That was the takeaway from tonight’s CFDA Awards, where host John Waters and Fashion Icon honoree Rihanna flew the flag for wonderfully weird fashion — Waters in one of his trademark wacky suits, and the artist formerly known as Bad Gal Riri in a hodgepodge of street, Daisy Buchanan, and Davy Crockett, with a provocative nipple-and-chest-tat display. Rihanna could have her pick of any marquee name out there, but she chose a relative unknown: Adam Selman, the New York–based designer who has served as her costumer and collaborator (on her River Island line). If Rihanna’s haute magpie look is really more influential than any fashion critic’s poison pen, as Tom Ford would have us believe, that might not mean glad tidings for those of us in the fashion-critique game, but it is good news for anyone who likes her fashion pleasantly out there.
It’s also good news for Shane Gabier and Chris Peters of Creatures of the Wind, who nabbed their first trophy tonight after being nominated the past two years running. The two other nominees, Rosie Assoulin and Wes Gordon, are talented 20-somethings working in a refined eveningwear tradition that belies their years. Its conventions are as strict as a sonnet’s. Gabier and Peters have a much more idiosyncratic, personal take on design than many of their peers. They don’t really dress starlets. They, until recently, were based solely in Chicago — calling to mind the Mulleavy sisters, whose Pasadena isolation made for interesting subject matter. Since starting their label amid 2008’s recession, Gabier and Peters have evinced a take on homespun glamour: They give their collections names like Hail Hyperborea, reference Wuthering Heights and manga in one fell swoop, and mix lamé with housedress-y florals. Rather than trawl through the same mood-board snapshots of Talitha Getty and Lauren Hutton, they seem to draw their inspiration from their own memories. You can imagine a grandmother’s wallpaper or a faded photo serving as the basis for one of their wholly original, fully formed, sometimes-demented collections.
Usually when the words “American fashion” come up, the same old tropes get trotted out. Classic sportswear. Denim. Khaki. Casual dressing elevated to an art form. But there’s a great thread of weirdness, too, from Charles James’s formal puffer jacket to Marc Jacobs’s love of a blouse that’s “dumb” and Jeremy Scott’s crumpled vending-machine chic. In today’s New York Times, Vanessa Friedman pointed out that since fashion is an international business, the concept of national awards like the CFDAs and BFAs are beginning to seem a little outdated. But while the business is certainly international, design at its best is personal: specific not just to national origin, but to everything that makes a designer unique, that feeds — voluntarily or not — into his or her vision.
And the freedom to grasp at individuality in a world where corporations sponsor gowns? That’s worth flying the flag for.