Inside the DKMS Gala: Vera Wang, Billy Porter and Priyanka Chopra Honor an Important Cause

This year’s DKMS Gala was a starry affair for fashion’s elite.

17th Annual DKMS Gala
Billy Porter performs onstage during the 17th Annual DKMS Gala at Cipriani Wall Street. Getty Images for DKMS Gala

On Thursday morning, fashion icon Vera Wang spoke at Vogue’s Forces of Fashion conference, an annual brouhaha that brings together the chicest and spiffiest insider’s to discuss life’s most important facet: style. Okay, that’s hyperbole—but it’s still up there. “I was there since 11 am today,” Wang, who worked at Vogue for nearly two decades before eventually going on to found her eponymous brand, told Observer.

Trekking from the conference headquarters at Vogue’s One World Trade Center offices, Wang did a quick change and made a beeline to Cipriani Wall Street for another paramount initiative. Though, this one lacks that aforementioned hyperbole, as the DKMS Gala is a black-tie affair to raise cash and awareness for the vital organization. 

DKMS is an acronym for the Deutsche Knochenmarkspenderdatei. And no, I just didn’t randomly hit letters on my keyboard. From German to English, that translates to German Bone Marrow Donor Center, which bills itself as one of most significant non-profit organizations in the world to fight blood cancer by finding and matching stem cell donors with patients. 

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vera wang at 2023 DKMS Gala
Vera Wang. Getty Images

For Wang, the annual gala has turned into a permanent date on her calendar. “I remember my first DKMS event,” Wang recalled. “I think it was in a much smaller venue, and it’s gotten larger, larger and larger every year. I’ve been awarded here at least twice already, but it’s hard to remember the first one and where it was. I feel honored to be here.”

This year’s gala, which took place on the evening of October 19, was a starry affair for fashion’s elite. Flashbulbs pop as Priyanka Chopra Jonas struts down the red carpet. Model Niki Taylor also makes an appearance, as does Marc Jacobs.

Marc Jacobs and Niki Taylor at 17th Annual DKMS Gala
Marc Jacobs and Niki Taylor. Getty Images for DKMS Gala

Model Coco Rocha, wearing a dress from the designer Sukeina, had a busy day, while still making time for the gala. “Today, I was just taking care of my three children, and I had to be here to support a fellow mom,” Rocha told Observer, referring to DKMS’ U.S. executive chairwoman Katharina Harf, who runs the organization with her father, Coty executive chairman Peter Harf. “But this is a fellow mom who saves lives. This event does more than good. I remember meeting Katharina on a photoshoot 10 years ago and her explaining what she does.”

Wang echoes that sentiment about Harf. “She’s the real thing,” said Wang. “She’s been steadfast in her determination to erase blood cancer. It’s from her heart and soul.”

Priyanka Chopra Jonas at 2023 DKMS Gala
Priyanka Chopra Jonas. WireImage

What endears names like Wang and Rocha to Harf is the heartrending story that led Harf to this philanthropic endeavor. A little over three decades ago, her mother, Mechtild, was diagnosed with leukemia. All the family needed to do was find a donor with a perfect genetic match. “At that time, there were only 3,000 registered donors in Germany,” Harf said later that night. With that, her family began an expansive search while helping expand the registry; they logged 50,000 donors in a year. Sadly, none of them were a perfect match, and Harf’s mother eventually passed from the disease in 1991. “As hard as it was, she was and remains our inspiration to keep fighting so other people don’t have to go through the pain we experienced,” Harf said. To date, DKMS has registered 12 million donors and subsequently found matches for 110,000 of them.

“Her mother’s passing affected her to such an extent that she’s still at it,” Wang said. “So I have great respect for Katharina.” 

17th Annual DKMS Gala
Coco Rocha. Getty Images for DKMS Gala

Wang was honored at this event in the past; this year’s gala honoree was Sue Nabi, the L’Oreal veteran who serves as the chief executive officer at Coty. Along with an impassioned performance from the New York City Gospel Choir, the evening also included Billy Porter gracing the stage as the night’s entertainment, taking the microphone by saying the most Billy Porter thing possible: “You all look fierce tonight,” he proclaimed. “I’m elated to be here, because I believe life is about being positive. It’s about choosing to be joyful and choosing to be empowering.” 

True to his word, Porter performed his latest single: the anthemic, disco-tinged anthem “Children (What Time Is It)” from his album Black Mona Lisa, which drops in November. 

17th Annual DKMS Gala
The New York City Gospel Choir performs onstage. Getty Images for DKMS Gala

But aside from Porter’s performance and an appearance by the comedian-actor Mario Cantone, the gala’s most stunning moment was when attendees were told about a young girl, Miley Attocknie, who needed a stem cell transplant due to leukemia during the pandemic. Through the work of DKMS, she found her perfect match from Kayla West, a woman who was swabbed for her stem cells at a music festival, and Miley’s life was saved. “She is like a mother,” Attocknie said of West, who she had never met. Leave it to Harf to have them meet for the very first time, on stage; the trio stunned by the emotion of the moment.

“How does it feel?” she asked Attocknie. “It feels good,” she replied, at a loss for words. Attocknie’s emotions matched a crowd already in full tears.  

17th Annual DKMS Gala
Miley Attocknie, Katharina Harf and Kayla West. Getty Images for DKMS Gala

“Katharina lives for this event,” Rocha later told Observer. “And to save even more and more people.”

Inside the DKMS Gala: Vera Wang, Billy Porter and Priyanka Chopra Honor an Important Cause