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In its previous incarnations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute gala has seen towering French floral arrangements, comic book-inspired sculptures, and a gilded birdcage filled with peacocks. This year, with chief sponsor Gap on board and an exhibit entitled “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity,” the influential benefit took on a more simple, home-grown look, while maintaining its credentials as the fanciest party in town. A crowd of 725 guests—including Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson, and honorary co-chair Oprah Winfrey—turned out on Monday night, helping to raise a record $9 million.
“It’s the Met, so it’s never casual, but working with a brand like the Gap, where the aesthetic is more relaxed, everything involved in the planning of the evening was a pleasure,” said Vogue's special events director, Sylvana Soto-Ward, who planned the fund-raiser for the first time this year after assuming the role previously held by Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in 2009. The planning team also included the Metropolitan Museum's in-house staff, vice president for development and membership Nina Diefenbach, deputy chief development officer for events Kristin MacDonald, and deputy chief special events officer Ashley Potter Bruynes.
Overseen by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the exhibition's creative consultant (and production designer of films like The Dark Knight) Nathan Crowley and Raul Avila designed decor heavily influenced by the involvement of Gap and its uncomplicated style. “Poiret was a very elaborate, decorative dining room with prints and paintings,” said Soto-Ward in reference to the 2007 gala. “This year we focused on cleaner lines—simple, classic, chic lines, and colors. Yellow was the color we went with. Nathan wanted guests to feel like they were in a constant state of a sunset.”
Helping create that illusion were hundreds of yards of yellow silk hung from the ceiling, which complemented a 26- by 31-foot yellow-and-burgundy hot-air balloon on the stage. Yellow French tulips were planted around the stage, and white porcelain pitchers with yellow parrot tulips served as centerpieces at tables decorated with ivory linen tablecloths, gold-trimmed china, and wicker café chairs.
The San Francisco-based retail giant also played a large part in the clothing for the event, creating uniforms for the waitstaff and ushers and bringing in past recipients of the C.F.D.A./Vogue Fashion Fund to design outfits for guests like Kirsten Dunst, Jessica Alba, Kerry Washington, and M.I.A. “Gap was a great resource; they have this thing down so creating uniforms was easy and fun,” said Soto-Ward.
On the night itself, Soto-Ward coordinated a small army of 50 Vogue staffers, whose roles were to get people moving from one end of the museum to the other in as efficient a way as possible. “You are on a time frame and you want to get people seated and eating and have the performance start on time,” she said. “Having watched Stephanie put on nine of these, I never knew what it took to plan a party with 700 people.”
“Ultimately, a night with as little hiccups as possible is the goal certainly,” said Soto-Ward. “But with an event of this magnitude, there will always be little things here and there that you can improve on next year. It’s a learning experience.” As for what she took away from having completed her first Met ball? “Actually having one under my belt now,” she said. “There’s an ease now, now that it’s not such an unknown. That, more than anything, will be helpful to me for next year.”