Image: MET

Big-name fashion figures, Hollywood stars, tech company executives, and deep-pocketed patrons of the arts will flood the temporarily red-carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan on Monday in camp-inspired wares to celebrate what has been popularly-coined “fashion’s biggest night of the year.” The high fashion-saturated red carpet of the museum’s annual Costume Institute Gala – which has garnered mainstream media attention, namely by way of live E! broadcasting, in recent years – remains one of the most attention-grabbing in the industry, which is why many brands shell out more than $200,000 for tables at the event.

The red carpet will inevitably be smattered with garments from Gucci, which is sponsoring this year’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion”-themed museum exhibition. More than that, it will be graced by famous figures clad in with garments by the brand sponsoring their attendance; this is a major marketing opportunity for brands, after all.

The exhibition, itself – which opens to the public on May 9th – will “explore the origins of the camp aesthetic, and how it has evolved from a place of marginality to become an important influence on mainstream culture” by way of 250-plus garments and accessories – from graphic-heavy Moschino t-shirts and quotation mark-centric Off-White wares to Thom Browne suits and a Jean-Charles de Castelbajac dress constructed almost entirely from stuffed bears.

Look beyond the red carpet and you will see that the evening is big business. The money raised by way of the gala – some $13.5 million as of 2017 – is enough to fund the Costume Institute’s annual operating budget in its entirety, and so, it is in the interest of the organizers to keep the appeal of the event – which got its start in 1948 when fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert decided to host a fundraising dinner to support the then-newly-founded Costume Institute ahead of the opening of its annual exhibit – intact.

In its early days, a Met Gala ticket cost $50 and attendees consisted almost exclusively of Manhattan’s charity event-going circle, and figures from the fashion industry. Under the watch of former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland, who was tasked to consult for the Costume Institute in 1972, the celebrity-centric event as we know it today took shape.

Attendance for the star-studded event is notoriously much trickier than it was at the outset. Even if an individual has the $35,000 it currently takes to purchase a ticket, or a brand is willing to splash out between $200,000 or $300,000 for a table, getting on the guest list is not quite so simple, as the long-standing industry urban legend goes. Vogue editor-in-chief and Conde artistic honcho, Ms. Wintour, is said to personally review – and approve or ban – every name on the 650 or so person list.

Vogue’s traffic-meal-ticket du jour Kim Kardashian was reportedly banned in years prior, as have various cast members of the “Real Housewives” franchises. According to the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman, “Rumors have gone around for years that Ms. Wintour turns away guests she does not know or who she feels do not fit the image she wants her event to project.”

The exclusivity surrounding the list of invitees, as furthered by  the mystique of the prerequisite stamp of approval from Wintour, almost certainly helps to boost the appeal of the entire thing; this very model of strict control in light of demand has helped put Hermes and its famed $12,000 (and over) Birkin bag on the “it” list for more than 30 years. It is currently helping streetwear stalwart Supreme to command a $1 billion valuation. In an industry as fickle and image-driven as fashion, few things motivate quite like a list or a cool kids club.

The fashion industry’s penchant for maintaining the status quo also lends a helping hand. As journalist Amy Odell wrote recently of why brands continue to pay for print ads when magazine readership continues to plummet, “Tradition remains powerful in an industry built on constant change that, paradoxically, is full of entrenched interests and doesn’t really like to change very much.” That same reasoning applies here, as well.

71 years after the Gala got its start, Vogue readily proclaims that “on the fashion calendar, few dates are as important,” something WWD called into question recently. In an article last month, the trade publication suggested that “some big designers might be skipping the Met Gala this year,” and noted that in the digital era, big brands – such as Ralph Lauren, Dior and Calvin Klein, which have reportedly opted not to purchase tables this year – no longer need events like this to garner publicity; with an influencer and an Instagram account, they can do it themselves, WWD asserts.

“The fashion-media matrix has certainly been irrevocably altered in recent years,” the trade notes. “If [a] brand wants to get an image of an actor or a ‘brand ambassador’ in one of its looks out into the world, it doesn’t need to spend well upward of $300,000 for a red-carpet event to do it when an Instagram post by it or an influencer can do the trick.”

At a time when brands are able to drum up much-needed PR on their own without a $300,000 table, can an event, such as the Met Gala, hold its weight?

Apparently it can. According to a rep for Conde Nast, which helps sponsor the exhibition, and whose artistic director Wintour spearheads the gala, tickets are sold out, and have been for months. And in fact, brands that have never paid for tables before, such as Louis Vuitton, are shelling out this year.