As every fashionista knows, the first Monday of every May is the biggest day of the year, or as André Leon Talley, the former American editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, puts it in a new documentary, Super Bowl Sunday for the fashion world.
Five years after going behind the scenes at the New York Times to expose the troubles facing the newspaper industry in Page One, director Andrew Rossi sets his sights on the inner workings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and its annual fundraiser, the Met Gala, in his new, equally engaging film, The First Monday in May.
Rossi’s film opens with elegant slow-motion shots of Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence and Lady Gaga posing for the cameras on the red carpet, dazzling in jewels and decked out in haute couture. From there, the director peels back the curtain to trace chronologically the work that creates the glamour and the ambitious exhibition it’s built around, China: Though the Looking Glass.
Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton stresses the Met has a lot riding on the exhibition, which must outdo the surprise success of the 2011 show, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, mounted shortly after the designer’s suicide – the eighth most popular show in the Met’s history. “It’s the show every show I do now is measured against,” says the visibly stressed curator. The film argues that the McQueen show also changed the way art critics viewed fashion.
Besides Bolton, the figure to receive the most screen time is Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who serves as a stern adviser to Bolton while orchestrating the lavish fundraiser which annually attracts the world’s biggest celebrities.
Bolton makes for an appealing presence on-screen (he’s inherently likable and obviously talented), but he’s no match for Wintour. Rossi is unabashedly enamored with the fashion titan: every time she appears in the frame, his camera zooms in on her to catch her every exacting expression.
As in The September Issue, the popular 2009 documentary about Vogue’s all-important bumper edition, Wintour remains an elusive yet compelling presence.
“Fashion is a kind of theatre,” she says at the outset of Rossi’s film. And in The First Monday in May, she frequently appears to be playing a part in line with her alter ego in The Devil Wears Prada, cloaked behind huge designer sunglasses and tethered to a venti Starbucks cup. Rossi digs deeper though, asking Wintour to address her fearsome reputation. It’s what you do with the stereotype that matters, says Wintour, clearly unconcerned by her ancient “nuclear Wintour” nickname.
Controversy threatens to dampen the ebullient mood when Bolton and Wintour are warned that the exhibit could reek of base cultural appropriation to some. But Rossi doesn’t seem bothered by it, shifting the focus to the Met Gala as soon as the potentially damaging topic creeps into the narrative.
As for the show itself, Rossi pulls out all the stops to offer what amounts to ultimate VIP access. George and Amal Clooney share an intimate embrace, Lady Gaga jokes that she needs a “mainline of pinot grigio”, while Lawrence looks frankly bored. Rossi doesn’t forget that the main point of the Met Gala for most of us is to ogle stars dressed to the nines.
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