Back to the Couture

Social navigation requires a geisha’s wiles, so it was startling to hear Nan Kempner speak her mind about the $3,500 dinner ticket that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is charging for its April 28 Costume Institute Benefit-the opening night of its Goddess exhibit, which, according to the museum’s press release, will examine the way that “classical dress has profoundly inspired and influenced art and fashion through the millennia.”

“What the hell, I might as well be honest,” Ms. Kempner said by phone. “I just think it’s terribly expensive, and I’ve been doing this party for God knows how many years.” Ms. Kempner said that she’d been at it since the 70′s-including the Diana Vreeland years-and her name appears on the current list of benefit committee members. “It’s always been fun and attractive, but it seems to me it’s gotten a little out of hand,” she said.

What did Ms. Kempner mean by “out of hand”? When asked if she meant that the ticket price seemed ostentatious against the backdrop of the war in Iraq and our foundering economy, she brushed that aside. “I think it was all planned before the war and the economy, and I don’t think it has anything to do with taste or judgment. I just think it has to do with interest, and it has to do with desire to go,” she said. “Who knows? Maybe it’s Seventh Avenue blackmail. It’s the old story: People love to see and be seen, and I guess if you have to pay that much to do so …. “

Yet looking at the list of committee members- Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, Gucci Group creative director Tom Ford and Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman are co-chairing the event, and the benefit committee includes actor Tom Hanks, designer Donatella Versace, hip-hop impresario Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and his interior-designer wife Mica, apple-cheeked actress Renée Zellweger, and model Stephanie Seymour and her art-collecting husband Peter Brant-I told Ms. Kempner there didn’t seem to be too many on that list who couldn’t afford the price tag.

“Well, exactly,” she said, “but maybe it’s the same group of people that get asked to everything and feel they want to support everything, and sometimes maybe it gets a little out of hand.”

But the Costume Institute gala has always been different. It’s the last truly grand public ball in New York, the “Party of the Year,” the last photograph-worthy benefit that would have pleased Wharton and Vreeland, not to mention Avedon. There isn’t much in New York anymore, not for the classy, statuesque and exhibitionistic; not for layered class arrangement that combines media, society and fashion. When New York was sucking in the wealth-power-narcissism cocktail of the 90′s, nothing seemed more natural than the Costume Institute gala, with its bracing onslaught of celebrity and style, as Puff Daddy and Gwyneth Paltrow flowered alongside Ms. Kempner, Carolina Herrera and Ms. Wintour. New York was creating a new society consistent with its new affluence.

Two years ago, the Met went deep by using its most accessible available legend, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as the center of a traffic-stopping exhibit and the gala. The trouble is, New York has a weak bench right now. Ms. Wintour is the real thing, there’s no question about that: With her Nefertiti eternality and an emotional adjustment to post-90′s above-chill human contact, the Vogue editor is shimmying up to near-legend status. She even has had a novel written about her, which-good or bad-puts her in Blackgama territory. In December 1999, she had photos of Mick Jagger above her crowd at the Met in a white suit with a white Kangol hat-the last display of jolting glamour before the millennium, the crash and the deflation of New York.

Now it’s 2003, and the choice of theme for the resurrection of the big party is “Goddess.” The idea of “Goddess” in New York City in this decade seems fraught and a little wishful. For one thing, New Yorkers-and Americans in general-have been less in a Dionysian than a Mars-like mode in the past year.

The ingredients seem to be in place for the party as massive marketing event, as only a gigantic fashion conglomerate paired with its co-dependent ally, a giant media conglomerate (Gucci is underwriting the event with, according to press materials, “additional support” from Condé Nast), can throw. But the event’s organizers certainly are aware of what’s at stake. “I think everyone at the museum is sensitive to global events and to not in any way making the event look inappropriate,” Ms. Wintour told me by phone. “I do feel that the museum and the trustees expect us to be … not over the top and opulent, but still I think people are ready to go out and have a party.”

And the Vogue editor observed that Mr. Ford, with whom she is working, “has a very minimal aesthetic anyway.

“It’s not his sensibility to do things very grandiose or lavish. So, I think we’re all completely on the same page with this.” In terms of details, she said, “we’re thinking of using cherry blossoms because those are in flower at that time, and just doing things that are very optimistic and in tune with the season, and hopefully in tune with the theme of the show. And we have our own favorite goddess coming.”

That would be Ms. Kidman?

“What else can you ask for?” Ms. Wintour said.

Diana Ross, if you’re Mr. Ford. The former Supreme is scheduled to perform a few numbers for the dinner crowd and, after her much-publicized D.U.I. arrest video escapade late last year, will add a frisson of lawlessness to a party populated by those who tend to travel in chauffeured Town Cars. Ms. Wintour said that Mr. Ford’s idea to have her perform was “genius, because his [last fashion] show was a little bit of an homage to Diana Ross. And he had it on the soundtrack, and we also wanted someone that was a music goddess.” (Mr. Ford did not respond to requests for an interview.) “And we just couldn’t think of anyone that could be better.” Ashanti will perform for the after-dinner crowd.

The after-dinner tickets will cost $250-which, according to Emily Rafferty, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs, are $50 less than the equivalent tickets were in 2001. “That’s in recognition of the economic reality of the times,” she said, adding that many of the people who attend that after-party are younger workers in fashion and other fields that haven’t fared well in the current economy.

And as Harold Holzer, the vice president for communications and marketing, noted, the price for dinner tickets has remained the same since 2001. Prior to that, they were $2,500.

“I think people understand that this is a museum with 18 different curatorial departments,” Mr. Holzer said. “One of those museums is the Costume Institute, which has fund-raising requirements to maintain its exhibition schedule and scholarly work and one of the most fragile collections in the building. So it’s a huge and expensive task. It’s not only a job, but a responsibility that the museum assumes on behalf of the public. So we can’t very well say that the major source of revenue for one of our museums within the museum has to be shut down at any given time.”

Save Ms. Wintour and the giant, chilly visages of Christy Turlington smiling down from every other Ann Taylor window, we’ve burned through a lot of gods and goddesses since the century turned. We won’t even bring them up now; it would only make you sad. Back in the 90′s, the complaint was that the Meritocracy had hijacked the Costume Institute gala from Society’s Old Guard-and the residue of that sentiment can be found in Ms. Kempner’s comments-but at a moment in which the Bush administration is trying to effect a New World Order, it’s only a matter of time before that trickles down into our culture.

And we’re already seeing the beginnings of it. The rise of the Meritocracy is the reason that Madonna can be found on this year’s benefit committee-just a few years ago, ;the thought of it would have provoked a revolt among the museum’s trustees. But the symbolism is muted because, right now, so is Madonna. The onetime queen of culture shock-her Sex book came out when people were still surprised by that kind of thing, in 1992 B.C. (Before Clinton)-has gone from being the duchess of brusque statement to the queen of sensitivity, pulling her “American Life” video, according to a statement released by her camp, “due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for,” and because “I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”

It’s unclear whether Madonna will attend the Costume Institute gala-her publicist, Liz Rosenberg, did not return a call to her office-but there will be plenty more like her at the party, and that’s why it should mark a very interesting moment in the city’s cultural history. Not only because this really is the first Oscars-caliber party in New York since Sept. 11, one presided over by both Ms. Wintour and the forces of Condé Nast as well as Mr. Ford and the forces of Gucci, with a little help from the giggly and weepy Ms. Kidman. This is also the night when Manhattan’s elite will either see the end of an era-one that would fit in with the Directoire and Empire-period gowns that will be among those on display-or the beginning of a new one.

“It was a very nice personal party for many, many years,” said Ms. Kempner. “And everybody was interested in fashion and interested in seeing each other and interested in seeing the show and interested in having it be a success-and, well, I just haven’t really talked to anybody about it, so I don’t really know …. I just don’t feel as if I really have any part of this, except to put up my money and go.

And then Ms. Kempner said: “I just feel that it’s gotten … along with most of society, it’s become an event.”

The Met has what sounds like perfectly legitimate reasons for charging what it’s charging for a ticket to this year’s gala, and we’ll get to them in a moment. But in the dissonance of Ms. Kempner’s comments-and while she’s alone on this page, she’s not alone in her perspective-lies the first big clue that the Costume Institute gala is going to be an important event to witness this year. And not just as a celebrity head count. In the two years since the last one was thrown, the city has endured Sept. 11-the last Costume Institute event was canceled because of it-and the war in Iraq, not to mention an economic swamp-gas effect that is still going strong.

The city’s social scene and benefit circuit has carried on, but in a muted and conflicted state. It’s hard to tell what New York needs more right now-philanthropy or glamour. Denied of either, we become Albany. But, as Ms. Kempner’s comments indicate, the city’s deep pockets are feeling hassled and, judging from the Oscars, our celebrities are wary.

And rightfully so. The question is, which will it be?

According to Mr. Holzer, the post–Sept. 11 interruption was the first interruption in the Costume Institute Benefit in more than 50 years.

“Obviously, after 9/11, there were exigent circumstances that suggested this was a time to pause.” But, he added, “the pause can’t continue forever, or the work won’t be able to continue forever. And that’s the rationale for doing the event.

Mr. Holzer added that it’s worth noting, and it might even be particularly relevant at this moment, that “this is not a monographic show about a designer,” as past Costume Institute benefits have been. “It’s a show about how surviving classical antiquity has informed and inspired design,” he explained. “And having just seen the loss of almost an entire heritage of classical antiquity”-he was referring to the artifacts that had been looted from the Baghdad museums in the days following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime-”having seen it possibly disappear forever, it’s not an inappropriate moment to remember how antiquity can inform and inspire today.”

And maybe, in the form of a social setting, it can jump-start a city. Ms. Rafferty said that there’s already a waiting list for the 750 to 800 dinner seats, and that ticket sales for the after-party were “on par” with the last event.

“We want to give everybody a really good time and to celebrate fashion, which is what we’re doing that night. And I just hope it has a very optimistic feel to it,” Ms. Wintour said.

Given that the media were reporting that the worst of the fighting was over and that the business of establishing a government in Iraq had begun, I asked Ms. Wintour if maybe the city could breathe a bit.

“Well, the Pentagon’s saying that, and I believe them. And I think that people are ready to go out. We did this event two years ago in spring, and it was a real sense of New York society coming together, and it was an opportunity to put on a wonderful new dress and just celebrate and celebrate an incredible institution. And raise money for something that we believe is very much a part of New York’s cultural life.

“And when you see Nicole’s dress”-which Ms. Wintour said was top secret-”everyone’s going to drop dead anyway.”