New York Times: “Immigrants Triumph at the Oscars of American Fashion”

by Joseph McKeown


Every June the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) honors the best in fashion design at the CFDA Fashion Awards. Established in 1981, these awards are the “highest honor” in fashion honoring outstanding contributions to American fashion in women’s wear, men’s wear, and accessories, as well as journalism and lifetime achievement, among other categories. The event, held last week, celebrated not only some of the world’s greatest fashion designers working in America, but also importantly, immigrants. “Fashion is an industry where the real insiders are all outsiders,” Pat McGrath, British makeup artist and winner of the Founder's Award, told the crowd. That statement was especially true this year: the top three major awards of the evening—for Designer of the Year in women’s wear, men’s wear, and accessories—went to foreign designers working in the US.

Belgian designer Raf Simons won Designer of the Year for both men’s and women’s wear. “I came to America because America, and you, are inspiring to me,” he said in his acceptance speech. In his second acceptance speech, he added: “To all the students, if we as creators can be an inspiration for how the world should look, that is something we should take as a very important task in our existence.” British designer Stuart Vevers received the Accessory Designer of the Year award. These wins, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times writes, reflect “the need for new visions and new ideas” and to the “essential impossibility of trying to limit creativity of any kind (intellectual, artistic or practical) by nationality.” The CFDA also honored other foreign national designers, awarding Monse’s Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, both born and raised outside of the US, with the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent.

The night began with comedian Seth Meyers noting, “This year, it’s been even harder to separate fashion from politics,” and continuing on this theme, legendary designer Diane von Furstenberg, chairwoman of the CFDA and herself an immigrant originally from Belgium, asked each immigrant in the room to raise their hands. Many hands were raised, underscoring the international influence and sheer number of foreign talent in the American fashion industry. Many of the winners referenced immigration in their acceptance speeches, and actress and singer Janelle Monáe, inspired by Hillary Clinton’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech, declared, “immigrant rights are human rights[.]”

This year’s CFDA awards ceremony make it clear why CFDA recently joined up with FWD.us, the nonprofit pro-immigration group founded and backed by technology leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg. Earlier this year, FWD.us and CFDA held a joint press conference which included speakers such as von Furstenberg and New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. The speakers discussed the negative impact that anti-immigrant policies would have on the US fashion industry (New York’s third largest industry), which employs approximately 180,000 people throughout 900 companies and generates over ten billion in wages.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney spoke of her aims to increase visa options especially those that would allow entrepreneurs to come to the US to build companies and create more jobs. “This industry depends on immigrants who bring their innovative styles and talents to New York City,” Maloney said. Maloney voiced her support for two pieces of legislation, the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act and the Recognizing America’s Children Act, both of which would make it easier for immigrants to study and work in the US. FWD.us and CFDA also issued a joint report on the US immigration system and the fashion industry. The report offered three recommendations to legislators: create better policies to retain foreign students, improve access to foreign talent, and provide a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants. All these, the report argues, would encourage entrepreneurship, create jobs, strengthen the American middle class, and grow the US economy.    

While the Trump administration has not necessarily targeted the fashion industry, this industry does rely on H-1B visas to employ many talented designers. The Trump administration is potentially targeting this visa category, citing alleged abuse by some employers. Trump’s travel ban, although currently on hold in the courts, has also continued to affect US businesses and tourism to New York, which in turn affects many retailers and the US fashion industry. New “extreme vetting” for certain visa applicants may make the US a less desirable place for many foreign nationals to work. 

Diane von Furstenberg sees a better way forward. “I left Europe and arrived in New York with a baby in my belly and a suitcase full of little dresses made in Italy,” she said at the press conference. “With these dresses I lived an American dream. Young people from all over the world come to America in search of those same opportunities, and young people with limitless talent and potential will continue building and innovating in our industry as long as we put in place immigration policies that allow the US to remain a magnet for them.”