The 'Debt Gala' Begins as Met Gala Alternative
As the Met Gala prepares to honor a controversial subject, another group seeks to raise money for a very different cause.
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Last year, a group of three theater friends found themselves at a wine bar discussing the Met Gala. They were impressed by the spectacle and hype surrounding the whole event, about to make a grand return to its first Monday in May time slot with a “Gilded Glamour” theme following years of pandemic disruptions. “We're like, oh my God,” recalled writer/director Tom Costello over coffee along with the two friends, Molly Gaebe and Amanda Corday, in late January. “Why couldn't someone else do that?”
The theater world, like many industries during the pandemic, was facing its own reckoning surrounding issues like diversity, burnout, and fair pay. “Those things all synthesized in that moment being like, why don't we just do our own [Met Gala] and raise money for something that has to do with wealth disparity?” Costello said.
The result is the Debt Gala, which will take place April 30 at 5 p.m. at the Bell House, a performance venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Tickets start at $50, with proceeds benefitting RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that seeks to alleviate medical debt, long a leading cause of bankruptcy in America. Guests will enjoy food and drinks, and a show featuring comedians, drag performers, and a brass band. The night will culminate in a dance party with a DJ.
And yes, there will be a red carpet. (“How do we reinvent a red carpet?” wondered Costello.)
“It's like taking this really fun pop culture moment only a few people are allowed to actually experience, but that garners so much attention, and doing our version — our grassroots, alternative downtown version — for everybody who wants to come and buy a ticket,” said Gaebe, who’s also a writer and performer for Abortion Access Front, an organization that uses comedy to de-stigmatize abortion and draw attention to threats to reproductive freedom.
Of course, the Met Gala is a charity event as well, raising money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which preserves and exhibits fashion. But it also embodies the kind of grandiosity and conspicuous consumption that is going quickly out of style. During the pandemic, I was interviewing people who knew or had worked with Met Gala planner Anna Wintour as part of research for my book ANNA: The Biography, and a number of them wondered how the Gala would be perceived moving forward, given it wasn’t the kind of charity that helps the sick or suffering.
“It's a very theatrical event put together by fashion people,” said Costello. “We're theatrical people and we can put together a fashion event.” To that end, the Debt Gala’s theme is “Garbage x Glamour” (inspired by the Met Gala’s 2016 theme “Manus x Machina”). Corday, an actress, called it “the performance of glamour or couture via materials that might be seen as disposable or trash, but that can be reused to make something new.” (In other words, if you’re going, shop your closet.)
Costello, Gaebe, and Corday want to build the Debt Gala on values related to income inequality, like environmentalism and inclusion. “Wealth disparity is a huge part of what makes the Met Gala feel like it's so far away for a lot of people,” said Corday. “I hope that the Met Gala features more body diversity in the future and that it opens its arms to designers who wouldn't normally have access to that sort of platform.”
The Met Gala has long been a highly exclusive event with a guest list cherry-picked by Anna Wintour. Many celebrity guests attend to be in the room, but also in order to market brands they were paid to wear. And brands have to not only be invited to buy a table, but also able to afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on one. The more seats a brand has, the more exposure they get through celebrity guests — also picked or approved by Anna — on the red carpet. This has all made the Gala hugely successful since Anna took over the planning in 1995. It’s also made it a corporate marketing machine that many view as just one byproduct of late-stage capitalism.
The 2023 Met Gala dress code is “in honor of Karl,” as in Lagerfeld, the influential Chanel designer who died in 2019 and whose history of controversial remarks are receiving renewed scrutiny leading up to the event. The chief sponsor is Chanel, with support from Fendi, Condé Nast, and the Lagerfeld brand. The backlash to Lagerfeld as the theme has prompted many to reconsider the future of the Gala in a world that will always love fashion and celebrity, sure, but is more aware of its elitism than ever before.
The Debt Gala organizers were diplomatic when I asked what they thought the future of their inspiration was. Costello noted that a handful of 2022 Gala attendees used fashion to highlight groups that were marginalized in the Gilded Age. “I don't know where it's headed, but I would like to see that being part of the conversation,” he said.
The Debt Gala planners hope celebrities and local politicians will attend. I pointed out how hard it can be to get bold-faced names to do anything in a time when many don’t even bother with interviews. “Some of our good friends are so famous now that we're like, ‘Can you do this thing?’ And they're like, ‘We want to, but we might be making a movie,’” conceded Corday. But they’re batting around other names, too, “We're hoping that Countess Luann is free,” she added. “My dream is the WNBA,” offered Gaebe.
Costello said, “We're doing something that is just so fundamentally good. We're all volunteering to make this happen. We just want it to exist. And hopefully there are people whose values align with that and say, I also want to be a part of that. I see how they're doing something that the Met Gala does so well and they're putting it towards something that is making our country more equal.”
I asked if they would invite Anna. Corday answered, “That actually would be a great idea.”
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