It’s no understatement to say that the Met Gala is the single most important event on the annual fashion calendar. Not only does the soirée signal the opening night of a new exhibition at New York’s Costume Institute, it attracts an unprecedented number of celebrity guests and provides valuable funding needed to keep the Institute alive.
The purpose of the event means that there’s an intrinsic responsibility to balance art and commerce. This explains the eye-watering cost of an entrance ticket, which ranges from $30,000 to $50,000, the numerous high-profile sponsors and the reported minimum charge for a table, which starts at $275,000.
Still, guests are encouraged to express themselves creatively with a dress code linked to the theme of the upcoming exhibition. This year, the Institute pays tribute to the legendary Rei Kawakubo, a revered visionary whose label, Comme des Garçons, has indisputably changed the landscape of high fashion. Unlike her contemporaries, Kawakubo designs clothing which barely resembles clothing at all; fabrics are shredded, tattered and deconstructed; silhouettes are wildly exaggerated, padded, almost monstrous – to the point that models look barely human. It’s the antithesis of fashion as commerce, and that’s precisely why her vision is endlessly praised and achingly necessary.
The potential of this dress code was almost unlimited, so fans worldwide stayed up to see the looks from what promised to be the most avant-garde Met Gala ever. Needless to say, they were disappointed. As celebrity after celebrity made their entrance on the red carpet, it became increasingly clear that the brief had been, in almost every case, completely ignored.
Bloggers, editors, fashion aficionados and critics took to their social media accounts, simultaneously bemoaning a lack of originality and praising those who stuck to the theme. Some posted archive Comme des Garçons collections, highlighting the radical potential that failed to manifest. The skintight gowns, layers of chiffon and embellished trains on show were undeniably beautiful, but that wasn’t the point – they weren’t forward-thinking, they weren’t remotely inspiring and they definitely did not embody the radical spirit of Rei Kawakubo.
So what went wrong? The first – most obvious – problem is that barely anyone actually wore Comme des Garçons. Versace, Prada and Valentino all had a heavy presence on the red carpet, whereas some stars instead turned to Chanel or, in some cases, brands with a high street presence, like Topshop and H&M. The reasons for this vary; it may be that Comme des Garçons had simply chosen not to lend many looks for the Gala, which would be unsurprising considering Kawakubo’s famous reluctance to engage with press interviews and engagements.
The more likely reason, however, is brand sponsorship. As The Fashion Law pointed out, celebrities often have their tickets paid for by designers and are dressed by the label as part of the deal. This acts as valuable promotion for the label, as it seems to be a genuine endorsement of the brand as opposed to a business partnership. Although the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is increasingly cracking down on social media sponsorship, enforcing certain hashtags and encouraging transparency, the rules are blurred at events like this. Sometimes the relationship between brand and designer is obvious – a good example is Gigi Hadid, who wore Tommy Hilfiger, for whom she recently created a capsule collection. Still, the point of a dress code – especially one themed around a designer –is lost slightly when this is taken into account.
It’s hardly news that this happens, but it does impose severe limitations on this dress code in particular, which is rooted in avant-garde aesthetics and forward-thinking styling. Some stars proved that the problem wasn’t insurmountable, wearing other brands yet still paying homage to Kawakubo’s left-field vision. Cara Delevingne’s metallic shaved head, for example, was both chic and unexpected, whereas Solange’s deconstructed Thom Browne puffer coat was brilliantly anomalous on a red carpet filled with floor-length gowns. The problem wasn’t that guests couldn’t access the Comme des Garçons archive; it was a general lack of willingness to push the envelope that resulted in a never-ending procession of pretty yet safe looks.
The second problem is that, put simply, almost no other designer – at least, no other established designer – is doing what Rei Kawakubo continues to do so impeccably. Her ethos is to create the new, and every season she delivers on that promise; last season she radically redefined the silhouette, building amorphous garments that warped the human figure. These individual works of innovation obviously aren’t made to be worn on a daily basis, and it’s worth noting that this limitless creative freedom is only made possible by the various diffusion ranges, perfumes and accessories that bankroll Kawakubo’s singular vision. Still, they create a blueprint for radical new approaches to clothing; they expand the possibilities of what fashion – and, more generally, garments – could be. Celebrities were unable to recreate this vision without going directly to the source because Kawakubo continues to operate in a different realm from her contemporaries.
Despite this, it wasn’t all bad. Rihanna stole the show as usual, in a sculptural look which almost engulfed her entirely; created from individual petals and a few strategic cut-outs, the gown – lifted from Comme des Garçons’ AW16 collection – was a show-stopper for all the right reasons. Tracee Ellis Ross, Michèle Lamy and Helen Lasichanh also delved into the house archive, living up to the radical promise of the exhibition dress code by paying tribute to Kawakubo herself. Honorary chairwoman Caroline Kennedy stood out in a three-tiered floral creation – also part of the AW16 collection – which one paper hilariously dubbed “unflattering”. Elsewhere, Céline Dion wore an off-kilter custom gown by Versace (and seemingly had the world’s best time on the red carpet), Grace Hartzel wore a black Dior skirt suit with pale, doll-like makeup and Lily Aldridge mixed up a white Ralph Lauren gown with a sheet of pink tulle and red Balenciaga boots.
Even with these flourishes of aesthetic brilliance, the message was clear – in this case, commerce had triumphed over art. Brand interference in all elements of the fashion industry is becoming overwhelmingly obvious and, as a result, it’s now impossible to distinguish between sponsored looks and genuine endorsements. There are ways around this, as certain stars proved, but the problem was particularly evident in the context of a dress code dedicated to one of fashion’s most unconventional minds. Even Kawakubo isn’t perfect – as many have pointed out, the designer hasn’t cast a single black model in over a decade, a problem that cannot be ignored. Still, her contribution to the industry has laid the foundations for a host of graduate students and young innovators to push the boundaries of fashion. As Monday night inadvertently showed us, it remains largely impossible to recreate the spirit of her singular vision without actually diving into the archives themselves.