The party’s been happening since 1948, when the Costume Institute was founded at the Met. It was decided at its inception that the American fashion industry would be responsible not only for creating the institute but for producing its entire annual operating budget. Eleanor Lambert, the legendary publicist who died in 2003, started throwing the fund-raiser, and it was glamorous, if rather naff—the evening’s main entertainment was in the form of women from the fashion industry parading around the exhibit. The heat came with Diana Vreeland, whose first exhibit, on Balenciaga, was in 1973. Vreeland presided over the exhibitions—and parties—with her typical flair. One of her favorite methods was to pump gallons of appropriately themed perfume into the galleries. For an exhibit on Russian costume, it was ten gallons of Chanel Cuir de Russie. For a 1980 exhibit about China, it was Opium. Guests complained, but Vreeland insisted the scent was necessary, as it supplied a “languor” that was otherwise lacking.
The socialite Pat Buckley, a fund-raiser for the Costume Institute, was another guiding spirit—and she was concerned with saving money. “She was up there in the cherry picker hanging things herself,” remembers Aileen “Suzy” Mehle, the gossip columnist. “And she was always running around downtown, bragging that she got this or that for twelve cents.”
As Mehle explains, “Anna really is the one who got Hollywood involved.”
The party has taken place in various parts of the Met over the years. Wintour remembers 1995, when the dinner took place on the balcony, the dance in the great hall below. “We shook the pottery too much,” she explains. Wintour has also, in other years, hired scores of cadets from West Point to line the steps of the museum, or the Harlem Boys’ Choir to sing Christmas carols (the event used to take place in December).
This year, the dinner will be in the American Wing, where the façade of a bank lends the illusion of a backyard—the backyard of, say, Karl Lagerfeld’s personal château.
Wintour insisted the caterer travel to Paris for a tasting at The Ritz.
The event had mostly been designed by Robert Isabell since 1995, but the liaison had become stale. “Robert and I both said it was time for a change,” Wintour says. “We’d been doing it together for so long, it had become like reinventing the wheel.”
Enter David Monn. He’s been in business less than three years, but he came highly recommended.
“He seems to be someone who is happy to take some degree of direction,” Wintour says—high praise under the circumstances.
“For an event to really . . . take you, you must engage all five senses equally,” Monn says as he steers an enormous SUV toward the Lincoln Tunnel on the Jersey side. He’s just finished inspecting the 14,000 pounds of boxwood that will make up the bulk of the French garden he’ll construct at the Met, and he’s got a lot on his mind. “Imagine your body not having one of its senses intact. I mean . . .” His voice trails off at the horror. He’s already had to nix the idea of using a “party fogger” in the American Wing—“It’s supposed to be dusk! When you’re working with the Met, there are all these considerations. One bug gets in there . . .” Monn trails off again.
But happy Monn is. “For me, success had always been gauged by money,” Monn explains. “And I had very good luck making money. But I hated every day of my life—really did!
“I have some strong beliefs, and one of them is that if you’ve been given a semblance of intelligence and you’ve been blessed with a talent and you’re unhappy, you need to look in the mirror.”