In recent years, the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Gala has embraced accessible themes that are easy to get pumped up about: superheroes, supermodels, American style. But this year, the fashion world's biggest party took a bittersweet, more deeply felt turn inward, organizing itself around the work and memory of the late Alexander McQueen.
Last night's unveiling of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, an exhibition devoted to the British designer, set his often incendiary oeuvre against a lyrical, emotionally charged backdrop, including a replica of a 30-foot oak tree in the Great Hall, reminiscent of those on McQueen's property in Sussex, England; a time-lapse video of roses blossoming by his collaborator Nick Knight; and an after-dinner set by Florence + the Machine.
Outside earlier, McQueen dresses added an extra-theatrical flourish to the star-packed red carpet. Daphne Guinness sported head-to-toe feathers with her trademark aplomb, and the spilling train of Gisele Bündchen's scarlet McQueen gown, alongside that of Fergie's Marchesa, combined to create a sort of no-go zone for anyone walking in.
For those who'd known McQueen, memories poked their way through the evening's glamour. "Certain pieces were almost torturous in a way. I saw so many girls almost faint backstage," Natalia Vodianova recalled. "But we all loved it, because it was a real show and the atmosphere was so exciting always. It was magical." When she was asked about McQueen, Jessica Stam couldn't summon the words. "He was always very…" she began. But then she swallowed hard and excused herself.
"Was always"—but in a way, still is. Kate Mulleavy suggested that a flicker of the late designer lived on in Saoirse Ronan's Wizard of Oz-inspired red dress from Rodarte's Fall collection. "In the sense," Mulleavy explained, "of the spirit of doing something that's more fantastical and has a life. That's really the essence of what McQueen's clothes are like. They almost come alive."
In some respects, of course, this year's gala was like any other. Emilio Pucci's Peter Dundas, grinning mischievously, explained the secret to the neck bow on the clavicle-baring number he'd put on Jessica Chastain: "One pull and it opens." And at the top of stairs, Giancarlo Giammetti, longtime partner of Valentino, took to one knee as he greeted one of the evening's most confidently exposed guests, Mariacarla Boscono, who wore sheer Givenchy.
Lady Amanda Harlech's black Chanel channeled McQueen, as did her diamonds and "S&M gloves." Where else does one see this much McQueen all at once? "British weddings, funerals, and AngloMania," she offered—a reference to the 2006 Met Ball, the only one McQueen attended. His date then was Sarah Jessica Parker, who walked the carpet this year in a dress from his Fall 2005 collection. "Reluctant to be social" is how she described her friend. "He didn't genuflect in the traditional way," she added.
After the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Salma Hayek, and Sir Paul McCartney had walked the carpet, Madonna paused along the stairs to offer her take on the departed man of the evening. "He was kind of shy. But he had a naughty side to him," she stressed. And what if he was here for the little carpet ride that began with Friday's royal wedding and was in full flight this night? Madge had an answer for that one, too. "He'd say something completely politically incorrect and just breeze through."