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The First Monday in May | reviews, news & interviews

The First Monday in May

The First Monday in May

The power of clothes: celebrity, fashion and art at the Metropolitan Museum

Andrew Bolton, curator at the Met's costume institute, adjusts an art work

“I’m so tired of hearing that McQueen is the best show we’ve ever done. It’s become a bit of an albatross,” complains Andrew Bolton, curator of the New York Metropolitan museum’s costume institute (he’s from Blackburn, Lancashire, and loved the New Romantics as a teenager). Bolton’s huge hit, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, took fashion as art to a new level in 2011. “It would be nice if China was able to knock it off its pedestal.”

Andrew Rossi’s behind-the-scenes documentary (his last one, Page One, examined the New York Times) charts the complex process of getting the Met's 2015 show China: Through the Looking Glass up and running, as well as its coinciding with the Met Gala, orchestrated by Anna Wintour of Vogue. The gala takes place on, of course, the first Monday in May. Wintour has raised squillions for the Met with these celeb-packed parties and has a wing of the costume centre named after her. “Since she’s taken on the Met ball it’s become the Superbowl of fashion events,” says André Leon Talley, larger-than-life Vogue contributing editor.

Both events are minefields of planning and politics, which Rossi captures well, though meanderingly at times. The Met and Vogue compete for our attention. There's a lot of discussion about whether fashion is really art. Karl Lagerfeld doesn’t think so. “It’s a little boring when designers say they’re artists, especially when they say it themselves. Chanel never said she was an artist, she was a dressmaker.” John Galliano, looking embalmed, is just grateful that he can still use design as an escape and a meditation in an industry "where I've become an outcast".

The gala seating plan is a thing of beauty in itself, a symphony of famous names on pink and lilac stickers: FKA Twigs, Helen Mirren, Kanye and Kim. Rihanna’s going to perform, so expensively that the figure is bleeped out, but maybe AW can get the price down. “Anna’s gift is bringing culture, both high and low, to cross-fertilise,” raves gala adviser Baz Luhrmann. Some guests are more welcome than others, especially a person who behaved badly last year and who Anna thought wasn’t going to come. Could it be Justin Bieber? We’ll never know. “Can he perhaps not be on his cell phone the entire time, then?" says Wintour.

WintourThe show is more a fantasy vision of China as seen by designers than about China per se. But, say the Asian-department curators, Western fashion could demean the Chinese objects in the Asian galleries, where part of the show takes place. They look grim. Complex questions about colonialism, Orientalism and racism are raised and largely remain unanswered. And Bolton wants to put Mao clothing in with a whole lot of Buddhas. It makes sense, he says, because of the deification of Mao in China, his monumentality. Wong Kar-Wai, director of In the Mood for Love and the show's artistic director, and who, like Wintour, wears sunglasses all the time, is appalled. “It would be an insult to the Chinese and the Buddhists,” he explains. Bolton isn’t convinced. He likes controversy. Wendi Deng Murdoch, a gala co-chair, looks neutral (pictured above with Anna Wintour and Andrew Bolton).

In a parallel controversy, there’s the matter of the decor for the show. Anna holds a dinner in her Greenwich Village house – thrilling to see her yellow walls and patterned sofas - to discuss napkins and tablecloths. And should the Met’s staircase be flanked by enormous green dragons? Lurhmann says no, makes jokes about a water-slide and Wintour goes all giggly. “Anna is beyond legacy,” says Luhrmann. No wonder she likes him.

In the end, the dragons turn into bamboo forests, a giant mock-porcelain vase in the entrance is covered with 250,000 white roses and Rihanna, queen of the night, is resplendent on the red carpet in a yellow dress with a massive train. It took Guo Pei, one of the few Chinese designers in the show, two years to make it. Amal Clooney's wearing Galliano. Justin Bieber mock-salutes in front of the Mao suit. Gaga says she needs to mainline pinot grigio “into my arm”. The gala raises a record $12.5 million, the show hauls in 800,000 visitors, topping the McQueen, and Bolton becomes head of the costume institute. It’s fabulous. But is it art?

Overleaf: watch the trailer to The First Monday in May

The gala seating plan is a thing of beauty in itself, a symphony of famous names on pink and lilac stickers

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