director andrew rossi on infiltrating the met gala and navigating the cultural landmines of ‘looking glass'
The Met Gala documentary 'The First Monday in May' premieres at Tribeca Film Festival this week. We talk to its director about gaining unprecedented access to the most exclusive event on the fashion calendar.
$25,000 was the going rate for a ticket to the China: Through the Looking Glass gala last year. Over 136 celebrities walked the 150 yards of red carpet, eight of them wearing Chinese or Chinese-American designers (seven wore Versace). 225 approved reporters documented the event for outlets ranging from glossy magazines to Snapchat. But only one of them was also granted access to the offices, ateliers, and basements of insiders from Karl Lagerfeld to John Galliano as they prepared for and pondered the exhibition and its broader cultural effect. Director Andrew Rossi has now turned this rare footage into a documentary giving audiences unprecedented access to the most exclusive event on the fashion calendar.
It goes without saying that going backstage at the spectacular event was even more difficult than scoring a ticket. But it wasn't illustrious ice queen Anna Wintour who was hesitant to have the curtain lifted. The Met Gala is certainly her party, and the documentary features more than its share of her classic glacial stares and burn book quotes. In one scene she strongly suggests demolishing one of the museum's interior column's to better facilitate an ideal dining layout. But even Anna concedes that the true visionary of Through the Looking Glass is the Met Museum Costume Institute's Andrew Bolton. If the infamous editrix is known for her watertight grasp on the intersection of fashion and celebrity, the introverted curator is equally intriguing in his borderline-religious, behind-the-scenes worship of fashion as art. One of the most moving scenes follows Bolton walking through the deserted galleries after the night has wound down and the guests changed into their after party outfits.
Ahead of the documentary's premiere at Tribeca Film Festival this week, and its theatrical release on Friday, i-D spoke to Rossi about navigating the exhibition's cultural landmines and the significance of Rihanna's Guo Pei "Black Frozen" moment.
Have you always had an interest in fashion? And why was the Met Gala so interesting to you?
I was interested in going behind the scenes at an institution, and also in unpacking the mythology surrounding another institution, which was Anna Wintour. I think being able to see her working in conjunction with Andrew Bolton was a fresh way to look at many different ideas — is fashion art? How do art and commerce relate? And then, finally, why is Anna Wintour so motivated by what the costume center does?
Did shooting this film change your perception of whether fashion should be considered an art form?
Yes. I think fashion has always been something that I've appreciated from afar, and certainly it was a thrill to met Jean Paul Gaultier, who in the 90s, through movies like Unzipped, made me want to know more about him. He was already a leading figure in my imagination, as with any artist or creative person doing things that were postmodern — mixing and matching different elements, which is something that transcends fashion as a discipline. Being able to follow Andrew Bolton as he put together his approach to the exhibition really deepened my appreciation for the creative prerogative of the designer.
There was one very poignant scene with John Galliano in his studio. What was the significance of filming that scene for you?
It was amazing to be able to film with John Galliano in one of the few appearances he's done since he returned to working in fashion. It was maybe just a month or so before his first show with Margiela. I think his insight into his own process is even richer now than it was in the past. He talked about how his creative process was a form of meditation for him — it was an escape from neurosis or other problems he's been through. It was really fascinating to hear him talk and see him look at specific costumes that he's made in the past with Andrew Bolton.
There was also a lot of focus on the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition. How pivotal do you consider that exhibition was in shaping the public perception of couture?
Well, exactly as you say. The Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition was sort of a line in the sand. After that point people looked to fashion as a vehicle for exhibitions and museums that can draw tremendously broad crowds, can be multimedia installations that are thrilling, and can raise a lot of money. That makes a lot of people very happy and some people not so happy, so it's a little bit controversial. Andrew Bolton was the person who cracked the code, as it were, on how to mount an exhibition of fashion. With so many different inputs and reasons in the form of the Savage Beauty exhibition, it was a phenomenon.
China: Through the Looking Glass actually out-performed the McQueen exhibition in terms of numbers. Do you think it was equally pivotal?
I think the cultural landmines that China: Through the Looking Glass took on are very significant. Reinforcing the power of fashion to draw audiences in a serious critical rigorous context was pivotal and important. It's just like Andrew Bolton says in the film — after the success of Savage Beauty, everyone is looking to the sophomore effort that will equal or outdo Savage Beauty. He managed it, so at now can relax to a certain degree. But of course he won't!
What was the most surprising thing that you learned about what it takes to pull such an event together?
It was very surprising to see how in the last couple of days the whole exhibition is mounted in its final form. One would think when one walks through the galleries that those mannequins, and those LCD screens showing a loop of The Last Emperor, were meant to live there. Everything seems to come together so seamlessly, and that is the product of many months of work — but then in the last three or four days it's just round-the-clock installation. I was really surprised to see the museum enter that zone of really military-esque efficiency.
What would you say to people who feel negatively about the couture and celebrity crossover? What wider cultural effect do you think that this relationship can have?
I think it goes back to Rihanna on the red carpet. Harold Koda, the former curator in charge of the Costume Institute, says that Anna Wintour sort of understood that the marriage of celebrity and couture would make the sum of their parts more meaningful than each of those two things individually. In Rihanna you see that really coming to live, because she is walking up the stairs with her biography and everything we know about her, and all the cultural authority she has as a rock star. But she's also wearing this Guo Pei dress that took reportedly two years to weave. André Leon Talley says, "She's the queen of the night — she's the Black Frozen." She's like a Cinderella character, so in that moment she's a performance artist. She creates a new thing. If it were another woman wearing that dress, who we didn't know, it might not be as moving. And if it were a different dress, or literally a costume from Disneyland, it would also be different. Then it's all happening on the steps of the Met — it can only exist there. That's I think a really fascinating new creation in that moment.
Text Hannah Ongley
Images Magnolia Pictures