Often dubbed the “Oscars of the East Coast," tonight's Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the most important see-and-be-seen events on the city's social calendar. So what is all the fuss about?
The party to end all parties originated in 1948 when the Costume Institute was founded at the Metropolitan Museum. At its inception, it was decided that the American fashion industry would both help to curate the institute and supply its entire operating budget. Eleanor Lambert, who founded the CFDA (among other accomplishments), originally ran the party. Matrons paid $50 to wear some of the Costume Institute’s gowns at a midnight supper in December. Following Lambert, society figures like Diana Vreeland and Pat Buckley took turns co-chairing. Vogue Editor Anna Wintour took over in 1995, and is credited with bringing a Hollywood element to the party.
Dollars and Cents
Despite its party reputation, the Costume Institute Gala is actually one of the biggest fundraising nights in New York each year. Last year the gala reportedly raised nine million dollars. The year before, during the doldrums of the recession, the tally came in at $5.4 million.
Vogue and a sponsor (this year it is Alexander McQueen, who is also the exhibits headliner) typically underwrite the party, which is rumored to cost upwards of two million dollars to produce. Vogue and Anna Wintour then invite corporations to buy tables at the gala, which range from $75,000 to $250,000 depending on the size of the brand and its relationship with Vogue. Larger brands are asked to cover larger portions of the burden. Individual tickets also go up for sale, but are hard to come by, and can cost up to $25,000, depending on their location. Companies that have bought tables this year include Topshop, Tod’s and Ralph Lauren. Just over 700 people attend the event each year, and the money raised constitutes the Costume Institute’s entire annual budget.
Celebrity attendees -- including the Olsens, Tom Brady and Sarah Jessica Parker -- get a free ride to the event. Vogue typically compiles a celebrity wish list and then farms out boldfaced names to sit with either their corporate table-buying guests or at their own sponsored tables. Vogue also invites up and coming designers to attend, including the designing duo behind Proenza Schouler and Joseph Altuzarra, seated at their sponsored tables.
The gala has garnered a reputation as having a red-carpet where attendees are allowed to take fashion risks. But that doesn't mean Wintour and her staff aren't playing a behind the scenes role in wardrobe choices. Vogue editors often pull dresses for attendees and make suggestions -- like for ladies to wear short dresses or to dress in an avant-garde superhero inspired gown, depending on the theme of the exhibit. Wintour also isn’t afraid of a power play, knowing full well how much attention clothes and accessories on this particular red carpet get. One year, for instance, a certain jewelry designer reportedly pulled out of attending the gala at the last minute and Wintour made sure that no guests would wear the designer’s work on the red carpet.
Décor, Food and Entertainment
This event requires so much work and planning (it takes over eight months to put together) that it requires a special liaison in the Vogue office to handle the affair. Currently, Sylvana Soto-Ward is in charge. As proof that the gig takes serious organizational skills, the woman in charge before Soto-Ward -- Stephanie Winston Wolkoff -- now handles Mercedes Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center. To give a sense of the detail work involved, Soto-Ward keeps a calligrapher by her side the day of the event so she can change the seating chart at a moments notice.
Dinner takes place in a different room of the museum each year (this year it will be held in the Temple room) and the menu reflects the exhibit. The Chanel retrospective’s dinner was consulted on by the Ritz in Paris. This year the food is Scottish-inspired to honor McQueen’s heritage.
There is also a surprise after-dinner performer each year—one year it was Renée Fleming, another year Lady Gaga. And the décor of the gala changes each year as well—ranging from an English garden party to a superhero’s lair.