How the $75,000-a-ticket Met Gala became more about money and less about fashion

Anna Wintour
Armstrong: 'Wintour may be a divisive character, but she's one hell of a business woman' - Taylor Hill/Getty
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Last year’s Met Ball cost around £6 million to stage and raised £22 million. Profits went to the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, once a faintly dusty institution which even its then curator, Harold Korda, described as a “benign tumour”, so overlooked was it by the Met’s loftier, “purer” arts departments.

Then along came Anna Wintour in 1995 with a vision – for the Institute, which has since been renamed after her, but more importantly, for the accompanying party, which has long since eclipsed any fashion exhibitions the institute mounts.

You can’t argue with money in New York. The Met Ball has become less and less about clothes – a number of guests on Monday evening looked as though they weren’t wearing any, others weren’t wearing them in the conventional sense – and increasingly about money (“the big brands”) and power (Anna Wintour’s).

US actress Greta Lee arrives for the 2024 Met Gala
US actress Greta Lee arrives for the 2024 Met Gala - AFP

The brands decide whether they want to stump up $75,000 for a single ticket and at least $350,000 for a table. And it’s Wintour who decides just about everything else. Brands pay; she okays who they bring. And they fall into line – mostly (in 2014, Madonna posted her first choice of Met outfit on social media, explaining Wintour had rejected it).

The event itself lasts little more than an hour – the celebrities arrive in hierarchical order, least to most famous, meaning the A-listers spend less time milling around. A short dinner, and a cursory glance at the corresponding exhibition, then it’s off to the after-parties.

Wintour may be a divisive character, but she’s one hell of a business woman. “There is not one single deed, look or gesture that isn’t transactional at the Met,” a seasoned reporter tells me.

Take the invitation of Jeff Bezos’s fiancée, Lauren Sanchez. Until five minutes ago, the woman was ridiculed by the entire industry – just as the Kardashians were before Wintour finally allowed Kim Kardashain a ticket in 2013, once she was aligned with Kanye West and had become too big to ignore. (Kanye, by the way, is not allowed these days).

Lauren Sanchez wears Oscar de la Renta to the 2024 Met Ball
Lauren Sanchez wears Oscar de la Renta to the 2024 Met Ball - AFP

Wintour, who seems happy having certain celebrities dress as fools in order to encourage clicks, orchestrated Sanchez’s perfectly fine Oscar de la Renta gown for the evening, thus ensuring she would be seen as a viable fashion person. Why? According to New York Magazine, she’s keen on the idea of Sanchez’s husband-to-be, Jeff Bezos, acquiring Condé Nast.

Entry to the Met equals entry to the fashion world, which then turns on the money tap. Brands will court you to become one of their ambassadors. If you’re one already, their data retrieval programmes will trawl the internet to measure how many times your photograph is used by media outlets to check their Return on Investment.

It’s not just actors and musicians who stand to benefit. Make-up and hair artists shill the products they use to prep their clients on Instagram in the hope of a contract. And boy are there plenty of products (Kim Kardashian told US Vogue that she’d spent 14 hours just getting her hair dyed blonde for the 2022 Met Gala). One veteran of several Mets tells me it would take her two days solid to get ready, “and that was back in the day, before it got this crazy. And I’m not even a celebrity. By the time you’ve started with the eyebrow microblading, progressed through the fake tanning, the $3000 facials to actual hair and make up, it’s a solid 48 hours.”

Kim Kardashian lost 21lb to fit her 2022 Met Gala dress
Kim Kardashian lost 21lb to fit her 2022 Met Gala dress - Getty

That’s a gross underestimation if you want to shed some weight as well, although Ozempic has fine-tuned that side of things substantially. (If TikTok, a sometime Met Ball sponsor, does get banned in the US, how long before Ozempic’s invited to co-sponsor?). For that same ball that required all that peroxide, Kim Kardashian lost 21lb to squeeze into a beaded, Bob Mackie sheath dress which Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade JFK in 1962. Kardashian was only at the ball for 20 minutes or so. That’s not the point. The pictures went viral. Their pixels will probably still be twitching when everything else is dust.

You can’t say KK’s not dedicated to pleasing Wintour. There are reports she was struggling to breathe in this year’s look – a teeny-tiny fitted Margiela dress. Tyla, a South African singer, had to be carried up the stairs by several bodyguards because her ‘sand sculpture’, Perspex Balmain dress lacked the ease of LuluLemon. At least people are talking about her.

Kim Kardashian wears a fitted Margiela dress to this year's Met Gala
Kim Kardashian wears a fitted Margiela dress to this year's Met Gala - Getty
South African singer Tyla wears a 'sand sculpture' Perspex Balmain dress and hourglass handbag to the Met Gala
South African singer Tyla wears a 'sand sculpture' Perspex Balmain dress and hourglass handbag - Getty

If this doesn’t sound like a load of fun, it’s not meant to be. Amy Schumer once said the whole affair “felt like punishment”. Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t a fan either and said in 2013 she wouldn’t be attending again. But in 2019 there she was. Sometimes a celebrity needs to be there if only to prove to themselves that they still exist.

This year’s sponsors must hope that no one is left in any doubt about their existence now. Loewe, helmed by northern Irish designer Jonathan Anderson, was the headliner, dressing a bunch of celebrities and laying claim to a handful of outfits in the exhibition. It’s no coincidence that Anderson also designed the costumes for Challengers – the tennis movie starring Josh O’Connor and Zendaya, out now – which Zendaya, a co-host of the event, is also promoting. It’s all connected.

Zendaya wears Loewe for one of her Met Gala outfits
Zendaya wears Loewe for one of her Met Gala outfits - PA

Given Loewe’s prominent role in proceedings on Monday, its conglomerate holder, LVMH, had a notably more low-key event with its other, much larger brands. Louis Vuitton, for instance, LVMH’s biggest player, didn’t even take a table, and if anyone wore Vuitton on the red carpet, pictures have yet to surface. Chanel had few sightings too – just Sofia Coppola so far. Meanwhile Elizabeth Debicki was the biggest ambassador for Dior, which had a much starrier sweep at the Oscars. There were relatively few Hollywood A-listers too, amidst speculation that the protests at Columbia University, which spilled over onto some streets, was a deterring factor.

Actress Elizabeth Debicki wears Dior to the Met Gala
Actress Elizabeth Debicki was one of the few celebrities wearing Dior - Variety

Others have noted that while the Challengers scheduling was spot on, the general timing of this paean to excess is so off it is almost beyond satire. It’s not only the situation in Gaza. Closer to home, Condé Nast USA has been in embittered negotiations with its unionised staff as it haggles over payments and proposed lay-offs. Late last year, Anne Hathaway walked off a shoot for Vanity Fair, in an apparent show of sympathy with the union. Perhaps other celebrities didn’t want to find themselves in a potential hurricane of other people’s moral outrage, and one organised by a publishing house increasingly viewed as “problematic”.

Yet somehow one insider tells me, “No one wants to p*** off Anna. This very thin white woman stands there judging everyone and no one ever questions it.” Amy Odell, who wrote Anna: The Biography (2022) estimates that Wintour actually approves 80 per cent of the looks that appear on The Met Ball red (or this year, greenish) carpet. Celebrities are happy to go along because studios only pay for stylists when they have a film to hawk. So if AW wants to oversee your look, fine. She may not do it personally but you’ll get a Vogue stylist to help connect you with the important brands of the moment and pull it all together.

Who decides who the important brands are? It’s 100 per cent Wintour’s show. If you’re wondering why a tiny label like Erdem, or Harris Reed, gets a showing, it’s because Wintour’s a fan. She’s why Chloé dressed five celebrities who moved as one the entire night (the clothes looked better grouped than whey would have single); why Balenciaga was seen on several key celebrities (Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts) when so many people won’t touch it because of its association with a child sexualisation scandal in 2022… it’s all the Will of Wintour.

The Chloé girls: Emma Mackey, Greta Gerwig, Chemena Kamali, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana arrive at the ball
The Chloé girls: Emma Mackey, Greta Gerwig, Chemena Kamali, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana arrive at the ball - Anadolu
Nicole Kidman wore Balenciaga to the Met Ball despite its recent brushes with scandal
Nicole Kidman wore Balenciaga to the Met Ball despite the label's recent brushes with scandal - AFP

Same goes for John Galliano, who has largely kept a low profile since his anti-Semitic ravings in 2010. Wintour, by all accounts, is determined to rehabilitate Galliano professionally. Zendaya wore vintage Galliano from one of his Dior collections. The rapper Bad Bunny, wore recent Maison Margiela, the brand Galliano now designs for, including some furry millinery that some have compared to a doormat. (I wonder whether Galliano realised it looked a little like an Orthodox rabbi’s hat?)

So keen is Wintour to promote Galliano, that, according to New York Magazine, she wanted this entire exhibition to be devoted to him. Powerful she may be. But sensitivities to current events are not her strong point. This, together with a lack of A-listers and an abundance of nepo babies, will inevitably spark conversations about how that power is used.

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