Gucci's Unicef Benefit Low on Branding, High on Ubuntu

By Lauren Matison February 7, 2008, 3:56 PM EST

Host Madonna was the center of attention at last night's Unicef benefit, where guests bid on items including dinner with her.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Last night a tent sheltered a crowd of A-list celebrities and musicians, donors, and distinguished speakers on the north lawn of the United Nations for the most hyped of this season's Fashion Week parties. Hosted by Gucci and Madonna, the event was billed as “A Night to Benefit Raising Malawi and Unicef,” with performances by Alicia Keys, Timbaland, and Rihanna. Gucci, a Unicef corporate partner since 2004, was brought on board by Madonna to sponsor the evening, which was conveniently timed with the Friday opening of Gucci's new flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Some 650 attended for the seated dinner and auction, while even more showed up for the after-party.

The event sparked some controversy before it even took place, with reports from The New York Sun, Fox News, and other media sources raising concerns over the retailer's promotional ties to a fund-raiser on diplomatic soil as well as the role of Michael Berg, the founder of Madonna's charity, who is also co-director of the Kabbalah Centre. Yet Madonna, Gucci creative director Frida Giannini, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (who did not attend the event) assured critics that all proceeds would be split between Raising Malawi and Unicef. With tables priced between $25,000 and $100,000, $3.7 million had already been raised prior to the party.

With this in mind, we went to find out what the guests thought about the fete. Near a heavily guarded exit, we polled guests—including Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi and actor Dylan McDermott—en route to their cars. Here’s what they had to say.

“We don’t have a clue about the gift bags, and that’s not why we came. I don’t do Gucci. [Gucci] didn’t have to do this, but they’ve done a wonderful service. I think they got involved because they realized there was something good going on. There was this sense of ubuntu tonight; it’s a very unusual word about humanity toward others. If there’s one thing to take away from this, it is ubuntu.”
Wall Street broker

“There was very minimal decor inside, and the only commercial, branded touches I saw were the Gucci-clad waiters in $2,000 outfits.”
Editor, Hearst Corporation

“It was clear there was not a lot of money spent on the decorations, because everything is about the auction. There is a lot of vodka and champagne, and that’s it. The auction is going very well because guests are paying a lot of money for nothing, like $600,000 to go out for dinner with Madonna. But it’s going to a good cause, you know; Malawi is not like Lower Manhattan.”
Marta, Milanese fashion journalist

“The most memorable part of tonight is the enormous fashion power in the room. And the types of people coming together to raise so much money for this cause is incredible.”
Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef host and author

“Everything is black inside. Normal silverware, nothing too over-the-top. Nothing obviously Gucci.”
Chelsea gallery owner

“There was no problem seeing the stage because it was raised, and the seats were tiered. The layout was stunning and the florals were beautiful—all done by London-based designer Hayley Newstead and her company Absolute Flowers & Home. Lots of soft mink, pink, and peach-tinged roses. Some of the tables are glass, some are leather. The setting is reminiscent of the Gucci store on Fifth, with chairs flecked with leather and gold and a very thick, lush gray carpet.”
—The Times (of London) journalist

“The best food I had was the filet of beef on a potato cake, and the toffee pudding with crème fraîche.”
French fashion designer, Gucci

“The auction was incredible. People were bidding tens of thousands on a training day with Madonna, and a Central Park outing with her and Gwyneth Paltrow.”

“That this event exists, that it all came together, is really like a miracle. It’s kind of sad that it takes celebrity to galvanize this whole thing, but that’s the world we live in. But the fact that tonight is bringing attention to a place that most people have never heard of, where the poverty levels are through the roof, I think that’s the most important thing—the awareness. People forget, they go on with their daily lives, so this kind of raises awareness that Africa is sort of the wound of the world. I’m sure guys are partying in there, but a lot of money is being raised, and hopefully people will continue being conscious of this cause.”
Dylan McDermott, actor

“The most memorable thing about tonight would be people spending a lot of money. I think Gucci gave a really good presence here tonight, and they showed that they were deeply interested in doing this—and for the right reasons. I think ubuntu is the most important thing: ‘I am who I am because you are who you are,’ and that’s what every guest was about tonight.”
Executive, Sony Corporation

“I don’t really remember what Madonna performed—some of her new stuff. Toward the end of the night Timbaland sung 'The Way I Are'.”
Features editor, a Condé Nast magazine

“The invitation was very plain. It listed the co-chairs, like Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, Sarah Jessica Parker, Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs. No frills. And why should there be for this type of event?”
Fashion designer

“This is a fund-raiser with a very glamorous twist unlike any other Fashion Week event. An invite to this place means raising money for a good cause and seeing fabulous clothes while rubbing elbows with Tom Cruise.”

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