Rihanna at the 2015 MET Gala.
For those in the fashion world, the first Monday in May is one of the most important nights of the year. May 1 marks the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, better known as the Met Gala. The lavish benefit for the Costume Institute celebrates the opening of its spring exhibit and is the curatorial department’s main source of annual funding for exhibitions, publications, acquisitions and capital improvements.
The Met Gala is best known for its starry red carpet, daring ensembles (both good and bad) and celebrity antics, such as the infamous elevator incident in 2014 when Solange and Jay Z fought in an elevator while Beyoncé stood by. This year’s exhibition, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” curated by the Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge, Andrew Bolton, is the institute’s first to honor a living designer since 1983.
But the most important night in fashion is also the biggest fundraiser for the Met. Last year’s gala raised approximately $13.5 million and consistently reaps eight-figure sums for the Costume Institute. All proceeds from ticket sales go to the Costume Institute, thanks to donors who sponsor the gala and exhibition.
Brands--and not just fashion labels--clamor to open their wallets for the event. “Brands are struggling to connect. They’re looking for authentic ways to remain relevant as they compete with pop culture to win the mind, heart and hands of their consumers,” says Andrew Au, President of Intercept Group, a marketing agency that targets millennials. The Met Gala is a powerful platform to connect with pop-culture-savvy consumers. “It’s the pinnacle of art, fashion and culture,” he adds. “It’s the who’s who guest list for brands. If your brand plays in this space, you can’t afford not to take part.”
The gala has come a long way from its humble beginnings. In 1948 publicist and fashion figure Eleanor Lambert held the first benefit to support the Costume Institute. The institution, formerly known as the Museum of Costume Art, had merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years earlier and wouldn’t officially become a curatorial department until 1959.
The fundraiser was hailed as the “Party of the Year,” but the event, billed as a “midnight supper,” seems quaint in comparison with today’s extravaganza. In 1960, tickets cost only $100 (about $830 today) and sold out just two weeks prior to the event; an orchestra played music for “fox trots and waltzes.” Tickets to this year’s gala cost $30,000 a pop, and tables run $275,000. As for musical entertainment, Nas and The Weeknd took the stage in 2016.
So, how did this “midnight supper” become the extravaganza it is today? The answer is fashion icon Anna Wintour, Artistic Director of Condé Nast and Editor in Chief of Vogue.
In 1995, socialite Pat Buckley, wife of conservative pundit William F. Buckley, stepped down as the benefit chairwoman and passed the torch to Wintour. Her tenure had an auspicious beginning: For that year’s gala, the $1,000 tickets sold out before the invitations had even been printed.
“I think the success is due to the mix of people involved," Wintour told the New York Times at the time. "It's the whole cast of characters, and there is a certain glamour and sex appeal associated with the haute couture.”
Over Wintour’s two-decade reign, she has raised almost $175 million for the Costume Institute and the gala’s cast has become more star-studded each year. With the exception of Wintour, all of this year’s gala co-chairs made Forbes’ highest-paid celebrities lists in 2016. Power couple Gisele Bündchen and her husband, Tom Brady, earned $30.5 million and $44 million respectively, while Katy Perry banked $41 million and Pharrell Williams made $19 million.
The Met Gala is the epitome of exclusivity. You can’t necessarily attend the gala even if you could afford the price of admission. There is a steep waiting list for invitations, and Wintour decides on every single attendee. Even if a brand buys a table, every attendee must be approved by Wintour and Vogue. (To say that Wintour is hands-on is an understatement).
That said, not all guests pay their own way. Many celebrities attend as guests of designers on the condition that they wear clothes from their label. The designers and their famous plus-ones typically walk the red carpet together and spend the rest of the time at the gala with one another.
Brands and designers spend beaucoup bucks on the fundraiser not only out of goodwill for the Costume Institute but also to cash in on the gala’s star power and charitable image. “It’s a lot of p.r. for these brands in a very non-commercial way. Unlike the Oscars, which is a commercial, televised event, the Met Gala is about raising money for the Met, ostensibly,” says Michael Stone, chairman and cofounder of Beanstalk, a global brand-licensing agency, and a Forbes contributor. “The commercialism of it, the promotion of the brands, are cloaked in the good cause. But the brands get so much attention because of the celebrities.”
For an event of its fame--the ball has been dubbed the “Oscars of the East Coast” for nearly a decade--the Met Gala is surprisingly secretive. It was televised for the first time last year by E!, but cameras didn’t get to go past the introductory red carpet segment, which is two hours long. The Met requests that guests refrain from photography inside the event. (Though some guests flout this rule, such as Kendall Jenner.) This year, comprehensive photography of the whole gala will be available only via licensing from one photography source, Shutterstock.
Despite these restrictions, brands still decide it’s worth the high price of admission. “Exclusivity amps up the night. There’s this element of voyeurism, seeing who is in and who is out,” Stone says. “Even for just those few hours, the designers, celebrities and brands get highlighted.”
The consumers that brands are targeting obviously can’t afford the outfits on the red carpet, such as Rihanna’s renowned Guo Pei gown, which took two years to make. According to Au, many labels use the exposure to create goodwill for their off-the-rack collections. “These runway collections are a marketing investment, not a profit driver,” he says. “They create demand for the more affordable, mass-market lines of the brand. It’s a powerful halo strategy.”
Brands that are firmly outside the fashion industry can still capitalize on the gala. For instance, IBM Watson made headlines last year by collaborating with Marchesa on a “smart dress” worn by Karolina Kurkova. This year’s sponsors include Apple, Condé Nast, Farfetch, H&M, Maison Valentino and Warner Bros.
Most of these brands have obvious connections to fashion, but some stand out, such as Apple--at first. “Samsung isn’t about design, but you think of design when you think of Apple. Design is fashion,” Stone explains. “Apple touching something that is so fashionable emphasizes and reiterates their connection to design.”
As for fast-fashion retailer H&M, which is worlds apart from haute couture, the Met Gala “upscales” its image. H&M collaborates with many high fashion designers, including the gala’s honorary co-chair, Rei Kawabuko, and the gala highlights these special collections. “It elevates the H&M brand and serves as a point-of-entry for the luxury brands they partner with,” Au says.
This gala will, true to form, be one of the most glamorous nights of the year, but it will also be somewhat bittersweet. The Metropolitan Museum has fallen on hard times, with a deficit of $15 million, according to the New York Times. When museum president Daniel Weiss announced a two-year “financial restructuring” plan in April 2016, he stated that the deficit could reach $40 million in 18 months unless immediate steps were taken. The brunt of the blame falls on Tom Campbell, the museum’s director, who resigned in March.
While the museum faces layoffs and programming reductions, the Costume Institute appears to be thriving. Only one in five regular museum visitors pay the full suggested admission price of $25, but the gala raises eight figures in one night with only 600 to 700 guests. The Costume Institute is the only curatorial department responsible for funding itself, and it does so with ease.
This year, the first Monday in May takes on a new meaning. “The gala comes at a difficult time for the arts, generally. The Trump budget intends to do away with the NEA… so events like this at this particular time take on especially new meaning,” Stone says. “The Met has deficits and is laying off people, but the whole art community is facing these [difficult] circumstances. So celebrities really want to come out and support the arts. It’s really important to them more than ever.”