On the eve of the release of The First Monday in May, Rachel Marie Walsh checks out the behind the scenes documentary that reveals the inner workings of fashion’s coolest events.
A new documentary on the annual Costume Institute exhibition and gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Anna Wintour at her best.
Every year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts fashion’s equivalent of the Superbowl, with the front steps receiving a finer parade of red-carpet couture than the Academy Awards.
The Met Gala opens an exhibition at the Costume Institute, the fashion department. Profits from both events supply the Institute’s operating budget for the following year.
Potential for glamour and drama is guaranteed.
A new fly-on-wall documentary is about to be released, directed by Andrew Rossi, best known for the 2011 New York Times behind-the-scenes Page One.
The First Monday in May is a gentle but fun look at the making of the exhibition and the party that gets it a star-powered spotlight.
The Gala has been an annual fundraising dinner for 68 years, though it only became a major night for fashion after former Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland began consulting in 1973.
Since Anna Wintour became a Met trustee and Gala co-chair in 1995, the event’s become a galaxy of stars.
Luminaries of fashion, film, music, sports and society share tables and compete for the title of ‘Best Dressed’.
You do still see older columnists bemoaning the celeb-culture infiltration of such an elegant event in print but really, the world’s problems vastly overshadow the sight of Kanye in jeans at a black-tie affair. His jacket was Givenchy couture.
The First Monday in May has the arc of any contemporary fashion documentary and indeed most reality TV shows.
We’re presented immediately with protagonists Andrew Bolton, the exhibition’s curator, and Anna Wintour, Vogue Editor-in-Chief.
His focus is solely on the exhibition, while hers extends to the meticulous planning of the Gala or the Costume Institute Benefit, to give it its proper name.
They explain the stakes (China: Through the Looking Glass is their most ambitious exhibition yet and they want its impact to surpass that of 2011’s super-successful Alexander McQueen:Savage Beauty), and we track the project’s development from photo-covered cubicle wall to 30,000 square foot spectacular.
There is a potential etiquette crisis (expressed by a Chinese journalist who fears the exhibition’s cultural representations are regressive), followed by time pressure.
It all culminates in a glamorous spectacular everyone knows is coming because it happened last year.
The ‘B plot,’ if you can call it that, is the old but ongoing debate over whether high fashion is art (as distinct from one of the decorative arts), and therefore whether the Costume Institute deserves respect on a par with that shown to the museum’s other departments.
The Institute’s cast of characters’ view is, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly supportive of couture’s elevation in this regard.
“It’s laden with concept, aesthetic principles, the most refined techniques. Every [test] we subject the criterion of art to. We’re about clothing as artworks,” says Curator-in-Charge Harold Koda.
The fashion designers interviewed (John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld), however, are to a man self-deprecating and demur at the suggestion they are artists.
There is no villain in this piece.
Anna Wintour is an even more sympathetic character than she was in RJ Cutler’s The September Issue, decisive and surrounded by fast-talking Vogue-ians with whom she has entertaining rapport.
The scene in which she and Contributing Editor André Leon Talley watch her daughter (her date for the Gala) select a dress is especially cute; she looks like she might burst with pride.
She is praised for fusing high fashion and celebrity to boost the Costume Institute’s profile by both Koda and Baz Luhrmann, the Gala’s Creative Consultant.
In an awkward encounter with a CNN journalist who asks about her Devil Wears Prada characterisation, her polite resignation to the ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotype makes you think the author must have taken a couple of brief observations and extrapolated wildly.
The film is also great promotion for US Vogue as a brand.
Her team comes across as charming and down-to-earth as they tackle everything from cutting the cost of hosting Rihanna and her entourage (initially hinted to be in the hundreds of thousands) to matching celebrities with the designers who will dress them.
Andrew Bolton, if you aren’t already aware of him, is the film’s break-out star.
Now living his American dream, as a fashion-obsessed teenager in Leicester he told his career guidance counsellor he wanted to be Curator at the Met’s Costume Institute.
He not only achieved this in 2006 but succeeded Harold Koda in January.
The exhibition is his vision and he gets the most screen time. China: Through The Looking Glass is about designers’ interpretations of the country through fashion rather than contemporary China or China’s fashion history.
The “Looking Glass” is the prism of their imaginations.
The exhibition includes a lot of Chinese art (as examples of source) and some Chinese designers, but most of the couture is from Europe and New York.
So we see, for example, a cobalt-blue dragon adorning both an exquisite fifteenth-century Ming storage jar and a strapless cobalt-and-white silk-satin evening gown by Roberto Cavalli.
Western designers interpretations are partially informed by fantasy. Alice entered a world that was fictional and some designers’ perceptions of China, too, developed divorced from reality.
Film fired the imagination in the pre-internet era and Bolton calls it the filter between the Chinese art and Western fashion, providing either direct or metaphorical influence. Modern productions like Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, which visibly affected Tom Ford’s work at Yves Saint Laurent, are the result of real cross-cultural co-operation, but early 20th century portrayals of Chinese women in film are not at all politically correct.
Anna May Wong, a Hollywood starlet of the Thirties and Forties who played Chinese stereotypes (either the retiring ‘Lotus Blossom’ or the formidable ‘Dragon Lady’), is Bolton’s vehicle for explaining the delicate and dramatic pieces her films inspired in designers.
Wong Kar-Wei, director of the stylish Hong Kong export In The Mood For Love, was brought in as the exhibition’s artistic head, and goes to Beijing with Bolton and Wintour to preview and promote it in the months before the opening.
Both he and Silas Chou, the Hong Kong textile mogul and a Gala Honorary Chair, gently butt heads with Bolton over plans they view as potentially offensive, such as the placement of a Maoist jacket in a Buddha-focused gallery, which Bolton argues makes intellectual sense because of the deification of Mao in China.
Moreover, he thinks a little controversy and provocation is no bad thing.
In any event, I find it hard to believe he could have caused major outrage without losing a lot of funding because this exhibition would not have happened on such a scale without some Chinese bankrolling.
The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2015 that Chou, along with co-chair Wendi Deng Murdoch, were instrumental in securing donations mentioned repeatedly in the presentation literature.
Asian Art Department Curator-in-Charge Maxwell K. Hearn said Chinese donors clearly “see this very high-profile exhibition as something they want to be associated with,” which reflects China’s apparent desire to see and be seen as players in high fashion.
Those exhibited designers still living regularly dress Chinese film stars and socialites for the red carpet.
Sat front row in European capitals during fashion month, Chinese buyers are from footwear to jewellery the most likely to be wearing entire catwalk looks.
Chinese visitors are the Met’s largest foreign audience, accounting for some 12% of international visitors in 2015.
The museum went where the money is, with plenty of Chinese support. But Rossi knows the giant green hand at fashion’s tiny waist is not nearly quixotic enough to please this film’s couture-hungry audience.
So we travel to Paris with Bolton to view pieces he plans to borrow from the Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 ‘China and Opium’ collection.
We see him adjusting the skirts of mannequins wearing Alexander McQueen and unsheathing Gaultier and Ralph Lauren designs.
Then there are the exclusive shots of the Gala’s celebrity guests, which include a conversation between André Leon Talley and the Wests, Justin Bieber singing to Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing and a front row view of Rihanna’s dinner-time performance.
The documentary film crew’s discretion won them several moments of unselfconscious delight.
Michael Kors flipping out over looks from Galliano’s Spring 2003 ‘China’ collection for Dior; Gaultier explaining details of McQueen designs to Alicia Keyes and Galliano greeting one of his own archive pieces “like a lost child” are great, but so is the awed reaction of the public, shown post-gala and pre-closing credits.
As for Bolton’s professed desire to top the commercial and critical response (The New York Times’s specifically) to Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, we learn that China made more money and was the museum’s fifth most viewed exhibition ever, beating McQueen’s eighth.
The NYT’s write-up of China, by Holland Cotter, is lukewarm and not referenced in the documentary.
No matter, Bolton has only himself to compete with and the exhibitions get more fabulous with each try.
The First Monday in May opens at selected cinemas on September 30
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved