The Big Society Ball That Wasn't: L.A. Starlets Replace Grandes Dames

by Frank DiGiacomo

Gretchen Mol pursed her porcelain-doll lips as the photographer halted her progress. Would it be possible, the paparazza wanted to know, for the actress to pose with Sarah Ferguson, who was standing just a few steps away in the majestic Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms. Mol crossed her bare arms against her pale chiffon sheath and shook her head as she stole a look at the Duchess of York. Flanked by security and Veronica Hearst, Ms. Ferguson was sporting a look pinched straight from Gwyneth Paltrow's hair-and-makeup playbook: heavily lined smoky eyes and dead straight hair that gave the impression she'd been caught in a downpour. "No," Ms. Mol said politely. "It doesn't make sense."

Ms. Mol was not the only one trying to make sense of the evening. The 650 V.I.P.'s who paid (or were invited by someone who paid) $2,000 a head for the dinner portion of the Met's annual Costume Institute Gala on Monday evening, Dec. 7, found an elegant, well-ordered affair that, nevertheless, suggested a muddled moment in the social order. "There was no center. There was no buildup. And there was no orgasm of high style," said André Leon Talley, who works as editor at large for Vogue magazine.

Having ceded its turf to the Meritocracy (members include Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Clarissa Bronfman, wife of Seagram chief executive officer Edgar Bronfman Jr.) back in 1996, much of New York's Old Guard stayed home. Nan Kempner was not there, nor were Mercedes Bass or Jayne Wrightsman. Patricia Buckley, who had chaired the event for 17 years, attended the cocktail hour, then left for a prior engagement. Also absent were many of the established designers, such as Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino. Claudia Schiffer seemed to be the only supermodel in attendance, for that matter.

"There's a whole new generation here," said Mary McFadden, one of the veteran designers who was in attendance. "I think that maybe 1 percent of the people that used to be here 25 years ago are here now." Ms. McFadden did not necessarily find this to be a bad thing. "New York is always moving from one generation to the next," she told The Transom. "Every decade has a new social elite."

What became apparent as the V.I.P.'s gathered in the soaring stone spaces of the Met's Great Hall, which had been punctuated with bunches of striking red roses and amaryllis, was that the new elite was badly in need of a hierarchy. Too bad the folks at Condé Nast, who are so brutally efficient at creating and promoting events and pecking orders, had sat this one out. (Word is that Ms.Wintour will be back at the helm for next year's gala.)

With few familiar faces and tastemakers to guide them, many of the guests at the event seemed unable to triangulate their position in the pecking order.

Others, like Happiness director Todd Solondz, were virgins when it came to this type of social experience. "Oh, it's all very glamorous," Mr. Solondz said in loopy, squeaky voice. "It's a novelty for me to be a part of this glamour." Mr. Solondz, who had been invited to the event by Interview magazine's editor, Ingrid Sischy, did seem to have some innate grasp of the social swim, though. "Someone invites you, you have to take advantage of it," he said. "You may never get an invitation again."

This year, the task of organizing the Met's annual "Party of the Year" fell to a trio of unlikely jet-set candidates: Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada; socialite Paula Cussi, who divides her time among Mexico, Paris and New York; and socialite Pia Getty, who told WWD that she would accept the gig on one condition: "Please don't force me to go to lots of meetings and make important decisions."

Even though the receiving line containing the three co-chairs was moved to doorway where guests entered the party (in previous years it had been at the back of the space), Ms. Prada's, Ms. Cussi's and Ms. Getty's presence was remarkably understated throughout the evening. Even the celebrities that Ms. Prada invited to sit at her table, such as Willem Dafoe and Sigourney Weaver, had a muted quality about them. Their images are more about work, less about celebrity wattage. Party guest Liv Tyler, for example, is more of an independent film ingénue than box office starlet.

If the event helped elevate any of the co-chairs' social quotient, it was Ms. Cussi, who is a virtual unknown in this city. The ex-wife of the late Mexican media billionaire Emilio Azcarraga, Ms. Cussi said she had often accompanied her spouse to New York. "So now it's wonderful that I can be here and probably do things by myself," she said. She has wasted no time in getting acclimated. She explained that last month she became a member of the Met's board of directors at the invitations of "Philippe de Montebello and Mr. Punch Sulzberger," the chairman emeritus of The New York Times.

When The Transom pointed out that the international mix of the Met Gala's co-chairs seemed to reflect the city's new social order, Ms. Cussi replied that she thought that was a good thing. "You can accept it or not, but you are exposed to the ideas. Then you can accept what is convenient for you. But it also can refresh the ambiance of so many things."

The low-key manner of the event and the gala troika was also reflected in the fashions worn to the Costume Institute, whose theme was "Cubism and Fashion," after an exhibit of that name. The over-the-top couture creations were few and far between. Cabaret star Alan Cummings wore a silver sharkskin suit and his hair in a samurai ponytail (and at one point during the evening spent several minutes staring, with a friend, at a bubble package that seemed to contain two stainless steel scouring pads). Another attendee, Martha Stewart Living senior associate art director Scot Schy, seemed to be offering an homage to cybercolumnist Matt Drudge with the scrunchy hat he wore on his head. But Mr. Schy insisted his headgear was a tribute to the artist Joseph Beuys.

Speaking of style orgasms, Mr. Talley looked like the fashion equivalent of the Big Bang in his belted, knee-length white mink coat, which he said had been made for him by Gucci designer Tom Ford. He wore it over bright red bandleader pants and red shoes.

"That's the full monty!" yelled Fairchild Publications chairman and editorial director Patrick McCarthy when he saw Mr. Talley's get-up as the two ascended the giant stairway that led from the Great Hall to dinner. "There's a man with style."

Mr. Talley was then greeted by designer Marc Jacobs, whose formal attire consisted of a black button-down shirt, black pants and black sneakers. The two then went skipping down the hallway into the dining room.

There was little of that giddiness at the efficient Glorious Foods-catered dinner in the Carroll and Milton Petrie Sculpture Court, which had been adorned with hundreds of colored votive candles. There was plenty of fashion-crowd bitchiness though, much of it aimed at the table where Ms. Ferguson sat with Ms. Hearst, photographer Patrick Demarchelier and other Hearst executives. Commenting on the dark eye makeup that both Ms. Hearst and Ms. Ferguson were wearing that night, one former fashion editor remarked, "It looks like Veronica did Fergie's eyes."

At each place setting was a copy of the invitation to the first-ever Costume Institute Gala, on Nov. 18, 1948, at the Rainbow Room. "You are cordially invited to 'the party of the year,'" said invitation in simple graphics. Inside, the flier read: "It has long been felt that the fashion industries should have an annual friendship event which could become increasingly important through the years for its good fellowship." The cost of a ticket: $50.

Despite the few souls who wondered about the "Monica" placecard that sat at Ms. Wintour's table (it turned out to be for the soul singer, Monica), the Clinton scandal did not intrude much on the event. "The thing we were a million miles away from last night was the impeachment proceeding," said the publicist Paul Wilmot, who sat at a table with Condé Nast chief executive Steve Florio, rap impresario Russell Simmons, magician David Copperfield and Ms. Schiffer. It was a subject he said that "seemed surreal against the backdrop of 10,000 roses."

No more surreal than the sight of actresses Chloe Sevigny (Kids) and Samantha Morton (Under the Skin), the latter in a light blue sweatshirt and jeans, slow dancing to the 1940's-style big band that played to the crowd. As two saxophonists on the bandstand blew the smoky notes to "Summertime," the two young women moved gingerly, their hands entwined, on the nearly empty dance floor. They seemed intent on getting the steps right as they danced, for all those around them, into the new age.

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