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The Money and Drama Behind the Met Gala = Fashion’s Secret Power

The Met Gala, fashion’s biggest night chaired by Vogue editor Anna Wintour for almost two decades, has morphed into fashion’s biggest bank, powered by Hollywood.

“The Met Ball is now all transactional,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor in chief of W Magazine. “More so every year.”

The theme of this Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute Exhibit, “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” was wrangled in sponsorship from Chanel, one of several old brands with deep pockets. Not that Lagerfeld — after 60 years of designing Chanel, Fendi, Chloe, Patou and his eponymous label – isn’t deserving. But is it coincidence that the last decade’s exhibits and related galas had themes that sucked in sponsors Apple, Yahoo, The Gap, Amazon?

Madame Wintour has now raised hundreds of millions to keep The Met Costume Institute afloat – an achievement that will likely never be matched.

This year, a table cost $500,000. One seat was $50,000 (the price of a couture gown). Last year’s Met Ball raised $17.4 million. Some have earned as much as $33 million. Of course, Hollywood royalty attends for free, with free first class plane tickets and hotel accommodations thrown in.

How did so many celebrities attend in what turned out to be a fair distribution of luxury lines? This is Wintour’s marketing reach: Chanel, Valentino, Dior, Schiaparelli, Tory Burch, the Karl Lagerfeld line, Erdem, Joseph Altuzarra, Michael Kors, Versace and Thom Browne all had spots on the red carpet.

Wintour dictated to celebrities exactly what to wear, which designer they’d accompany. No wonder Donatella Versace brought the brand’s new face, Anne Hathaway, in a plunging vanilla safety pin Versace gown. So while Versace might not sell out on beaded gowns, perfume sales will go up all summer. No wonder Instagram star Emma Chamberlain (16 million followers) did a little hosting on Vogue.com – even if it was all air-kissing.

From left, Donatella Versace and Anne Hathaway depart The Mark Hotel for the 2023 Met Gala. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Mark)
From left, Donatella Versace and Anne Hathaway depart The Mark Hotel for the 2023 Met Gala. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Mark)

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Why do over-extended stars rush in when Met invites come calling? With enough red carpet presence, perhaps it might be possible to snag one of those $50 million fashion or beauty deals, like Charlize Theron did for Dior. Plus free clothes for years. These gigs require few rehearsals — only fittings.

Willow Bay and Bob Iger attend The 2023 Met Gala. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)
Willow Bay and Bob Iger attend The 2023 Met Gala. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Even Hollywood royalty showed their faces this year – and feet. Disney’s Bob Iger posed in Disney x Karl Lagerfeld $300 sneakers – a commercial tie-in related to the Disney+ in-production of “Kaiser Karl” (starring Daniel Bruhl), which debuts next year (but on sale online now). Nothing like getting the product out in advance.

Baz Luhrman donned a jaunty off-kilter Thom Browne suit. Browne’s oddly shaped but finely crafted clothes don’t often appeal to celebrities (he’s known for shrunken suits). Yet he managed to dress nine stars, including Janelle Monae, Alexander Skarsgard and Jenna Ortega. Guess what? Browne’s longtime partner happens to be Andrew Bolton, curator of Met Costume Institute, who staged the entire exhibit. Synergy in action!

Baz Luhrmann departs The Mark Hotel for the 2023 Met Gala. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Mark)
Baz Luhrmann departs The Mark Hotel for the 2023 Met Gala. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Mark)

Want more transaction examples? Lagerfeld founded his eponymous brand in 1984. Edgier, punker, than Chanel, it was priced at luxury levels. These days, KL is mostly a department store/online brand, hawking t-shirts, canvas tote bags, some clothes, most with Karl’s signature and/or face — for far less than luxury prices. Still, on Monday night, KL’s brand dressed Bryan Tyree Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Russell Westbrook, Carla Bruni – in what were clearly high-priced, made-to-order clothes. Trust me, these pieces won’t show up on the KL website – but they will remind online shoppers to check it out for a t-shirt – add to cart!

For a moment, forget clothes. The bigger red carpet payday now is in jewelry branding. I must have gotten 30 press releases announcing who wore what jewelry, some of it high-end from the likes of Bulgari, Tiffany, Boucheron, Harry Winston, Fred Leighton, Buccellati. Others from unknown brands.

Those established big guys can easily afford to pay stars – in cash or jewels (diamond and gold always appreciated). The smaller brands, yep, they pay in jewels. Some went a little bigger: The day of The Met Gala, Cartier announced Elle Fanning as their new “face.” A few hours later, she showed up in Cartier jewels, mentioning them loud and proud on Vogue.com’s livestream – and her third season of Hulu’s “The Great,” coming back in weeks. That’s what I call a triple header: good timing, good branding, a great look, all around. More synergy!

Coco and Karl’s looks both loaded on pearls — you could have tripped over the reams of Chanel pearls on gowns and necks (and you would have, if they broke). No doubt Chanel pearls will sell out faster than usual. But Mikimoto pearls, some of the world’s best, also got a big boost, as did lesser known pearl jewelers, by showering the media with press releases all night. Will sales of pearls rise this summer? I bet they do. Like fields of wildflowers after the rain.

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There’s never much handbag branding at The Met, but when Coach designer Stuart Vevers showed up with female guests, he “encouraged” them to show off their new “Coachtopia” bags — alerting observers they’re made from recycled elements (these from the Metropolitan Museum trash!) Fancy this: Coachtopia just restocked on the Coach website this week!

And what’s a little personal life branding in front of millions of people? Anna Wintour rolled the carpet with her recently Oscar-nominated – paramour? friend? – “Living” star Bill Nighy. That’s what I call a high-caliber accessory. Don’t tell me that Oscar nomination didn’t cross her bob-covered mind.

anna wintour bill nighy 2023 met gala
Anna Wintour and Bill Nighy at the 2023 Met Gala. (Getty Images)

Now, not everyone benefitted from this year’s gala. A number of online groups complained — loudly — about Lagerfeld having made fatphobic, racist and misogynist comments. Were stars worried about possible trickle-down cancellation? Hardly. Not when the benefits so outweighed the costs.

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