Met Gala 2017: Inside the Yearlong Process of Designing Fashion’s Biggest Night

The elaborate floral creations inspired by Rei Kawakubo were a highlight of the star-studded Costume Institute benefit.

By Jim Shi May 10, 2017, 12:31 PM EDT

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art/BFA

Costume Institute Benefit
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By now, anyone worth their Manolos or Zegna cummerbund knows that the first Monday in May has nothing to do with the cherry blossoms in Prospect Park. Rather, it marks the arrival of the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit. This year celebrated all things avant-garde with “Art of the In-Between” dedicated to Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons—only the second exhibition the Costume Institute has presented on a living designer (the first was the Yves Saint Laurent show in 1983).

The benefit, which raised more than $12 million, was planned by Vogue’s special projects consultant Sylvana Ward Durrett and director of special events Eaddy Kiernan. They worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s in-house staff, including Clyde Jones, senior vice president for institutional advancement; Bronwyn Keenan, deputy chief special events officer; Vanessa Hagerbaumer, senior special events officer; Anais Disla, assistant special events officer; and Kristin MacDonald, deputy chief development officer for events.

Rather than one chief sponsor as in years past, this year featured an array of supporters including Apple, Farfetch, H&M, Maison Valentino, Warner Bros., and Condé Nast.

As with years past, the star-studded intersection of A-list movie stars; music phenoms; art, fashion, and business-world titans; and society figures drew the likes of Rihanna, Paul Allen, Gisele Bündchen, Selena Gomez, Tom Ford, and Madonna. As is tradition, the fashion stayed on theme; for example, Rihanna, Tracee Ellis Ross, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan and honorary chairwoman Caroline Kennedy, and Helen Lasichanh all donned other-worldly, sculptural pieces by Kawakubo.

The 550 or so dinner guests began arriving on the red carpet—this year covered in a hand-painted sisal carpet with royal blue trim—at 6:30 p.m. for the celebratory fanfare and an inaugural viewing of the exhibition, which runs through September 4 in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. A dress printed with black-and-white appliqué violets from Rei Kawakubo’s Fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection for Comme des Garçons informed the evening’s decor—most evident in the 30-foot-tall violet centerpiece made of hot-pink roses with white roses at the center of the Great Hall.

“I was very inspired by Rei Kawakubo's work and did a lot of research on her collections,” said Raúl Ávila, who has produced the benefit decor since 2007. “In particular a look from her Fall 2012 collection that featured that striking blue and the fluidity of the design you saw on the carpet.”

After viewing the exhibition, which features 130 examples of Kawakubo’s womenswear designs for Comme des Garçons, dating from the early 1980s to her most recent collection, guests proceed to the Petrie Court for cocktails, then entered the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing for dinner at 8:30 p.m., walking between two walls of off-white flowers covered in dots made from hot-pink or burgundy roses. A trompe l’oeil royal-blue muslin curtain, highlighted in gold, draped the stage where the performance would take place later in the evening.

“I truly enjoyed researching [Kawakubo’s] work and getting to know her as a designer,” said Ávila. “She uses beautiful floral-print fabrics and creates interesting shapes with her garments. Her use of color is very exciting. There was an incredible amount to draw inspiration from.”

While playfulness was certainly evident throughout the museum—not least of all in the spectacle of polka dots that lined the Grand Stairs—the technical process behind it was anything but. “It takes all year to plan,” Ávila said, adding that while the exhibition themes change, the challenge is quite similar every year. “How do we utilize the same space and make it feel fresh and different from years past? We also have to produce something over the top while still being cautious of the fact that we are working in a museum filled with priceless art.”

Ávila and his team spend several months preparing the decor off-site. They load into the Met a week before, and that’s when the transformation really begins. Twenty-four hours before the Met Gala, the museum closes. The central arrangement in the Great Hall even requires its own timetable. “It took a month to build off-site,” Ávila said of the homage to the 2007 appliqué violets. “We disassembled it and brought it into the Met on Sunday night, and it had to go up in less than 12 hours. We had a large crew apply the flowers over an 18-hour period. On Sunday at 5:30 p.m. once the museum closes, we have access to the Great Hall and the Grand Staircase. That's when the transformation of the space really happens.”

For dinner in the Temple of Dendur, which took one week to build out, sushi would have been far too obvious. Instead, Glorious Food served a mix of melon, miso, and matcha in keeping with the night’s avant-garde theme—providing a thoughtful nod to Japanese cuisine. The evening’s 44 dinner tables were covered in pink, light pink, red, and burgundy cloths, upon which a first dish of lobster and king crab with caviar helped set a decadent tone from the meal’s outset, complemented by wagyu beef with green peppercorn sauce.

Gold-tipped flatware and wine glasses were placed on tables, as were calligraphed table numbers that were removed as soon as guests took their seats.

Vegetarian dishes, including a lemon-melon foam salad and baby spring vegetables, were served to the delight of vegans, while roasted sea bass and yuzu citrus mochi could also be found on tables. Wine pairings included a Pierre André Chablis 2015 and Louis Chevallier Pinot Noir 2014, not to mention a traditional Japanese Kikusui Junmai Ginjo. Finally, during the dessert course, which consisted of matcha, coconut mango, and Yuzu citrus mochi, green tea gave guests an extra kick to hit the dance floor.

Following the gala, where Katy Perry performed followed by Diplo, a trio of after-parties took place throughout the city: Comme des Garçons hosted the official after-party at the nearby National Academy Museum on the Upper East Side, while Rihanna held court at 1 Oak and the Perry celebrated with friends at Top of the Standard.

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