Accepting the award, Rihanna spoke of her origins in Barbados, where “I didn’t have a lot of access to fashion.” But, she said: “Fashion has always been my defense mechanism.” Even as a child, she told the crowd, she used to think: “She can beat me, but she can’t beat my outfit.”
“I can compensate for all my weaknesses with my fashion,” she said, adding: “There are rules, but rules are meant to be broken.”
Previous honourees have been Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, Nicole Kidman and Johnny Depp.
Rihanna’s translucent outfit was designed by Adam Selman, embedded with more than 200,000 Swarovski crystals. The gown was accompanied by matching, elbow-length gloves and a glittering headscarf.
Speaking of Rihanna before the show, designer Posen called the pop star a fashion risk-taker who skillfully melds red carpet glamour with a rebellious streak.
“She takes risks and she marches to her own drum and she knows what she likes,” Posen told The Associated Press. He recalled meeting the singer at his studio before she launched her first album.
“She was a fashion world novice then,” he said, “but obviously she had looks and confidence and little-girl charm. All the ingredients were there for her to be a huge superstar: ambition, strength, and also vulnerability.”
Rihanna also has a great appreciation for designers, Posen added: “That’s why people love to dress her.”
Also singing Rihanna’s praises was popular designer Alexander Wang, a nominee for both the womenswear and accessories awards.
“I love my girl RiRi,” he said. “She’s fearless. She has guts. Even in sweatpants, she owns it!”
Also honoured at the annual CFDA ceremony at Lincoln Center were a number of top designers. Joseph Altuzarra won the womenswear award, and the menswearprize went to Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the duo behind the Public School label. Sisters Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen of The Row won the accessories award.
The international award went to Raf Simons of Dior, and the CFDA lifetime achievement award went to designer Tom Ford, who quipped that he hoped it didn’t spell the end of his career.
“Please have me back in another 25 years,” Ford joked. “I promise I’ll wear a toupee and walk with a cane.”
An emotional high point of the ceremony was the bestowing of the prestigious Founders Award to Bethann Hardison, a former model and modeling agent who has been a vocal champion for diversity on runways.
She was introduced by model Naomi Campbell, who choked up when she described her admiration for Hardison. When Hardison came onstage to accept her trophy, so did 16 models of color, standing behind her and smiling. She spoke passionately of the need for diverse runways - “just let them model,” she said - and added that things were improving throughout the industry on that score.
The annual CFDA show, hosted this year by director and screenwriter John Waters, always draws a mix of fashion insiders and Hollywood. This year, one of the biggest names was Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who presented the womenswear award to Altuzarra.
Nyong’o, who has become as famous for her choices on the red carpet as her skyrocketing acting career, told the crowd that if there was one thing she had learned in a year of film festivals and awards shows, “it is the power of fashion.” She wore a cropped Suno jumpsuit, in multi-colored stripes.
Other Hollywood stars in attendance included Blake Lively in a short Michael Kors dress, and Emmy Rossum in a green chiffon J. Mendel gown. Greta Gerwig wore a bright orange Zac Posen gown.