December 8, 1999

A Rare Mix of Celebrity and Society

New York's elegant big spenders and institutions have always prided themselves on being able to socially embrace the new and potentially scandalous, whether it was "radical chic," the latest art craze or the twist. But on Monday night at the Costume Institute's annual gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they may have surprised even themselves.

The dinner, billed as a salute to rock style, brought out a spectacular array of musical and show business luminaries, to say nothing of rhinestones and cleavage. Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez were there. So were Jerry Seinfeld, Christina Ricci, Maxwell, Steven Tyler, Tom Ford, Elizabeth Hurley, Calvin Klein and Gwyneth Paltrow, who came with her father, the producer Bruce Paltrow. The rapper Lil' Kim wore a studded pink bikini so unabashedly skimpy that it would have caused the windows in the room to fog up, if there had been any.

Whitney Houston, among the last of the 850 guests to arrive for cocktails, around 9 p.m., came with her husband, Bobby Brown, and the Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who had made Ms. Houston's floor-length rhinestone coat.

"We're just here to have fun and see our friends," said Ms. Whitney, naming as friends Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige, who wore pants and a tunic of electric-blue mink.

The Costume Institute gala, which the Met likes to call the party of the year, has always had a reputation for being glamorous enough to attract a mélange of designers, social figures and artists, yet dull enough to ensure that everybody gets home by a reasonable hour. But because of the rock 'n' roll theme, fin de siècle optimism or the efforts of the evening's chairmen -- Tommy Hilfiger, Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue -- this year's gala attracted guests of a mix rarely seen at a party in New York.

There were tables full of young social figures, like Eliza Reed, who looked as though she had stepped out of a Sargent portrait, and Alexander and Alexandra Von Furstenberg, who wore a sheath of brown leather. There was the Old Guard, including Nan Kempner; Annette de la Renta, who wore a black knit top with a yellow silk ball skirt; and Leonard Lauder, the chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies. They all have deep ties to the city's cultural life. Lauder seemed pleased when reminded that it was his mother, Estée, now in her 90's, who held the first dinner party at the Met, back in 1968, for Florence Gould, the daughter-in-law of the railroad tycoon Jay Gould.

And, of course, there were the rap stars and their contingents, who added more than outrageous glamour to the occasion. They brought a racial diversity that has been missing not just from fashionable events like this, but also from fashion itself. And the funny thing was, there seemed to be nothing phony about the scene. It was not much more complicated than Combs's going over to Oscar de la Renta, whom he got to know during a Vogue photo shoot, and calling him " D."

"Did you ever think you'd see a scene like this?" said André Leon Talley, Vogue's editor at large, who was dressed in a long Gucci leather coat embroidered with gold. "Annette de la Renta in her billowy couture silks and Lil' Kim in her Versace bikini. They are the sum of the evening."

Yet if anyone brought the whole thing together, in ways that were both exhilarating and worthy of Tom Wolfe, it was Combs. After dinner was served, he got up on the stage and, with a children's choir from St. John the Divine, sang the rap version of "Every Breath You Take." Soon all these couture-clad people were standing and waving their arms like Combs.

"Look at Oscar and Carolina Herrera," said Talley, nodding toward their table. They were up and out of their chairs and swaying. And Mrs. de la Renta was trying to get John Richardson, the Picasso biographer, to wave his arms. At one point, Combs paid a tribute to, among others, Notorious B.I.G, the rapper who was shot to death in 1997 in Los Angeles.

He had the crowd on its feet.

"I think it's wild," said Hamilton South, president of Polo Ralph Lauren. "I mean, we're at the Met."

Mrs. Kempner had the same thought. "I think it's sensational," she said.

" and Mrs. Metropolitan Museum would be rolling in their graves, but it's worth it."

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