The Met Gala Mailbag Is Here!
Everything you wanted to know about the Met Gala.
Also, I will be hosting a live chat for paid subscribers during the Met Gala red carpet on Monday, May 1 beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. I’ll be following the Vogue livestream. You can access the chat on desktop or in the Substack app by tapping the chat icon at the bottom. I hope you’ll join me there! For additional Met Gala coverage, follow me on Instagram and TikTok.
Earlier this week I asked the Back Row community to share thoughts and questions about the Met Gala taking place Monday. This is not a normal year for the gala, which honors Karl Lagerfeld, arguably its most controversial subject since Anna Wintour started planning the event in 1995. The day he was announced as the exhibition’s focus, a friend who does not work in the fashion industry texted me, “Are they trying to look out of touch?” Since then, I’ve wondered: if she thought this, how many others do, too?
I’m grateful to everyone who responded to the thread — your comments are wonderfully detailed, honest, and thoughtful. This is exactly the kind of discussion that a platform like Substack is uniquely able to facilitate. First, it’s nice to read a comment section that’s not littered with trolls. Second, it reminds me of why a reader-funded model is so crucial in the fashion beat — I struggle to think of a legacy publication that would be able to invite its readers to be honest about a man so closely tied to brands with pockets as deep as Chanel’s.
Karl Lagerfeld was openly anti-fat, photographed Claudia Schiffer in blackface, denigrated victims of sexual assault during the #MeToo movement, described one of his early body-con Fendi collections as “shaped to be raped,” and made offensive comments about Syrian refugees and the Holocaust. There were other offenses, these are just some.
Most of you who responded expressed ambivalence about the Karl of it all this year. Emili Vesilind ofwrote, “My feeling is that Karl Lagerfeld was a brilliant designer and a crap person.” Others pointed out that maybe he wasn’t that great of a designer. Mary Orlin wrote, “There are so many other worthy designers. Why not a focus on the LGBTQ+ designers or artist collaborations (think louis vuitton and yayoi kusama). Quite frankly Karl is bore to me.”
I also polled my Instagram followers, which is the largest audience I can personally easily poll, to get a temperature read on their sentiment toward this year’s gala. Nearly half of respondents said they’ll look at the pictures but are apathetic.
This makes sense. How personally excited can we really get about celebrity events? Is there a single red-carpet event any of us watch these days with the same glee and tickling anticipation we may feel going into, say, this summer’s Barbie movie? A Taylor Swift concert?
I think the Met Gala comes as close as any red-carpet event can to true appointment viewing, but — in addition to more modern themes — could use some updates. For instance, it still relies on a red-carpet pre-show modeled after the traditional broadcast television ones that have become insultingly bad. Plus, its tentpole moments — Kim wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress last year, Karl as the theme this year — may not be adding up to a genuine mass fandom so much as the creation of an unavoidable social media event.
I have been contemplating how the Met arrived at doing a Karl exhibition now, after the fashion industry has been making a big show since 2020 of being inclusive and not toxic. Anna turns 74 in November. She is toward the end of her career. She saw in 2020 that she’s not going to be fired or “canceled” at the public’s whim, and she probably more than ever feels emboldened to do the projects that she wants to do. This attitude has served her well as a businesswoman — and she is a brilliant businesswoman — but it’s also gotten her in trouble in the past, as when her staff told her not to run a puff piece on the Syrian first lady in 2011 and she did anyway. So maybe she just bulldozed this through, and no one could or tried to tell her no. That’s my guess, anyway.
I pulled a handful of questions and comments to respond to from the thread for Back Row’s first-ever mailbag. If you want to know the full story about Anna’s role in the Gala, that’s in my book, ANNA: The Biography. I hope you’ll pick it up if you haven’t yet.
Tara: Logistics! We already know Anna approves every guest but who decides what they’ll wear and which table they’ll be seated at ( I’m assuming big brands buy several) or do the designers get to choose who they’ll dress? I know it’s a bit different this year because of Chanel’s outsized role but in general.
Who gets to get ready at The Carlyle? Is it everyone or a select few (and are there other hotel suites in the area at say The Mark for more subdued celebs)?
A handful of you asked questions about how celebrities figure out what they’re going to wear. One common misconception is that Anna approves every single outfit. She actually approves around 80 percent of looks down to the shoes. “That’s how it was a year-long project,” former gala planner Stephanie Winston-Wolkoff told me in an interview for ANNA: The Biography in May of 2021. But a senior fashion editor will approve, say, what lower level Vogue staff wear.
Many stars want to run their looks past Anna. Serena Williams, for instance, is a personal friend, and can just text Anna photos and get her opinion. This might not necessarily be because she feels she needs her approval so much as she trusts her. But the point of Anna and Vogue staff getting personally involved in the looks was to make sure every star had a unique fashion moment.
As for the tables and who sits where, certain brands are invited to buy a table, then Vogue (but really Anna, who approves the seating and the guest list) decides who will sit at that table. In some instances, a brand like Versace might want to bring its faces — say, the Hadid sisters — and Vogue will just be like, “Yes, great! GIGI + BELLA 4LYFE.” Because of course Vogue will want the thin, beautiful high-fashion models with lots of social media followers there.
For other brands, this might be more of a frustrating process if, say, they want to bring someone’s mom or a random licensing partner and Anna is like, “LOL, nice try, here’s Emily Ratajkowski.” Vogue might also, say, put an up-and-coming designer who doesn’t have the budget for a ticket at the Bloomingdale’s table. Or they might put a model a designer doesn’t know but is interested in dressing at that designer’s table; down the line, the model might get a contract to be the label’s muse. It’s all thought-out in remarkable detail with business interests in mind.
Stars have historically not had to pay to attend the gala. Many offer a donation to the museum anyway, but that donation doesn’t have to be as much as the ticket price (reportedly $50,000 this year). That said, stars do have to pay for things like hair and makeup (Vogue won’t cover that), hotel suites to get ready in (if they’re not comped), and a stylist if they’re not on a promotional tour for something like a movie (in which case a studio would cover a stylist). Some celebrities opt to use Vogue editors as their stylists because it’s free help. Kate Bosworth went to the office one year for styling and picked out a Prada dress, for example.
Many celebrities get ready at the Mark Hotel. After the press preview, which starts at 9 a.m. the day of the gala, Anna goes to the Mark Hotel to get ready, then emerges to walk the red carpet before anyone else at 6 p.m. on the dot. When she gets to the top of the stairs, she’s usually happy. This is a night she works toward all year. But she’s not necessarily relaxed, she’s usually saying, “Where is everybody? It’s time.” Well, maybe they’re waiting in line? After attending in 2017, Roisin Murphy recalled, “[W]e arrived at the red carpet, and there is a queue a mile long. It's not an ordinary queue, it's a queue with Beyoncé and Rihanna and all of these people queuing. When you see the pictures, you don't see the queue, it's insane.”
Ronja: …I’ve heard that brands buy tables. But what about spouses who wear different designers? Does that mean that they have to sit at different tables?
Anna is known for breaking up couples in the seating chart for the Met Gala. It’s a bit of that old-school mentality where you go to a dinner party and the host puts you and your spouses in different spots so you are forced to talk to new people. If a couple attends the gala as guests of the same designer, they’ll sit together, sure, but in general, Anna believes that mixing with people you don’t know leads to a better and more interesting party. Part of the secret sauce with the seating chart, Winston-Wolkoff told me, was putting a “Vogue socialite” at certain tables to facilitate conversations and make the night feel not-awkward. “There was always a group of Vogue people that hosted a table without anyone really knowing they hosted it,” she explained.
This forced mixing may be an introvert’s nightmare, but it has led to the literal building of the fashion industry. The Met Gala is a place for designers to find their muses and shake hands with potential investors. This is what makes attending so desirable, and this is why Anna is able to charge so much for entry. As the person who sits atop all of it, this is also why Anna herself is so significant.
Sue: I am not a Lagerfeld fan. I know that's an unpopular stance, but I can't get past his personal attacks on people (others in the fashion world, fat people in general, etc.). Were his designs *so* amazing? Some, maybe. He also did a lot of iterative and derivative work over the years. So... not because of this year's theme, but because I *loves* me a good red carpet, I will tune in. I always do!
Considering Karl as a subject invites the age-old debate about separating the art from the artist. (I’m setting aside the complicating factor of whether or not we consider fashion to be art.) If you google “separating the art from the artist,” the top results are articles in college papers! This suggests the younger generation who will one day lead museums is looking at this with a fresh perspective.
A lot of brilliant artists were terrible people. Do we take the Gauguins and Picassos off the wall? Museums haven’t. Exhibits of both have explored their art alongside their problematic sides, but the persistence of the exhibits says that we as a society consider their art to be so great that it outweighs their flaws as people.
I have carefully considered the question of whether Karl’s work is so great that it outweighs his nasty comments about various groups of marginalized people. I fully respect those who disagree with me on this highly subjective question, but for me?