Maxwell won the coveted womenswear award at the glittery ceremony at the Brooklyn Museum Monday evening. The menswear award went to designer Rick Owens.
The evening also featured a number of special awards, including the high-profile Fashion Icon award, which went to Jennifer Lopez. The pop star choked up as she thanked the many people who'd helped her achieve the dreams she had as a young girl riding the 6 train from the Bronx into Manhattan.
Dressed in a sparkling orange Ralph Lauren ensemble — he, too, hails from the Bronx, she noted — Lopez expressed gratitude to the many top designers who dressed her curvy figure, despite her coming to fame in "the era of the waif and the supermodel."
Designers like Oscar de la Renta, Versace, Gucci and others "allowed me to get into their designs ... to say I was a kid in a candy store was an understatement. And slowly, as curves began to be embraced, the girl who wanted to combine street style with couture began to blossom, and I'm grateful to all of you for that."
Maxwell, arriving at the podium, professed that he hadn't been prepared to win and sorely regretted having taken "full advantage of the free bar." But he moved quickly from his flustered beginning — "I might pass out," he worried — to an emotional and eloquent speech noting his admiration for his fellow nominees, and describing the hard, unglamorous work that designers do behind the scenes to make their businesses work.
"I am so proud to be part of an industry like this where we wake up every day charged with the idea that making a woman feel good, that making someone happy, is valid," he said, to cheers from the crowd.
"I worked for 10 years as a stylist before I started this company and I know that you're kind people, that you work hard, and we get scrubbed up tonight and put on a suit, but 364 days a year we are trying to pay the light bills and make it happen," he said.
A slew of fashion luminaries and celebrities were on hand for the annual ceremony, which is fashion's answer to the Oscars. TV host and comedian Hasan Minhaj and actress Jessica Williams were among the top presenters.
There was also a passing of the torch (literally, with a prop torch) from outgoing CDFA chairman Diane von Furstenberg to incoming chairman Tom Ford, who noted that he hoped to raise the international profile of American fashion.
Maxwell was perhaps best known for his work with Lady Gaga until he launched his own label in 2015, quickly becoming a red carpet favorite. He recently oversaw the pop superstar's unique Met Gala arrival that involved shedding outfits one by one in a high-fashion striptease as the cameras clicked furiously. He is currently a judge on the latest season of "Project Runway."
In other awards, sisters Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen won the accessories award for their longtime label, The Row, and Emily Adams Bode won for emerging designer of the year.
Other special honorees included costume designer Bob Mackie, who was presented the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award by his friend, actress Bernadette Peters.
"He knows how to give a girl pizazz," Peters noted. She said Mackie had dressed her when she couldn't afford to buy a gown for her nightclub act, and made her wedding dress as a gift.
"Thank you for making me take a look at the past 50 years," Mackie, 80, told the crowd.
In an unusual move, this year's Board of Directors' Tribute went, for the first time, to a doll: none other than Barbie was honored as "an icon and champion of female empowerment." Lisa McKnight of Mattel, accepting the award, said the company was initiating the Dream Gap Project, which aims to raise awareness about cultural stereotypes that place limits on girls.
Other special awards went to Eileen Fisher, who received the Positive Change award; French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld, who received the Founder's Award; writer Lynn Yaeger, who won the Media Award, and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, who won the Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti International Award.