The Met Ball has become a testament to the unmistakable power of its co-host, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast.
NEW YORK — On Monday, as twilight falls on Fifth Avenue, more than 500 Oscar-winning actresses and actors, Wall Street titans, Silicon Valley wunderkinder, fashion designers and Hollywood players will walk up a 150-yard red carpet leading into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for what has become, in the past decade, the undisputed party of the year on the New York social schedule.
Last year, the single evening generated almost $12 million, was a trending topic on Twitter and attracted more than 25 million page views on vogue.com the next day. This year, it will be part of a documentary by filmmaker Andrew Rossi, and recorded by 225 approved photographers, reporters, tweeters and Snapchatters.
It is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit, known as the Met Ball. In addition to kicking off the museum’s annual blockbuster fashion show, devoted this year to Chinese aesthetics’ influence on Western fashion, the event has become a testament to the unmistakable power of its co-host, Anna Wintour, 65, the editor of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast.
Since 1999, Wintour, an iron fist in an Oscar de la Renta (or Prada or Chanel) dress, has been the driving force behind the gala’s transformation from a well-attended dinner for museum donors and patrons into one of the biggest fundraising events staged by any of the city’s cultural institutions, and a global advertisement for her vision of the fashion industry.
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How that happened is a story of changes in society, media and philanthropy, and of one woman’s understanding of how a single evening could solidify her role as a corporate power broker.
Under Wintour’s reign, the gala has raised more than $145 million for the Costume Institute (the party funds its operating budget in its entirety), with attendees willing to pay $25,000 for an individual ticket or commit to a minimum $175,000 for a table of 10. By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art’s recent David Rockefeller lunch, the museum’s biggest annual fundraiser, brought in $3.5 million.
That is partly why at a ceremony last May, which was attended by Michelle Obama and nearly every living American fashion designer of note, to reveal the newly renovated Costume Institute, the space was christened the “Anna Wintour Costume Center.”
Beyond “local society”
If the gala has been good for the Met, it has also been very good for Vogue, cementing Wintour’s position as perhaps the most powerful person in fashion. She and her team exert significant control over the guest list, the seating plan, the coverage and, often, what selected guests will wear.
Attendance at the gala “is something you now have to consider as part of a strategy for any designer in the world,” said Ed Filipowski, co-president of the public-relations and production firm KCD. “No other international event even comes close.”
Given the shadow economy of a Hollywood fueled by beauty contracts and brand ambassadorships, celebrity guests have their own compelling business reasons to attend, according to Bryan Lourd, chairman and managing director of Creative Artists Agency.
Though she declined to be formally interviewed for this article, Wintour agreed to answer three questions via email as long as they did not involve the guest list, the seating plan or financial information. Asked about her own motivation, she said: “There was no grand plan.”
What is clear is that before Wintour arrived: “It was a very different kind of party,” Emily Rafferty, president emerita of the museum, said. “It was local society.”
The international fashion crowd entered the equation in 1983 with the Yves Saint Laurent show, which was masterminded by Diana Vreeland, then a special consultant to the Costume Institute. Combined with the explosion of Wall Street money that swept the philanthropic scene in the late 1980s and shifted the focus from cultural institutions to schools and hospitals, the profile of the typical Met Ball attendee began to shift from the traditional society names toward newer, boldface personalities.
The true flexion point came in 1995, when Wintour, who was hired as Vogue’s editor in 1988, was asked to host for the first time.
De facto co-host
By 1999, Wintour had become, as she remains, the gala’s de facto co-host, and her leadership coincided with the shift in Vogue covers from model-based images to celebrities. In 1993, there were three celebrity Vogue covers; by 1998, there were seven, and in 2002, there were 10.
The gala’s guest list was undergoing a similar transformation. Starting in 2003, celebrities served as hosts of the Met Ball or the dance after-party, which no longer exists, every year, including Nicole Kidman in 2003 and 2005 (seven Vogue covers), Sienna Miller in 2006 (four covers) and Carey Mulligan in 2012 (three covers, including this month’s).
Though Hildy Kuryk, Vogue’s director of communications, points out that not every cover model is a host of the ball, it is also true that every female Hollywood star who has served as a host has been on the cover of Vogue.
“A lot of actresses aspire to the cover of Vogue,” Lourd of CAA said. “It’s the gold standard. And Anna absolutely controls that.”
Today, the guest list for the gala has come to mirror, very closely, the pages of Vogue, which, like all magazines, reflects very strongly the worldview of its editor. The old stalwarts have been almost completely phased out.
Rumors have gone around for years that Wintour turns away guests she does not know or who she feels do not fit the image she wants her event to project. Radar Online reported in 2013 that she had “banned” cast members from the “The Real Housewives of New York City” from buying a table. (Asked about whether such bans existed, Kuryk responded: “We do not comment on the guest list.”)
The level of control that Wintour exerts can chafe, with guests complaining of feeling like pawns in her business. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow famously told USA Today in 2013 that she would never attend the gala again, because it was so “unfun.”
“It’s been professionalized,” Rafferty said. Numerous Vogue staff members work on the event year-round, juggling it along with their magazine jobs. On the day of this year’s gala, 85 Vogue employees will be stationed around the museum.
The evening represents an enormous investment of time and money on the part of Condé Nast. “It positions them as the classiest publishing company in the world,” David Patrick Columbia, editor of New York Social Diary, said. “You can’t fault it as a business decision.”