By Ted Kruckel
Here's how it happens: Experienced party-throwers go about their business, planning an annual event that has previously been bulletproof. And with the combined money, energy and high-level talent thrown at the shindig, expecting accolades doesn't seem unwarranted. But somewhere along the way, while hosts are vigorously focusing on paper stock samples for the menu cards, the pieces are coming together in a way that doesn't match the event's intended goal. The actual experience of the event might be fine, but the overall message that goes to the outside world—through things like press coverage and good old gossip—gets blurred into something that isn't quite right.
At least that's what seemed to happen at two recent New York event colossi.
While the smooth-textured paper of the die-cut invitation seemed fine for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute gala, other chinks in the armor that is Anna Wintour's guaranteed “party of the year” seemed to show, with a few press reports even surfacing beforehand that the event's reign may be over. What were they sniffing about?
For some, the idea of an actual costume ball, French period no less, seemed to go beyond the usual exhibition-themed suggested attire. Maybe given the still-sober mood of prolonged war, or the sense among many that the economic upturn wasn't yet as laissez les bon temps rouler as it might be, the invitation to don corsets and crinolines seemed a little too manger le brioche for some. When the museum acknowledged that some women had called asking about the width of the building's front door the eye-rolling began in earnest. (It's the Met, ladies. If you can't picture it, why not whiz by in a taxi and take a gander?)
Then of course there were the de rigueur celebrity co-chairs, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law, following their Cold Mountain colleague Nicole Kidman. But the top-tier Hollywood choices seemed preserved in amber. Why? Because they were last season's Oscar promotion pair, that's why. Vogue as much as anyone has pounded the Academy Award fashion system into our collective calendars, and we're all now trained to associate even social celebrity appearances (if an appearance of this sort can be called social) with “product” on screens nationwide. Will Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson also arrive in their Starsky & Hutch drag and do a routine on the steps of the Met? (Sadly, no, but J-Lo in the lace-peekaboo and a Dolce & Gabbana sandwich did seem to turn back time, à la Cher, just a little bit, no?)
That Ms. Zellweger would be hard-pressed to fill Ms. Kidman's pointy and tall shoes seems unfair to point out, doesn't it? In interviews I've seen this accomplished actress comes across as a gentle and refined young woman. But she puts herself out there, doesn't she, as a fashion femme fatale, with those giant swaths of expensive Herrera fabric and flirty poses that to this eye come across a little wedding-cakey.
But the real problem was this costume dress bit, because it offered, and delivered, so many opportunities for guests to look foolish. Poor good-natured Amber Valletta, alone in powdered wig and other Marie Antoinette gear, looked like a pledge who was tricked into being the entertainment at a sorority party. In New York costume designer Ann Roth likened Jamie-Lynn DiScala's golden satin get-up to Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. Even Anna seemed to have a costume malfunction, girlishly mugging with Ms. Zellweger in a full-length New York Observer shot of her Galliano-designed and super-beaded and pearled coatdress. So much fabric, shoulder and adornment bunched on a slight frame recalled Scarlett O'Hara's famous window treatment look, albeit updated for the Concorde class. To be fair, it was impressive in person.
So no matter how Robert Isabell's flower tower and topiary centerpieces looked, or how novel the new seating in the American Wing felt (opinions varied on both, by the way), the evening sent a message about fashion and style that missed by a mile.
WELCOME TO TRIBECA, NOW WITH A BLOOMINGDALE'S NEARBY
A similar situation—let's call it a “core message malfunction"—developed a few nights later at the opening of the Tribeca Film Festival, although this time fashion had nothing to do with it. (Indeed, festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal deserves kudos for precise tailoring for her shocking orange scoop-neck dress layered with an exact-same-length white spring coat.)
What blew it primarily was the choice of opening night fare, which you didn't realize until you were planted in your seat and listening to Ms. Rosenthal explain the mission and success of the festival.
Up until that moment, most of the elements seemed well in place, if not for everybody, then at least for Goldie Hawn, Robert De Niro and Kate Hudson, who provided the necessary rubber-necking and flash-popping. A magnificent red and white gobo projection swathed the arrival area to the main theater, resulting in high drama arrivals for guests who invested in expensive fund-raising tickets.
Alas, having spent a pretty penny guarantees you nothing in the current “celebrities come first” thinking of fund-raisers, so despite arriving on time as the paid guest of festival committee member and film producer Dina Chartouni and her husband, Lowell Hotel proprietor Fouad (and having declared myself a member of the covering press to boot), I was not allowed to take in the glamour entry. Instead I was shunted over the West Street crosswalk of Stuyvesant High School to a secondary screening location that was not nearly as glamorous.
I saw that press empress Bonnie Fuller was forced to make the same schlep, meaning that this was across-the-board discrimination. Indignities continued with bumpy seating by an officious screening staff who taped off about 70 seats for V.I.P.'s—who didn't show. They also made little or no effort to reseat people after the program began. (What is it that makes people who wear headsets at celebrity events all adopt the same snootiness? Maybe scratchy radio noises make them irritable.)
But the theater itself was clean, comfortable and well-ventilated, and in anticipation of a meaningful short talk and movie followed by a big old schmoozedoggle at the Winter Garden, our defenses dropped. Fun even loomed when Kristina Stewart of Harper's Bazaar introduced us to first-daughter-dance-dipper Fabian Basabe.
Rosenthal was earnestly reminding us that this festival was born of tragedy, in the 9/11 aftermath, with an eye towards helping a ravaged neighborhood economy rebuild. And here to tell us more was some equally earnest gal from sponsor Disney in a tasteful ivory pantsuit. (Disney? What happened to Vanity Fair?, I wondered.) She explained why tonight's feature, Raising Helen, directed by Garry Marshall and starring Hudson, Joan Cusack and one of the the Sex and the City boyfriends, was an appropriate choice to kick off the festival. I forget her rationale...partially filmed in lower Manhattan, hired local crews, something like that. Suddenly it dawned on me that we were going to sit through a romantic comedy/family drama product targeted (I'm guessing) to soccer moms and chick-lit book buyers.
Before you can say, “Getting tired, big day with agent, let's hit Tribeca Grill and see if Drew Nieporent is there,” before your eyes is a nerdy and unrealistic portrayal of the fashion, nightlife and modeling industries of your town. I'm no critic, so let's just say I was expecting something maybe a bit grittier or loftier for a downtown festival's opening night. Even those who liked the movie (many did) admitted that the selection seemed commercial and middle-brow.
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem: What was once a brave and noble effort is now a huge commercial juggernaut. How many segments have you seen this week on local news about the millions of dollars the festival brings to the area? And this Thursday they're going to host a free Riverside “drive-in” (just don't bring your cars) to watch the Friends final episode. Friends? Am I really in Tribeca? Or if I click my heels will I find myself at the Scarsdale Film Festival?
I should point out, by the way, that both events mentioned above were completely sold out of their highest-priced tickets and garnered significant press for the not-for-profit organizations they support.
UNDER THE OLDIES-BUT-GOODIES COLUMN
I'm not immune to the call of the new, so I raced to the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List event at the Hotel Gansevoort. Perhaps it is part of a Manhattanite's genetic code, the urge to say you've already been to something that isn't even fully opened yet. Jeffrey Chodorow's new restaurant, which catered the event, for example, is both not finished and in a legal dispute over it's very name, according to a recent New York cover story.
I liked the place well enough; anytime you have an unobstructed set of views from all four exposures in Manhattan you are in a good spot. But because it was so new, nothing seemed to work. Elevators were cramped and slow, doorways were crowded while the decks were clear, stuff like that—often kinks that can be worked out.
But I was reminded of our folly for chasing the brand-spanking-new at a recent cocktail party for the Princess Grace Foundation held at the St. Regis Hotel. Their second floor wood-paneled rooms are as nice as anything in New York. The staff is career, not actors. You can walk or take the elevators. Even when the room is crowded, the seasoned waiters carefully make their way around. Hors d'oeuvres are hot. The foundation was feted by its 2004 crown sponsor, Ciribelli jewelers, and as a result celebrity models were wearing black and other exotically colored diamonds. But it was done in a tasteful, low-key way. Ageless and gracious model Roshumba worked the room, while eyeing the vitrines herself for a necklace to borrow the next night.
Predictably, an element of crassness was provided by The Apprentice in the form of contestant Ereka Vetrini. She apparently resisted the organizers' dress suggestions and chose jeans and a revealing top. This did highlight (in addition to the obvious) one limitation of a pretty, old-world hotel like the St. Regis: If your guests don't have the right look, the effect can be a bit diluted.
Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., in 2003. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For another take:
Read our regular coverage of the Costume Institute gala...
Read our regular coverage of the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List party...
By Ted Kruckel