Behind the Scenes at the Costume Benefit

Event designer Robert Isabell talks to BiZBash about putting together the most glam event of the season and about his inspiration (and friend) Jackie Kennedy.

April 24, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Posted 04.24.01
It's often called the party of the year. A glamorous, stylish event, the Costume Institute's annual benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art always makes headlines. And this year's gala had the style icon--and the event designer--to make it an especially influential and much discussed event.

Held to coincide with the opening of the Costume Institute's exhibit of Jackie Kennedy's clothes from her time in the White House, the event was designed by renowned event planner Robert Isabell, a personal friend of Kennedy's who worked on many events for her and her family, including daughter Caroline's wedding.

Although much of the press focused on the more recent first ladies (Would Laura and Hillary be in the same room together? And where would they sit?), Kennedy's style was the big draw--and the inspiration--of the evening. So we talked to Isabell on the morning after the glittering event to get a behind-the-scenes look at how he designed the event's decor.

To create an event with the proper style to match the legendary clothing on display, Isabell took inspiration from one of Kennedy's favorite places: the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden on the White House grounds. Designed by Kennedy's friend Bunny Mellon, the peaceful, simple garden was a special place for Kennedy. “It was a garden for the children to play in, for the children and her to escape from everything else,” Isabell told us. Mellon, also a personal friend of Isabell's, attended the event with him.

To recreate the garden inside the museum, Isabell brought in 14-foot topiaries and covered the museum's 22-foot columns with greenery. After months of planning, Isabell and his company's staff had from 6 PM on Sunday until the party started on Monday evening to transform the space.

It was very important to Isabell for the event to match Kennedy's legendary elegance. “Everything was done with great restraint--that was her style,” Isabell said. The key: “There's no fluff--nothing unnecessary.” Working with that design theory wasn't difficult for Isabell, who said he and Kennedy agreed on style points. “We both have a lot of the same sensibility.” And although the exhibit and the event focused on Kennedy's years in the White House, Isabell says she retained the same sense of style during her later years in New York, when he worked with her. “I don't think [her entertaining style] changed much at all,” he said.

For the benefit's centerpieces, Isabell used a photograph from the exhibit's catalog taken at a White House state dinner as inspiration. The tables also featured the same type of candles used in the Kennedy White House, as well as leaf-green and gold silk tablecloths.

The event also featured a mix of elements designed to make guests feel transported back to a dinner during the Kennedys' glamorous White House years: a Navy band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a group of Marines presented the flag and opera diva Renee Fleming sang “God Bless America.”

While lots of fashion folks are talking about the influence the Kennedy exhibit is likely to have on fashion, Isabell said he expects Kennedy's restrained, elegant style to have a large influence on special events, too.

--Chad Kaydo

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