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“Rei Kawakubo: Art of the In-Between” is hard to explain because the designer wants it to be. Andrew Bolton, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute curator, talks openly about why, when you enter, there’s no text explaining the garments on the wall: Kawakubo doesn’t relish spelling out her designs. That can make it pretty fucking tricky to put together a collection explaining her work in any objective manner to the droves of people strolling through the Met every day.
In past years, the exhibit has picked easier targets, like the influence of China on fashion and the impending implosion of technology in clothing. This year, with Kawakubo, the target is more like a shapeshifting smoke monster; even when you think you’ve grasped the meat of something, you find out you’re just latched onto some superfluous edges. It’s why standing at the top of the stairs watching celebrities try to parse out the exhibit on their way into its opening party on Monday night was so much fun. What do you say when a reporter asks you what Comme des Garçons means to you? Blabber, apparently.
A couple of young men whom I later identify as models and genetically blessed creatures Jordan Barrett and Presley Gerber both took some admirable swings.
“Every piece that they do is amazing,” Barrett says.
“You just have to be bold,” adds Gerber.
Model Anna Cleveland, wearing a dress covered in bows, says, “Today is a present, so I'm wrapped up in bows.” What I wouldn’t have given to ask Tom Brady, dressed in a steel blue-silver tux in reality but probably wearing Ugg in his heart, this question.
The first thing you do when you’re invited to the Met Gala is text your girlfriend the emoji of the guy smiling with sunglasses on. My future's so bright and all that, yada yada yada. The second thing you do is freak out, but in a good way. So exciting! Then you freak out in a scared way. The dress code says “black tie” and wasn’t it just earlier that day you were gloating about not owning very formal clothes? Yes, yes it was, and all your coworkers laugh.
On the day of the event, you’re kept in a holding room with the other members of the press. Is this your first Met Gala? There are parallels between the celebrities and those who cover the celebrities. You wonder if Cara Delevingne and her shiny bald head take a moment to let it all sink in that she’s here at the Met Gala. Anna Wintour put together a list and checked it twice, does she think about it the same way you think about writing for a site called Swgnt (that’s pronounced swag-net) less than five years ago and now you’re at the mother freaking Met Gala? You want to tell someone that there’s no way you should be here right now, dressed in a tux, going to this exclusive fashion event.
Finally, you’re guided over to the red carpet area in a fashion that makes boarding an airplane (United excluded) feel seamless. But then you’re there and it’s less grand than it looks on TV, in pictures, even memes. The tent is more narrow than the close-up profiles of famous faces let on.
It’s a weird feeling, walking into the tent. Who wouldn’t mind a celebrity strolling by out in the real world? For them to sit down a couple tables over at the restaurant you just so happen to be dining at? In that Met Gala tent, though, you are all but assured a barrage of famous faces. You’ve shown up at the restaurant, and Anna Wintour has a reservation for 500.
You stand there by a small sheet of paper designating your spot, wearing an even smaller laminated badge around your neck just in case you make an oopsie-doopsie and forget your GD place. You are not allowed to use the restroom, and if you decide you have to go, you’re committing to leaving the Met Gala red carpet, and you may not come back.
(Julie Macklowe, the founder and spokesperson of vbeauté, is dressed in a tartan structure that’s more kite than dress. She can’t use her arms at all in the garment, so she’s wearing special underwear in which she can pee. Under any other circumstances, this “fun” fact would appall me, but staring down the barrel of many pee-less hours, I actually would have welcomed a wee bit more info from Macklowe.)
The Met Gala goes by in several phases: First come the quote-unquote celebrities, you barely recognize them. These people kindly stop to chat to some of “us” behind the barricades while you try and come up with dumb tweets. The worst thing about the Met Gala is that I — but not just me — blatantly take pictures of the people standing mere feet away from us with the sole intention to make jokes about them on social media. I regret doing that.
The second phase involves an all-out assault of the senses. You get some softballs — seriously, the Winklevoss twins got an invite? — but then haymaker after haymaker arrive in succession. You haven’t even finished absorbing the vision of Pharrell and Suzy Menkes cheek-kissing by the time Mindy Kaling strolls up on the group. And yes, Mindy, I love you, you’re wonderful, but now Rick Owens and wife Michèle Lamy are here and they are the new shiny object in my view that I must photograph and mentally catalogue. It’s still downloading when Cam Newton and his date, a dandy top hat, follow up. By the time the celebrities have gotten up to your area, just a few steps from the top, they’ve talked into many cameras and posed for many pictures and you’d want to get inside, too. Tonight’s appetizer is crab and lobster. So few people do more than walk by, pose briefly, and maybe shout out who they’re wearing.
Still, we are a group of dedicated content creators and the same old song greets every new face: For the New York Times! For Vogue! Quick question, what’s your favorite ride, and are you good on a grill? No, that last one is not a joke. There’s a reporter in front of me who… seems to be friends with the celebrities? Most still don’t stop but she calls out their names and they respond in a familiar way. The oh, hi! and how are you? You find this very strange when you’re also a reporter but not friends with a single celebrity. What are you doing wrong and Jesus, everyone, please stop running.
Rei Kawakubo, the Rei Kawakubo, beelines into the event so quickly you almost miss her. Her speed is matched only by Aziz Ansari, who must be training for some sort of competitive sprinting event. Frank Ocean attempts to slink by unnoticed. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen move like two feathers caught in a violent gust of wind. You’re starting to theorize that the more famous and important the person, the quicker the walk. Then the Migos are here, and they’re so nice. Are you best friends with the Migos? They mention something about a cookout and yes, obviously, I would love to come, thank you.
Donatella Versace, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys of The Americans, Future, Yolanda Foster, Roger Federer, Solange in conversation with Diddy, Serena Williams, Wiz Khalifa in his natural habitat: anywhere so long as he has a joint in his mouth. Lil Yachty, Julianne Moore, Raf Simons, A$AP Rocky, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, and Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian are here at the same time — why?! This is quickly devolving into a long list of celebrities, but this is how it feels in real life, too.
And then there you are at phase three. Suddenly, you are spoiled. It all happened so fast, but Gwyneth Paltrow — who, let’s make no mistake, is a very famous person — can walk by and elicit no more than a half-interested hm. The sheer magnitude of star power is desensitizing. It turns you into Captain Ahab, and only the biggest fish will excite your now-swollen pleasure centers.
This year’s white whale is Rihanna, who has made a career out of not disappointing at fashion events. She pulled through in Comme Des Garçons, a floral masterpiece from the fall 2016 collection that’s actually in the exhibit. And she looked really rad. Barely photographing the back of her head when she whooshed by felt like a huge an accomplishment.
You hang around while a couple more celebrities amble up the staircase. Céline Dion sings a song: “I want to meet everybody at the Met.” You snap your own picture on the staircase (please don’t make me a meme) and turn to look back into the tent one last time. You emerge from behind the barricade, your carriage turns back into a pumpkin, and you think fondly of the single star you yelled after: Reiiiiiiii!