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It's the Last Party of the Century

by Frank DiGiacomo

There in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mick Jagger loomed above them all. Dressed in a white Kangol newsboy's hat, a white double-breasted jacket with dark piping, orange pants and a sheen of sweat, Mr. Jagger's arms, legs and even his magnificent lips seemed to be flying off in different directions before a sea of rapt Rolling Stones fans. Back in the late 70's, some photographer had clicked his shutter and captured an explosion-a conflagration of sex and abandon, charisma and style that, even in two-dimensional photographic form, still thrills.

At the Met's annual Costume Institute gala on Dec. 6, that image of Mr. Jagger, projected two stories high, served as a counterpoint and a challenge to the sleek crowd of 850 people who had gathered below for the Met's celebration of its new Rock Style exhibition.

Though the hall was packed with hundreds of tycoons (Peter Brant, Ted Forstmann) and actors (Charlize Theron, Milla Jovovich, Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson) and designers (Gucci's Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Dior's John Galliano) and models (two words: Kate Moss), but curiously few rock stars, the room was not emitting one-tenth of the electricity that that 20-year photo of Mr. Jagger had captured.

That's because the gentrification of celebrity that began in the 1990's-with the rise to power of the fashion stylist and the publicist-is essentially complete. Slowly, the sex, passion and spontaneity of celebrity have been supplanted with the more calculated qualities of taste, stylishness and ironic detachment. Sometimes one gets the sense that the whole celebrity sweepstakes is rigged. As when subscribers to Vogue got their January issue announcing the winners of the VH1-Vogue Fashion Awards days before the live event was cable-cast.

And the Met's Rock Style exhibition itself turns out to have been the perfect complement to New York's last big celebrity party of the millennium. All of the outrageousness-the Bob Mackie dresses and the Elvis jumpsuits-was kept behind a thick wall of glass.

And the celebrities who embody the Age of Calculated Detachment were front and center at the gala. At the end of the red carpet, past the greeting line formed by the gala's co-chairs-Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Estée Lauder's creative marketing executive director Aerin Lauder and fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger-were Jerry Seinfeld, the master of ironic indifference, and his fiancée, Jessica Sklar, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the tidy sex symbol of the moment.

There was also billionaire Ronald Perelman, his steady, actress Ellen Barkin, and Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and his wife. Elsewhere were actress Heather Graham and her boyfriend, director Ed Burns, who were certainly not behaving with detachment, according to those who saw the couple giving each other mutual tonsillectomies near one of the bars.

Also in attendance were former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actress Elizabeth Hurley; husband-and-wife singers Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown; and socialites Patricia Buckley, Nan Kempner and Alexandra von Furstenberg, who wore a floor-length leather dress.

They were at the last party of the millennium, looking back at the year and trying to make sense of it. For Mr. Kissinger, 1999 was "putting a period after the past." For Gucci's Mr. Ford, the year was about exorcising the past. "Every decade matures at its end," said Mr. Ford, who noted that much of the culture of the 1990's was about revisiting trends of earlier decades. And here, just a few weeks from the end of the year, he added, "Everything around is looking real tired." Yet here in this crowd, Mr. Ford said he did not see the past, but rather the future. "I look around and I don't see many people here who are going to be dropping dead anytime soon," Mr. Ford said. "We're it."

Mr. Ford was certainly it when it came to Vogue editor at large André Leon Talley, who was wearing a full-length couture leather tunic designed by Mr. Ford that had been embroidered with gold flowers in what Mr. Leon Talley called "Renaissance Baroque" style. "Feel the softness of the leather," said Mr. Talley, who was wearing matching leather slippers, also couture. Mr. Leon Talley's effusiveness attracted the attention of designer Arnold Scaasi, who said to him: "Are you trying to explain that drag?"

Meanwhile, Mr. Seinfeld was doing an expert job of not having to explain his and Ms. Sklar's plans for the future. When The Transom asked the couple, "Have you set your nuptials?" Mr. Seinfeld replied, "I'm wearing boxers tonight." Ms. Sklar doubled over at the punch line, as she seemed to do every time Mr. Seinfeld cracked a joke.

When we asked the same question of Mr. Perelman and Ms. Barkin, it was the Big Easy star who seemed ready to double The Transom over with a punch. "You know what you can tell The New York Observer for me," said Ms. Barkin, who looked like she was going to break into one of those "To the Moon" wind-ups that Jackie Gleason did on The Honeymooners. Mr. Perelman, who had been giving Ms. Barkin what eventually amounted to a deep-muscle, full-body massage over the course of the evening, let out a big laugh and grabbed Ms. Barkin around the waist. There was pride in his eyes and fire in hers. As The Transom walked away, Ms. Barkin said: "Tell The Observer they'll be the first to know." (Mr. Perelman's spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, said the couple are "most definitely not married.")

A choir of children in purple robes and frilly, high-necked shirts suddenly appeared, and, squeezing through the moist crowd, led the way to dinner in the Milton and Carroll Petrie Sculpture Court. The children sang "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," but the crowd seemed determined to keep cocktail hour going. And the move to dinner was further slowed by the fact a number of women were wearing gowns with trains.

Quite a few dusty footprints were left on expensive fabrics, and The Transom nearly accidentally defrocked designer Vera Wang. Not everyone was so demure: After dinner, Donatella Versace hiked up her dress up over her thighs to show Gucci's Mr. Ford what appeared to be her stylish underwear.

As Ms. Paltrow walked into the dinner with her father, Bruce Paltrow, The Transom asked her whether 1999 had been more about the past or the future for her. "It's been mostly about the present," she said. "That's my best achievement ever."

Taking up that Zen-like theme, a saucy-looking Elizabeth Hurley told The Transom, "I've been living day to day, thank you very much."

Low hemlines used to mean tough economic times, but no more. Dinner tickets to the Costume Institute gala cost $2,500 apiece. After-dinner tickets, which included dessert, cost $250 a pop. With 3,650 people attending the after-parties in the Great Hall, the Museum Restaurant and the Temple of Dendur, the Met raised more than $3 million, according to a spokesman for the museum.

The 850 who shelled out $2,500, or were given dinner tickets gratis, dined on "truffle baked potato" topped with a generous dollop of caviar, followed by steak, lobster and grilled vegetables.

They also got a show, which began around the time that the wait staff began serving the crowd banana splits. That's when Iman and Mr. Leon Talley took the stage. Iman explained that in eight years of marriage to David Bowie, "I have learned a lot of things." Some of those things, she added, "I cannot mention." But then Iman went on to posit that Sean (Puffy) Combs, or Puff Daddy, as he is also known, was a performer in the tradition of Mr. Bowie. Given that Mr. Bowie is a performer who has constantly reinvented himself and his music and that Mr. Combs is a hip-hop artist who rose to fame by rapping over samples of other musicians' music (including Mr. Bowie's), how she arrived at this conclusion is a mystery. But moments later, Mr. Combs followed a bevy of beautiful bikini-clad dancers onto the stage and performed a number of his songs, including "Been Around the World" and "I'll Be Missing You," for which he brought on stage a sweet children's choir that he called his "shorties."

For some it was the one of the few moments of the evening that generated any frisson of genuine, non-stage-managed excitement: the sight of Mr. Combs' posse, with their stone-cold stares and slouchy hip-hop wear, looking over, as one dinner guest put it, "all those relics, both the stone ones and the flesh ones, getting down to Puff Daddy."

At one table situated at stage right, the socialite Nan Kempner and the designers Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera were raising their hands in the air and jiving in their seats as Mr. Combs urged the crowd to "Push it up! Push it up, like this!" At one point, Ms. Kempner looked like she was receiving the Holy Spirit. She did not obey, however, when Mr. Combs asked of the crowd, "All the ladies in the house, get yo' ass up!"

Ten years ago, Ms. Kempner and her crowd probably never guessed they would be waving goodbye to the century by partying with hip-hop stars in the Met, which for decades had been the star chamber of Old Guard Society. "I know you ain't used to hip-hop," Mr. Combs told the crowd. But everyone had to play along. If you didn't, the whole house of cards, so artfully constructed by publicists and magazine editors and the fashion mafia, would collapse. So the kings and queens of fashion, style and celebrity shared a moment as they watched one of the last bits of 90's pop culture replayed for them one last time. When Mr. Combs left the stage and began tugging his girlfriend, the also newly minted star Jennifer Lopez, toward the exits, it felt like we could finally stick a fork in this decade, but not before Mr. Combs had a Fred McMurray-esque encounter with billionaire David Koch and his wife Julia.

"Hello, Puff Daddy, I'm David Koch," Mr. Koch said, extending his hand. "You're a helluva performer." (Asked what it was like to perform for the Met crowd, Mr. Combs told The Transom: "I don't judge my audience. I just try to rock the house. No matter what color, religion or economic demographic.")

The end of the evening proved an emotional one for Ms. Wintour. Although she certainly seemed to be enjoying Mr. Combs' performance, some dinnergoers said that the Vogue editor was later seen crying and being comforted by Mr. de la Renta, possibly after having a disagreement with her new beau, Shelby Bryan, who was in attendance. Ms. Wintour was said to have left immediately thereafter. Calls to her office were referred to her attorney Edward Hayes. Mr. Hayes declined to comment, except to point out that in addition to the Costume Institute, Ms. Wintour had been instrumental in the VH1-Vogue Fashion Awards.

"She hadn't slept for two nights," said Mr. Hayes, who added that the Costume Institute "benefit was an enormous success. She's trying to do the best she can for everyone that she has a responsibility to. She's only human. She doesn't think she's only human, but she is."

As the dinner crowd slowly began drifting toward the exits and the after-party, where thousands of unknowns were getting down with their bad selves, others seemed to be flummoxed by what they had just experienced. Designer Marc Jacobs sat looking blankly at a table with his close friend, the designer Anna Sui. Asked what he made of the crowd and the event, Mr. Jacobs replied that he was "dumbfounded."

When he was asked if that was good or bad, Mr. Jacobs replied: "I don't know. I remember coming this event in the past and being mesmerized. And now I'm just dumbfounded. Maybe it's because I just got off a plane, but I'm really speechless."


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