How Vogue Special-Events Planner Sylvana Soto-Ward Prepares for Monday’s Costume Institute Gala

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

On the night of Monday, May 3, a red carpet will cover the stairs leading up to the Metropolitan Museum, serving as the entryway for guests of what is considered the city's most fashionable event of the year: Vogue's annual Costume Institute Gala, also known as the Oscars of the East Coast. Behind the planning this year for the first time is 28-year-old Sylvana Soto-Ward, who was promoted from accessories editor at Vogue to special-events planner in July. She has a model's height and figure, and smooth, highlighted brown hair parted down the middle. Teetering in her four-inch gray suede Miu Miu heels just six days before the event at a run-through in the museum, she shows no signs of freaking out. She's only been working on this event for ten months. "I'm shocked the planning started so early, but it does. It takes almost a year. You get two months off and then right back at it," she said.

Each year a fashion label sponsors the ball. Last year it was Marc Jacobs, and the year before Giorgio Armani. But this year it's the Gap. "I think the Gap is perfect for the theme," Soto-Ward says, referring to Costume Institute's new exhibit (what the Gala is meant to inaugurate) devoted to the fashion of American women from 1890 to 1940. "Yes, it's been sort of these high-fashion companies, but particularly in this economy and in this world right now where it's not all about high fashion but it's about the mix and about high-low, you know? It's certainly something we're trying to portray in the magazine and everything else we do," she says. "I think Anna [Wintour] was really looking for support within the industry this year, and sort of saying this downturn is over and we need to show that we're back in full force, and this is sort of the event for the industry." Soto-Ward has been at the museum since seven this morning with her decorator Raul Avilla, and has a Met security badge clipped to her Theory blazer. The lobby of the museum will be lined on either side with a semicircle of around ten "waiters," as Soto-Ward describes them, dressed in cadet-inspire outfits by the Gap. "They're not going to be serving anything, they're meant — the whole reason is so the guests don't go either direction, but also just, you know, as a cool element. Just to see the cool Gap uniforms." Vogue editor Anna Wintour is heavily involved in all stages of the planning. "She's the visionary. I mean everything sort of — the Gala certainly — comes from her brain And from there we're just sort of here to execute and obviously deal — deal!" Soto-Ward explains. At this point, "I'm in her office about 25 times a day." Wintour likes to see things like the waiter uniforms in advance, even if she has no changes. She also signs off on the dresses the Gap is creating for attendees in collaboration with four young designers: Alexander Wang, Sophie Theallet, Thakoon, and Rodarte. (The dresses will be auctioned the day after the Gala to benefit the Costume Institute.)

This year around 600 people will attend — a slightly smaller crowd than last year's roughly 620. "Sometimes things can get too big, and Anna really likes everyone at the party to feel comfortable, like they're having dinner with friends," Soto-Ward explains. She hopes that she's been able to draw a "younger crowd," but quickly hesitates on her phrasing. "I just mean sort of a variation of guests. So not just the regulars but maybe some new names this year and up-and-comers," she says. "There's a lot of representation from the music industry." That includes Lady Gaga, who will attend as Prada's guest.

The number of tables "changes daily, but anywhere between 62 and 66." Though she's memorized the seating chart — designed to align friends and people who don't know each other but who Wintour thinks would like each other — that also changes daily. As 3 p.m. approaches she has to rush back to the office for another seating-chart meeting with Wintour. She'll hopefully go to bed by midnight, and be back at the museum the next day at 8 a.m. to show 50 Vogue staffers what their jobs will be at the Gala. Their duties mostly consist of ushering guests around. "They're not doing any heavy lifting in their heels," Soto-Ward adds.

Though she has been checking every last detail obsessively, there's one thing she won't follow up on. "The rain," she says. "I'm literally not checking the weather, so no one tell me."