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The Charity Ball Game

You are cordially invited to watch Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, and a cast of thousands as they prepare for the most excessive, obsessive, competitive, stage-managed, micromanaged, luxurious, fabulous party of the social season: the Costume Institute Ball.

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Melania Trump and André Leon Talley at her fitting.  

"No money, no come-y,” says Stephanie Winston Wolkoff into her constantly ringing cell phone. She’s just about had it with explaining that the Costume Institute Ball’s after-party isn’t a laid-back, stroll-past-check-in kind of night.

Last year, there had been some . . . problems. At 10 P.M., after dinner, the unwashed, unjeweled, distinctly unfabulous hordes had descended, gawking at the celebrities. It was like the scene at some dank West Side nightclub. She is taking pains not to let that happen again.

So later in the evening, once Renée Fleming has completed her performance (it’s just over seven minutes—Wolkoff has timed it), the doors will open to just 400 (society girls and their purse holders), and Wolkoff’s got a directive to keep the numbers firm. She’s up to her ears in big fries—“We have some dignitaries, we have some excellencies. We have the French”—and she’s not hearing excuses from anyone.

The staff at Vogue, the staff at the Metropolitan Museum, and the employees of any place rich enough to have doled out $150,000 for a table like to think of the Costume Institute Ball, held this year on May 2, as a sort of Oscars for the East Coast, by which they mean the Oscars, only much cooler. “At the awards shows you really get Hollywood people and the press,” says Vogue editor Anna Wintour—the unspoken thought being: That other party is, maybe, a little dull.

Wintour is sitting at her desk overlooking Times Square, in a black-and-white Chanel jacket whose tweed is ticked with small, light-reflecting paillettes. Wolkoff is out the door and shouting-distance away, a phone on each ear, manipulating 700 Post-it notes—a socialite Bobby Fischer—but in Wintour’s office all is calm, a self-important hush. Wintour never says more than is absolutely necessary. She’s fearsome and oracular; most often, her subjects attempt to divine what’s in her mind, or face the consequences. She plans this party with the help of Emily Rafferty, the similarly smooth-tempered well-kept president of the Met, and Vogue’s Wolkoff, who, tall and clear-eyed, is a popular member of what Wolkoff calls “the socials,” the Upper East Siders who are happy to pay for their tickets.

André Leon Talley, Vogue’s regal, supersize editor-at-large, on the other hand, is more than happy to say more than is strictly necessary. “With total modesty, I’d say that this is the most important social and fashion party of the year,” he pronounces, and then goes on to elucidate the ways in which the Costume Institute Ball is superior. “The fashion is more confident,” he declares. “It’s not some haphazard stylist saying suddenly, ‘Oh, you should wear this.’ Women like Lynn Wyatt know who they are.”


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