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The Met Gala is still going on

  • Jessica Testa, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-14 10:53:56 BdST

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Storm Reid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala in New York, Sept 13, 2021. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

To make up for a Met Gala-less 2020, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vogue are staging two Met Galas in the next nine months, both corresponding with exhibits around the theme of American fashion. The first is Monday; the second will be in May 2022.

The dress code for Monday night’s gala is “American Independence.” That likely meant lots of red carpet looks by American brands, plus maybe some star-spangled skirts and Statues of Liberty on the carpet. (No one ever said dress code interpretation was subtle.)

Not very many Met Gala guests would wear their outfits again, in the real world, outside of fashion fantasyland. It’s a sign of how peacocky the annual event has become.

But Ella Emhoff would. Her top priority walking on the Met Museum carpet was comfort. She knew it was going to be a long night, and she didn’t want to wear something that made her feel like someone else.

“I’m someone who’s really passionate about comfort,” said Emhoff, who defines her personal style as sporty. (The potential guest she’s most eager to meet in person? The Formula One driver and fashion enthusiast Lewis Hamilton.) “Even though this is the Met, everyone is allowed to still feel comfortable in their own skin, their own style,” she said. “There’s no playbook to how you dress to this.”

That’s not to say she’s wearing a pandemic-era sweatsuit. Her look, by Stella McCartney for Adidas, is traffic-light red from head to toe, with a diamond mesh bodysuit, oversize high-shine paper-bag-waist trousers, and platform sneakers (“so I still get to feel like a tall legend,” she said) partially made from recycled materials.

“It’s definitely something I would wear in my own day-to-day life,” Emhoff said, speaking by phone Monday afternoon, having just finished her hair and makeup. “It makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin, in this environment that I’m not really used to.”

McCartney, who won’t be in attendance at the gala this year, is a somewhat unexpected choice for Emhoff, a 22-year-old recent Parsons graduate who designs her own knitwear, and who signed as a model with IMG last year, following a stylish viral appearance at the inauguration of her stepmother, Vice President Kamala Harris.

The theme of the Met Gala is American independence, and Emhoff has been seen in the last week sitting front row at several fashion shows for emerging New York designers. But several guests are expected to be dressed by Europeans, and McCartney’s status as a British icon didn’t much factor into Emhoff’s decision. She was more concerned with working with someone who aligned with her, creatively and morally. McCartney has long been known for her sustainable production and advocacy against animal cruelty.

Emhoff, in her own designs, wants to emulate that. She’ll also be the face of an Adidas by Stella McCartney campaign this fall.

Billie Eilish Sets a Condition for Her Dress: No More Fur

In the context of red carpets, it may seem strange to imagine that wearing a ballgown is a risky choice. But that’s how Billie Eilish saw it.

When Eilish, the 19-year-old goth pop star, decided to wear a nude tulle dress from Oscar de la Renta, “she was very interested in surprising everybody with a look she hasn’t done before,” said Fernando Garcia, a creative director for the label, describing the dress as “very clean and sensual.”

“It felt like a risk for her — it felt like something that made her nervous in a good way,” he said. “At the end of the day, she’s a girl, and she wants to look pretty.”

Eilish has never before worn Oscar de la Renta on a red carpet. She’s more of a logo fiend, opting historically for oversize and monochromatic pants-and-jacket sets by Gucci, Burberry and Chanel, and occasionally matching her clothes to her black-and-neon-green hair.

Except that Eilish’s hair hasn’t looked like that for quite some time. This summer, she introduced a new blond bombshell mien on the cover of British Vogue, wearing pink lingerie and nude latex. In her Met Gala debut, she sought out another traditionally feminine aesthetic, providing Oscar de la Renta with reference images of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe during the design process.

“She was super excited to wear a beautiful gown,” said Laura Kim, the label’s other creative director — a statement that would have been somewhat unbelievable two years ago. But when she stepped on the museum’s red carpet Monday night as the youngest ever co-chair of the gala, Eilish looked every bit the glamorous starlet.

Her corseted gown had a gargantuan skirt with a 15-foot train. Seeing Eilish in such a grown-up ensemble, it’s easy to forget that she is still a teenager. When she first met the designers, she brought her mom, who took so many photos that her phone froze, Kim said.

Eilish is also perhaps the only Met Gala guest in history to elicit an ethical policy change from a company as a condition of wearing its gown to fashion’s version of the Super Bowl. Oscar de la Renta will terminate all fur sales at the urging of Eilish, who is a vegan and animal welfare activist.

Garcia and Kim haven’t used fur in their designs for a few years now — ever since they told Alex Bolen, the brand’s chief executive, that they didn’t find fur chic, modern or relevant. Bolen disagreed, he said, but told them it was fine to stop using fur on the runway. The company still sold fur products in stores, however. While declining to provide figures, Bolen said fur made up a “meaningful amount of sales and profit” for Oscar de la Renta.

For years, Bolen has fielded pleas to stop using fur — including from his wife, Eliza, a longtime executive at the company, and his mother-in-law, Annette de la Renta (widow to Oscar), who told him the practice was barbaric.

Bolen mulled over but ultimately resisted these calls, until this summer, when Eilish’s team informed the company that she doesn’t work with brands in the fur business. He realised it might be the right time to stop.

“I thought a lot about what Oscar said — he was a big fan of fur, by the way — that the one thing he really worried about in the fashion business was his eye getting old,” Bolen said. It reminded him to listen to what young people, in particular, had to say. “I have to surround myself with people with different points of view.”

Eilish said in a statement to The New York Times that she found it “shocking that wearing fur isn’t completely outlawed at this point in 2021,” and “I’m honoured to have been a catalyst and to have been heard on this matter.”

ASAP Rocky Is a Quilted Teddy Bear

When ASAP Rocky asked Eli Russell Linnetz if he could visit the young designer’s studio, Linnetz was somewhat reluctant. His space is “very private,” he said, tucked away in Venice Beach, California, isolated from the fashion world.

But the New York rapper showed genuine interest in the label, ERL — and he was “the sweetest, most charismatic person,” Linnetz said, which the designer found refreshing. He had spent a few years in the music industry, directing music videos for Kanye West and creating sets for Lady Gaga, before leaving so that he “could go and create something like authentic,” he said. Now he’s considered one of fashion’s next big things.

When it came to the Met Gala, ASAP Rocky knew right away that he wanted to wear a giant quilt from ERL’s spring 2022 collection. In the look book for that collection, it’s worn by a woman like a giant shawl, enveloping and forming a train around her.

“He was, like, ‘I want that,’” Linnetz said.

For the Met Gala, Linnetz designed a custom version using scraps of fabric and antique quilts sewn back together, including a few personal effects, like his dad’s bathrobe. He commissioned a quilter in North Carolina, Zak Foster, who specialises in memory quilts — that is, quilts made from someone’s old clothing, often for families in mourning.

“I was intrigued by that concept, as something very American,” he said. “I didn’t think much about the theme other than that, just because I feel like everything I do is closely related to Americana.” Linnetz will have one of his pieces, a recreation of an antique baseball uniform, displayed in the Met exhibition.

Linnetz recognises the Met Gala as a big moment for his small label, and speaking on Zoom about a week before the event, he was still working on being comfortable with that.

“I dreamed about dressing someone, but I was kind of torn,” he said. “I felt like maybe it’s nice to just keep your head down and work and focus and not get caught up in that. I created ERL to get away from all this music industry celebrity kind of stuff.”

Several Met Gala guests ended up asking to be dressed by ERL, Linnetz said, but in the end he wanted to “focus on someone that I actually am like friends with, and believe in, and is just a nice person.”

Simone Biles Is a Showgirl

It may be useful, when trying to comprehend the work that went into gymnast Simone Biles’ Met Gala dress — a showgirl-inspired satin gown with crystal embroidery that mimics feathers — to know the numbers.

The gown was made by Area, a New York label designed by Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk, who said the embellishment took about 6,650 hours and 100 workers, including beaders, quality checkers and packers.

It used more than 17,000 feet of Swarovski glass crystal chains and nearly 200 feet of tulle. The dress weighs 98 pounds, the designers said, which is close to the weight of the woman wearing it; fortunately, Biles has superhuman strength. (Although the skirt is detachable, worn over a knitted night-sky bodysuit, and Biles is expected to shed it before she sits down for dinner inside the museum.)

Area, an independent label, has remained relatively small since it was founded in 2014, despite earning significant industry recognitions, like being named a finalist for the 2016 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and a semifinalist for the LVMH Prize in 2020. The designers said they had not expected that they would ever dress one of the world’s most famous athletes — a pairing proposed by Vogue — on fashion’s biggest stage.

“It wasn’t even on our radar that we would be invited, to be honest,” Fogg said. The invitation came personally via email from Tom Ford, the CFDA chairman.

Panszczyk said Biles’ gown was inspired by the concept of performance — particularly the designers’ desire to reveal the work that goes into performances like Biles’ gymnastics routines, which require intense control and power in order to appear so seamless and graceful.

“People are all about entertainment, but they don’t really understand the craftsmanship that actually goes into something before it’s even entertainment,” Panszczyk said. Not unlike a gown that comes across as pretty and shiny in an online slideshow but took thousands of hours of meticulous handcrafted work.

Still, Area didn’t want to lean too far into athleticism; simply nodding to it was enough. Biles, whose sponsor Athleta collaborated with the Area designers, has worn plenty of sparkling unitards and not enough sparkling evening gowns. The designers also looked for inspiration in archival images of Josephine Baker, the Black entertainer and activist.

“Especially with Simone, I think it’s beautiful to create something so strong from something so delicate and beautiful,” Fogg said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company