Few things can slow down a fashion crowd on its way to a cocktail party like the opportunity to schmooze with famous friends like Beyonce (dressed like a gilded mermaid in Emilio Pucci) and Madonna (trailing a train embroidered with silver stars by Stella McCartney). But the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which opened Monday night with a gala packed to the rafters with stars, managed to make designers and celebrities pause, focus, and stand in awe: They were actually looking at the exhibit!
Inside the Costume Institute’s glittering ball, guests lingered in the chain of wood-paneled and mirrored galleries, leaning in close to the feathered gowns, mussel shell bodices and metal neck collars, trying to figure out precisely how Lee McQueen worked his magic.
More than one person murmured quietly to a companion that this was the best exhibition the Costume Institute had mounted in a very long time. Curated by Andrew Bolton, the exhibition’s design conjured the theatricality of a McQueen runway show, and the selection of clothes, mostly from the house’s archives, made his talent clear.
The timing of the exhibition was also pretty perfect, what with Kate Middleton wearing a McQueen gown just last Friday when she married Prince William in front of an audience of more than a billion people. The wedding dress was created by Sarah Burton, the house’s new creative director.
Guests were greeted by a receiving line of actor Colin Firth, designer Stella McCartney, and Vogue editor—and gala organizer—Anna Wintour.
And what guests they were: Karl Lagerfeld, Blake Lively, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kristen Stewart, Renee Zellweger, Diane von Furstenberg, Penelope Cruz, Oscar de la Renta, Jennifer Lopez, Christian Louboutin, and Tom Ford, just to name a few. One by one, they came to preen and pose, to hobnob, and to pay homage to a man who during his life actually abhorred events like this.
McQueen attended the Costume Institute Gala just once in his entire career, arriving arm in arm with Sarah Jessica Parker. And in a story that’s become famous, he spent a good bit of the night complaining about how he’d rather be anywhere else.
Gallery: Fashion’s Big Night
“He didn’t genuflect in the way some people might do, so I was that much more thrilled and shocked that he said yes to go with me,” Parker said when we bumped into her at the top of the steps at the end of the red carpet. “Perhaps he knew that I adored him and wouldn’t ask him anything more than what I knew he’d be comfortable with.”
Still, she said, “It was a very quiet car ride coming here. I had his corsage in my lap, like it was the prom… he wasn’t comfortable in environments like these.”
“He was shy,” Madonna said. “But if you got him in a small group, he could be quite mischievous and naughty.”
Also intimidating. “I was terrified of him,” said Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor, who recalled going to meet him in “south south south” London when McQueen was still a student at Central Saint Martins and working out of his aunt’s welfare apartment. “He was inarticulate, he was abrasive. There were very few teeth and a significant beer belly. He was not the paradigm of a fashion designer.”
Asked how he broke the ice, Bowles practically burst out laughing. “I don’t know that I ever did,” he said.
“He didn’t kiss ass, but when he lost weight he was able to kiss his own ass,” said Ingrid Sischy, the former editor in chief of Interview and another person who got to know McQueen over the years.
As the drinks began to flow, guests meandered into the Temple of Dendur for a dinner that featured caviar-topped artichokes and Highland beef with a truffled potato tart and spring vegetables.
To close the evening, Florence and the Machine belted out several tunes, including a cover of “Rebel, Rebel” that had the flame-haired lead singer—wearing a caftan of ivory and sparkling gold—flitting through the audience like Tinkerbell with the voice of Etta James.
Afterward, guests jetted off to a slew of after parties like a super secret fete hosted by Vogue, at which Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae performed; and a more boozy affair at The Standard attended by Leonardo DiCaprio, Kanye West, Fergie, Kirsten Dunst, and about three quarters of the designers who sell at Barneys.
Jason Statham was making out with his girlfriend by the wall. Kanye West was dancing up on Rosario Dawson. Dunst was hanging in a banquette with the designers of Rodarte. A few feet away was Marc Jacobs, wearing a plaid kilt, in a clear tip of the hat to McQueen. Eva Mendes, Jason Bateman, and Naomi Campbell circulated by the bar.
“Was it hard to walk in those shows?” someone asked Campbell. “Some of those clothes could be pretty torturous to wear.”
“I would never use the word torturous with Lee,” the supermodel said. “I would use the words ‘genius’ and ‘unique’….So you found a way.”
Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.