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The Charity Ball Game

The General Anna Wintour in her office at Vogue: command central for declaring who does, and does not, make the cut.  

At the Costume Institute Ball, it is real taste that counts. It’s a party that launches a thousand shopping frenzies, with decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse. Every starlet and grande dame is searching for the perfect dress, and every designer for the perfect woman to hang it on. On the day of the event, everyone (even Anna Wintour herself) takes a room at an uptown hotel, like the Carlyle or the Mark—do you have any idea how wrinkled a dress can get in the backseat of a car?—for prepping and primping, a last-minute vanity extravaganza.

The real taste is paid for with real money. The 700 guests at dinner all have to be accounted for—either individually, with tickets ranging from $5,000 to $15,000, or as guests at tables taken out by corporate sponsors. The tables cost $150,000, and they’re covered up front. The money raised from the sale of tickets—last year, the figure was some $3 million; this year, Wintour and her legions are aiming for $3.8 million—constitutes the Costume Institute’s entire annual budget. The tab for the party itself—which those who would know estimate at about $2 million but Vogue claims is far lower—is covered by Vogue and Chanel. A fair price, when you consider, as Wintour does, that “those pictures go around the world for the next year.”

The party is a beyond-ostentatious union of Upper East Side money, Hollywood glamour, fashion, and fine art. And like any good marriage, everyone gets something out of the deal. It’s true that in certain quarters of the Metropolitan Museum, all that decorative plumage is viewed as a little indecorous, and the slavish pursuit of fashion-company dollars as a crass substitute for the good old-fashioned pursuit of superrich benefactors. At some level, the party is a giant commercial for Chanel and Vogue, with the Met providing the billboard space. Met director Phillipe de Montebello himself is said to look askance at the Costume Institute. But in the end, the Metropolitan is happy to overlook the implicit commercialism. After all, it gets to play host to a lot of those superrich benefactors. And amid all the bedazzlement and air-kissing, who would be so crass as to mention a little thing like commercialism?

Chanel and the Met had been circling each other for several years before tying the knot. The idea to devote an exhibit to the label first came up in 2000, during what was a controversial time for the institute. Its beloved director, Richard Martin, had died, and an interim curator was in place. She was roundly denounced as terribly unchic by much of the fashion community. “Her name was Myra, and Anna never even learned her name—she called her Myrna,” says a Met employee.

Wintour typically plays a key role in approaching and securing the event’s sponsor, and without her avid matchmaking, the 2000 deal fell through. Many have said that the Met was concerned about the super-high-maintenance requirements of Chanel’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld. But last year, the situation changed. One impetus was that the “Dangerous Liaisons” party, as it was called, was seen by many as the moment when the sublime became the ridiculous—a whole French court full of fashion victims. Changes had to be made. For fashionistas, Chanel is a safe, impeccable, forever stylish choice—precisely the theme that the Costume Institute Ball needed.

At the Vogue offices, the planning for the Costume Institute Ball goes on with the intensity of a trading floor, with Wolkoff, Vogue’s director of special events, as the hard-bitten, all-knowing head of arbitrage. She knows who you’re dating, who you’re not dating, who you might date, and who you never would. She knows what you look like, and what you’re likely to wear.