NEW YORK -- The Council of Fashion Designers of America is not a governing entity for the fashion industry. But to say the trade organization has sway over the thousands of designers, buyers, publicists and staff members who create and disseminate fashion in the United States would be a gross understatement.
The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an endowment created to bolster up-and-coming designers, has helped catapult the careers of many, including Alexander Wang, Billy Reid, and Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. And the CFDA Awards, hosted Monday at Lincoln Center, have cemented the standing of the Olsen twins -- who bested Marc Jacobs for womenswear designers of the year in 2012 for their work with The Row -- and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte.
"Technically they really can't tell anyone what to do, that is not what they are," Bethann Hardison, this year's recipient of the founder's award in honor of Eleanor Lambert, says of CFDA. "But they have a natural influence."
And that can make the council a catalyst of change. In September, the Diversity Coalition, which Hardison helped found, wrote an open letter to the CFDA and the equivalent bodies in London, Milan and Paris, calling for more diversity on runways.
The letter listed designers who had used primarily white models, stating that "no matter the intent, the result is racism."
It was the latest act in Hardison's long career as an advocate for racial diversity. The former model turned manager founded Bethann Management in 1984 and has worked with and promoted some of the top models in the industry. Ahead of the spring 2014 shows, Hardison joined supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell on a media blitz promoting the open letter and calling for change.
As indicated by her receiving this prestigious award, her peers took note.
"We have definitely seen more models of color on runways where we hadn't seen anybody," says designer and CFDA board member Tracy Reese, specifically citing Phoebe Philo of Celine, who featured four models of color in her fall 2014 show.
"I think it was just one of those things she didn't realize it, once it was brought to her attention she corrected it and it was lovely," Reese says. "A lot of designers have followed suit, which has been really gratifying."
For the CFDA to take note and honor Hardison's work, Reese says, is huge.
"I think everyone listens when the CFDA speaks, and the world listens," Reese says. "I think it's one of those things, unless you talk about it nothing really changes or improves."
Hardison won't speculate on the award's potential impact for her platform, though she says she was sincerely shocked upon receiving the news.
"I only appreciate what I see others are doing," she says. "I am not doing it for the results of what someone thinks, I'm doing it because I think I need to help educate society and an industry who needs to step it up."
Diane von Furstenberg says Hardison's award was a highlight of the evening. "I think the designers are going to see all the hot girls onstage tonight and want to use black models," the renowned designer said before the ceremony.
One of the notable changes Hardison has seen is Anna Wintour's work in the pages of Vogue. The January 2014 issue showcased models Liya Kebede and Imaan Hammam in a spread shot on location in Maui, which Hardison says was commonplace in the '80s but became more infrequent over the last 10 to 15 years. Joan Smalls and actress Lupita Nyong'o also were prominently featured.
Monday night's womenswear award presenter, Nyong'o has established herself as the industry's "it" girl. Making a giant splash as an unknown in Prada on the red carpet of the Toronto Film Festival in September, she was quickly scooped up by Miuccia Prada and has become one of the faces of the house's sister line, Miu Miu. It's another coup for Prada, which Hardison says has been at the forefront of bringing back major black models.
Singer Rihanna was the recipient of the CFDA's fashion icon award. She floated through Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall wearing a see-through Adam Selman gown with Swarovski crystals and a skullcap that would have made Daisy Buchanan jealous.
"I grew up in a really small island and I didn't have a lot of access to fashion," Rihanna told the crowd, "but as far as I can remember, fashion has always been a defense mechanism. I remember thinking 'she can beat me, but not my outfit.'"