Introducing Pharrell, the producer-singer-songwriter who was receiving the evening's Fashion Icon award, Kanye West took the opportunity not just to praise his friend, but to express some frustration at the fashion industry — for, he suggested, its cool reception to his efforts to be a serious fashion designer.
"It is very difficult to break perception," West said. "Fashion had to be the hardest high school I ever entered. At least I had a big brother," he said, referring to Pharrell, who "talked me through it and kept me going" in the face of criticism over his fashions. West called Pharrell "my style idol."
Pharrell, in turn, thanked many fashion figures who've influenced his career and his personal style, and concluded by saying: "I'm not a style icon. I'm just inspired. And I'm OK with that." Forgoing his famous shorts and tall hat for a very casual ensemble of lived-in jeans, a blue leather jacket and a beret-style cap, he spoke at length about his dual loves of music and fashion, and their relationship to each other. He also made a point of thanking the fashion world's leading arbiter, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, for giving him some key visibility in her magazine a decade ago.
The emotional highlight of the evening, which honours the year's top designers, was when Betsey Johnson, whose colorful, whimsical designs have been gracing the fashion world for more than 50 years, came onstage to accept her lifetime achievement award.
An ebullient Johnson, 72, treated the crowd to one of her signature cartwheels, and ended it with a split — a manoeuvr that led to a shoe falling off. She then called over her friend, presenter Kelly Osbourne, to help her up off the floor so she could give her speech. In an accompanying video which told the story of her career, Johnson spoke of learning to design clothes to fit her own body — a normal body, in other words — and how she realized that if she stuck to designing what she herself loved, her customers would stay with her.
Chelsea Clinton was another high-profile speaker, paying tribute to the late designer Oscar de la Renta, a good friend of her family. Clinton called de la Renta "the man I would have chosen for my grandfather," and told a story about how he helped her gain confidence, when she was young, with the gift of a stylish brown dress. "I miss him every single day," she concluded.
Kim Kardashian presented the media award to Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, who repaid the favour by calling her, in his speech, "the Queen of Instagram." Earlier in the evening, Kardashian had spoken on the red carpet about the transition of her stepfather, Bruce Jenner, to womanhood and the stunning Vanity Fair cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner in a strapless corset.
"Everyone has been so supportive and so amazing and I think that that's all we could really ask for is kindness, and we feel that," said Kardashian.
The evening's top design awards went to sisters Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen for womenswear for their high-end, minimalist label The Row, and to Tom Ford for menswear.
Ford noted that last year, he'd been given the lifetime achievement award, and said he was "so glad to know that there is still life after lifetime achievement."
The award for accessories went to British designer Tabitha Simmons. The annual Swarovski awards for emerging designers went to Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air for menswear, Rosie Assoulin for womenswear, and Rachel Mansur and Floriana Gavriel for accessories.
Also honoured: Millard "Mickey" Drexler, CEO of J. Crew, with the founder's award, and Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli with the international award.
James Corden of CBS' "The Late Late Show" hosted the evening, making frequent jokes about the healthy length of some of the speeches. He opened the show with a sometimes naughty musical roast of the fashion world — "The Unsewable Dress," to the tune of "The Impossible Dream."