhouette with a bit of upscale materials, but can ostensibly still be skated in. And at a $118 retail price, it's comparably more affordable than similar offerings from labels like Prada and Marni.
Virgil Abloh's nomination also very notable, but it's not as surprising because the fashion space is one in which he's made a conscious decision to participate in. Just two years ago, he was on the shortlist for the prestigious LVMH Prize honoring young designers. He stages two runway shoes in Paris a year, and is fully ingrained in the fashion industry in the way Supreme has never been. So the question is: Is the CFDA's acknowledgement of Supreme directly correlated with the brand's noticeable ascent in the past year, or is it more of a reflection of the CFDA's need to speak to a younger audience?
“At worst this is an intentional, 'look how relevant we are' PR play by the CFDA,” adds Lawrence Schlossman, Brand Director at Grailed. “At best, it's a legitimate tip of the cap an entire subculture can be proud of. Either way, I find it extremely surprising and exciting.”
Caramanica puts the CFDA's relevance in the same vein as other institutions like the GRAMMYs or Oscars. A film like Jordan Peele's Get Out was hugely successful before it was nominated for several awards, and even more surprisingly, saw Peele become the first black person to win an Oscar for “Best Original Screenplay.” Similarly, Supreme has gotten far on its own merits before the CFDA acknowledged its existence in such a watershed way.
“It matters if people believe it does,” says Caramanica. “I think it’s now easier to build a brand that garners critical and popular acclaim outside of the system, but the system isn’t going anywhere. Too many people have invested too many dollars (and euros) for that.”
If anything, the Supreme nomination further confirms something we know has been true for a long time: Hip-hop and street culture are now the driving force of mass culture. It's the reason the A$AP Mob are legitimate Calvin Klein models alongside the likes of Solange Knowles, SZA, and Kelela. It's why Dapper Dan's Harlem atelier has been reopened by Gucci after the label was called out for its eerily similar designs. For better or worse, the figures, ideas, and attitudes have become fully absorbed into fashion's marketing machine.
Of course, this isn't without precedent. The CFDA championed Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne in 2014, and followed it up with awarding Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air with the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent in 2015. Even this year's emerging designer nominees are rife with names that aren't too far removed from the realm of street fashion, like Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Mike Amiri of AMIRI.
But Caramanica points out that while this isn't the first time the CFDA has acknowledged this particular genre of men's fashion, he doesn't expect to see that influence waning anytime soon. Streetwear has become lingua franca for plenty of contemporary fashion designers and industry kingmakers alike.
“Those reference points now take their place among countless other outsider/subcultural aesthetics that have become easily borrowed fodder for high fashion designers.”
Now read about Supreme's design history with UNDERCOVER and Public Enemy.