On stage to accept her award as the year's top style icon, a soft-spoken, maybe even teary-eyed Gaga said she was nervous.
"All of you made me feel like a star before I was," she told the audience at Lincoln Center that boasted bold-faced names such as Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan and Michael Kors.
She talked about how important fashion was in her life as a pathway to self-discovery, artistry and confidence. As a teenager, she'd save her money to buy vintage Thierry Mugler from a neighborhood thrift shop, checking in with the salesman regularly to make sure her favorite pieces hadn't sold while she was raising the cash. She planned her outfits for Friday night parties as if she was going to the Oscars, she said.
"As much as this award means to me personally ... I just want you to know how much this means to young Americans," Gaga said.
But the music star and style risk-taker, wearing a corset get-up by Mugler, a label now helmed by her friend Nicola Formichetti, got her swagger back as she recalled getting the text message from Wintour that she was picked for the prize.
She said she thought the message was from a friend named Anna and replied with a bleep-worthy response. The text back from the Vogue editor-in-chief said, "How lovely."
That led to laughter -- and so did Cooper's montage of his early days as a preteen model.
Cooper, a longtime friend of CFDA president von Furstenberg, said he decided to show his photos to prove his fashion cred since he was acting as master of ceremonies. (He also is the son of former designer jeans magnate Gloria Vanderbilt and worked as a fit model for both Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, who made his tuxedo.)
"There was no way you'd be critical," he joked, "or that's what Diane said, anyway."
Watts, dressed in a metallic T-shirt-style gown by Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, presented the top womenswear honor to Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. But she seemed to find the awkward walk across a long stage intimidating in her high heels. "That was easy," she said as she reached the podium. "Fun doing it in a room full of supermodels."
Top models Doutzen Kroes, Karlie Kloss, Miranda Kerr, Alessandra Ambrosio and Chanel Iman were indeed in the house, on the arms of their favorite designers. Karolina Kurkova, in a striking hooded jumpsuit made of green sequins, read the names of the winners in the Swarovski emerging-talent categories: Eddie Borgo for accessories, Robert Geller for menswear and Prabal Gurung for womenswear.
Kurkova took a moment to sing for Gaga -- "I'm your biggest fan," she said -- and then Gurung asked during his speech if he could pose with Gaga. "That will make me the coolest uncle," he boasted.
But it was the nod from his fellow designers as well as retailers, stylists and editors that the rest of his family would find impressive, Gurung said. "I'm just a guy from Nepal. I will call my mother and say, `It's OK. I turned out fine."'
The two standing ovations of the night went to photographer Arthur Elgort and designer Marc Jacobs, who was there for his "half-lifetime achievement award," according to presenter Sofia Coppola.
"This achievement is born of love, passion, creativity ... and a hell of a lot of hard work," said Jacobs, who is 48.
He added, "I believe we all know and feel the greatest reward is the process itself."
--Kanye West, saying he was a huge fan, handed the international design prize to Phoebe Philo of Celine. He said he's been known to go into a Celine store and try on the clothes -- womenswear, no less -- "knowing that would get me bashed by the hip-hop blogs."
--Michael Bastian was named best menswear designer, and Alexander Wang as accessories designer.
--Jessica Alba, showing off her baby bump in a coral-and-purple gown by von Furstenberg, gave the CFDA Founders Award to InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein.
--Kors said he always enjoys this event because he likes being surrounded with "people who have a passion for fashion."
"Tonight is about not only people who make the clothes, but also the photographers, writers and the people who wear the clothes."