Style & Fashion

The Met Ball

How Anna Wintour rules New York, with help from the Met Ball

The Daily Beast

April 14, 2016

All of us, every single one, should have the good fortune of—as part of our everyday—having majestic Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley greeting us, and dispensing wisdom and compliments from a throne. It would just make life better.

This is, we learn in Andrew Rossi’s brilliant documentary The First Monday in May, the imposing sight that greets all the famous and gilded—Kim Kardashian West can only muster halting responses to his barrage of enquiry—who rock up to that annual triangulation of celebrity, fashion and cultural grandstanding that is the annual Met Ball.

The most seductive thing about The First Monday in May, the centerpiece of the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival and in theaters from April 15, is that it is as sumptuous as its subject—but that doesn’t stop it asking difficult questions, and bringing a gentle nuisance wherever its cameras roam.

Rossi’s documentary focuses on the preparation and execution of the 2015 Met Ball—an unashamedly fabulous night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art overseen by Andrew Bolton, the curator now in charge of the museum’s Costume Institute, and American Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.

That evening, famous for Rihanna’s show-stopping, red carpet-consuming Guo Pei yellow cloak, ushered in China Through The Looking Glass, a show which explored the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion.

The documentary shows the sheer insanity of managing the celebrity crush—from table plans to the calls of photographers for Lady Gaga, Cara Delevingne, and Wintour to pose on the red carpet—against the sensitive cultural and technical debates the Met had to navigate in constructing the exhibition.

There is also the wider, never-ending debate about whether fashion qualifies as art in the first place. Not for nothing is the first sign we see, “Yield to art in transit”—one senses that one is always yielding to art, in its most conventional definitions as painting and sculpture, at the Met.

While the Costume Institute holds the largest collection of fashion in the world, Bolton says some of the museum’s staff has a “19th century idea of what is,” while Thomas Campbell, the Met’s Director, says “decorative art,” like fashion, is looked down upon.

This is odd, not just given that the Met’s fashion shows are commercially and critically successful, but also because the history of fashion is very visibly a history of art. The beading, construction and design of so much historical clothing speaks volubly to fashion’s indisputable artistry.

Bolton’s challenge when it came to the ‘China’ show was that the pressure was on to make it a blockbuster to rival and outpace the fantastic Savage Beauty in 2011, a retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s designs.

Bolton seems, even today, to be the smalltown English kid wonderstruck by fashion: it is not just a job for him, but a passion. He recalls that when asked at 17 by a school career adviser what his ideal job was, said, “Curator at the Costume Institute at the Met.”

Getting the job was a genuine dream come true—Bolton says that he was lost in the romance of it offering the vista of finding strange and wonderful objects, but, once at the Met, Bolton felt intimidated and a fraud. He still feels a bit like that, he smiles.

But, as we watch Bolton put the exhibit together, we see he is far from a fraud: he is a knowledgable, forthright do-er, whose gentle, enquiring manner draws the most exotic of fashion designers out.

The designer John Galliano, sadly notorious for a 2011 anti-Semitic rant, says that playing with textures and shapes and volumes is something he loves, “and because of that I am able to even think about going back into an industry where I’ve become an outcast. That fantasy world I create is an escape for me.”

In the St. Laurent archive, comprising 2000 pieces of haute couture, Bolton is “totally in awe.”

The other end of Met Ball planning is the province of Wintour and her team, and on the strength of The First Monday in May their talents should be properly engaged in the world’s more sensitive warzones.

The status-sensitive table plan for the big night is endlessly being amended: Prada “has” Emily Blunt, Ralph Lauren “has” Anne Hathaway, Versace “has” J.Lo, but Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, Rihanna, Cara Delevingne, Jessica Chastain, and Julianne Moore are all Vogue’s.

Baz Luhrmann, the film director and the event’s creative consultant, says Wintour’s talent is to bring culture, both high and low, together.

The documentary also shows us that her word is the last word. When Vogue moves downtown to One World Trade Center, she makes it very clear what must go, what must be changed, and that the sea-themed video wall makes her sick. Clothes racks must be put away. Now.

I feared for the safety of the window cleaner, all those floors up, swinging outside her office, as she conducted a meeting.

Luhrmann thinks Wintour would be judged differently if she was a man. Wintour, cannily, knows that she cannot do anything about the stereotype around her—promulgated most forcefully in Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada (and later Meryl Streep’s role as ‘Miranda Priestly’).

Wintour says it is “fruitless” to worry about it; Luhrmann thinks the character has provided her a helpful degree of professional armor.

That may be true, but visiting China, she and Bolton are challenged about what they are trying to achieve with the show: they are asked why the emphasis on history rather than the present day, and will the show misrepresent China, as fashion itself is so rooted in fantasy.

Back in New York, and harried by fast-approaching deadlines and (one supposes) endless discussion, Bolton, who had previously claimed he didn’t mind courting controversy, bemoans that various parties do not understand the complexity of the show.

Some fashion designers don’t entirely subscribe to his vision of fashion as art.

Karl Lagerfeld says fashion is “applied art.” Chanel never said she was an artist, Lagerfeld says. She said she was a dressmaker. At the Costume Institute, these questions are literally on display: fashion as commerce versus fashion as art, and the Met Ball transforming whatever it was into flashbulb-friendly spectacle.

After all, as a Vogue staffer was discovering, Rihanna did not come cheap. The actual budget necessary to get her to perform was bleeped out, but it was in the hundred-thousands. Wintour was asked to intervene, and then—at rehearsal—both women cheerily hugged, all finickity financial matters happily resolved off-camera.

With only days to go, there was chaos everywhere: the approach to what could be done was to walk around the exhibition endlessly, and do things incrementally as the opportunity presented itself. “We need them to absolutely place the mannequins,” was one muttered order.

With two days to go, Wintour convinced the museum to shut off its northern flank. Some museum staff objected. What about the public? “The public will come back next week,” Wintour said.

If only the table settings could have been so swiftly resolved. ‘Harvey’ needed to be moved. What about Anne Hathaway? Wintour questioned the importance of an annoyingly positioned, if structurally important pillar.

One brave soul piped up she was “scrubbing” the hall clean of art, only to be sternly rebuked: “This is about raising money for the museum, which we have done.”

Whatever you think of fashion or celebrity, Wintour is, quite simply, a cultural powerhouse. “I don’t pretend to be a fashion historian, but I do think fashion should be recognized—how it touches people and moves people,” she said. “What more can you ask of art?”

Still, even she looked a bit floored when told the central display at the Met Ball featured 250,000 roses.

Come the press view, Bolton asked his partner Thom Browne, the fashion designer, if he sounded like the Queen. The red carpet became a blur of Clooney and Bieber and Hathaway and Gaga and Kate Hudson, who—lucky her—had Michael Kors guiding her around the show.

Here, Rossi’s access really excelled, as a roving camera as the celebs checked each other, and the art and fashion out. Alicia Keys, as lucky as Hudson, had Jean Paul Gaultier as a personal guide.

Of one frock, Kors said, “When people say, ‘You couldn’t walk in it,’ who cares when it’s that beautiful?”

With all the drama spent, Rossi languidly slows the documentary’s pace, and instead of too pointedly interrogating fashion’s commercial and aesthetic imponderables, luxuriates instead in the magic of the displays, and the famous faces viewing them.

Justin Bieber, naturally, has to break the peace and quiet of the galleries by singing loudly—until Rossi drowns him out with Nat King Cole’s tremulous ‘Stardust’: “You wander down the lane and far away, leaving me a song that will not die.”

Then, as Bolton wandered through the empty galleries, still looking, still checking dresses, lights, and the feel of it all—restless, perfecting, in love, dedicated, hawkish, adoring—Cat Power’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’ played: “We are creatures of the wind, wild as the wind. Give me more than one caress… Let me fly away with you.”

Rossi’s documentary asks all the right questions about fashion, commerce, art, audiences, and celebrity, yet resists alighting upon any critically damning conclusions. What seems clear is that, with someone like Bolton as its helm, the Costume Institute can balance rigor and razzle-dazzle populism, artistry and spectacle.

The documentary ends with some statistics. More than 800,000 visitors went to see the ‘China’ show at the Met. It was the fifth most visited exhibition in the Met’s history, topping Savage Beauty. The Met Ball raised $12.5 million.

Bolton, then, has a whole new set of targets to surpass. So: more meetings, more ambitions, more hushed chats, more Bieber, more diplomacy, and—once everyone has left, and on his own in the darkened gallery space—more looking blissfully seduced by a ruffled hem.