The Met Gala, opening party for the Metropolitan Museum’s annual fashion exhibition, is always described as either the Super Bowl or the Oscars of fashion. Deadly competition garlanded in hoopla, and you’d better be seeing a lot of the gym in the run-up. But this year’s event, held last night in New York, was more like the Hodge conjecture of frocks, or the Riemann hypothesis of style. Having surmounted the first challenge by making the cut for a tight guest list controlled by Anna Wintour, attendees had to grapple with an intractable puzzle: how to pay homage to this year’s honoured designer, the cult Japanese avant-gardist Rei Kawakubo, while bringing requisite glamour for the starriest night of the fashion calendar.
Kawakubo’s most recent Comme des Garçons show opened with a dress moulded from that fuzzy, spongy off-white material you find stuffed inside soft toys. It doubled the size of the woman wearing it, and had bumps and bends rather than curves. It had no sleeves, or armholes, and was accessorised with white trainers and a wig made of steel wool. In other words, not a look you might automatically reach for when attending a party hosted by Wintour and Gisele Bündchen.
Every Met Gala has a theme (last year’s was technology, 2015’s was China) and the red carpet is a tightrope between honouring the leitmotif and making the next morning’s Best Dressed lists. But this year’s divide was more fundamental than ever before. For Kawakubo, the whole point of clothes is to challenge established notions of beauty. Whereas for, say, a Victoria’s Secret lingerie model or a female actor in a fragrance advert, the point of clothes is to monetise those same established notions.
It made for an interesting night. Shoutouts must go to those who actually wore Comme. Rihanna gets kudos for a dress that, in true Kawakubo style, defies description. I’ll settle for: say you put a ton of floral upholstery fabric through a shredder, and then made a Swan Lake corps-de-ballet costume out of the pieces. She made it Ri-Ri with red sandals that laced all the way up her legs. Co-host Pharrell Williams’ wife, Helen Lasichanh, took an even more purist approach in a bright-red off-the-runway piece from the most recent show. With no sleeves or armholes, it did beg the question of how to eat dinner, but maybe no one eats there anyway?
Jaden Smith embraced the spirit of Kawakubo while staying faithful to Louis Vuitton with the night’s best accessory: a clutch of his own recently shorn dreadlocks, which he held in his hand like an avant-garde bridal bouquet. Katy Perry wore an elaborate scarlet costume by John Galliano for Maison Margiela, with “Eye Witness” embroidered on to a veil that was clamped to her head with silver hardware. It wasn’t actual Comme des Garçons, but it was definitely out there. Nicki Minaj had the H&M design team mould Kawakubo’s face on to a black obi-style belt, the Japanese designer’s trademark black bob giving the image a touch of Darth Vader. Priyanka Chopra’s Ralph Lauren trenchcoat-dress had a train which, like Rihanna’s 2015 omelette-dress, covered an entire flight of the Met’s famous front steps. Solange Knowles also wore a coat with a train, this time a shiny puffer jacket by Thom Browne. Cara Delevingne was dressed by Chanel, but painted her bald head in feathered silver paint and studded it with crystals.
Just as intriguing as the avant garde gowns was watching as those celebrities whose brand is founded on straight-down-the-line hotness wrestle with the concept of fashion that is not about looking pretty or sexy. New-generation models Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid both applied Kawakubo audaciousness and daring to the familiar Instagram game of How Naked Can You Be In Public, and wore only a gossamer layer of tight black mesh. Outrageous and eye-catching, yes; nuanced or engaged with aesthetic concepts beyond narcissism, less so. (But, hey, Jenner is only 21; Hadid a year younger.)
On the other hand, I thought Kim Kardashian nailed it. Her white Vivienne Westwood dress echoed the exaggerated curves of that white dress that opened the Comme show in March – except, in this case, the cartoonish shape is real. For those of us who choose to interpret Kim Kardashian’s wardrobe as a performance-art project relating to fame, fortune and femininity in the 21st century, the peasant-stylings of this dress and the ostentatious absence of covetable jewellery were a satisfying companion piece to the recent interview with Ellen DeGeneresin which she renounced materialism. The Kardashian brand is in almost every way the polar opposite of Comme des Garçons. But Kim cracked a dress code that left more cerebral partygoers flailing. Go figure.