Lee Pace is looking forward. He has several reasons to do so: a recurring role in the profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe, an upcoming Apple TV+ show, and a very strong pair of eyebrows. But right now there’s one thing in particular that is dominating much of the American actor’s bandwidth. That is an invitation to the Met Gala: New York's weirdest, wildest and most exclusive party for the fashion and celebrity set, which takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this evening. “I’ve been, under the best circumstances, pretty much a hermit up here, so I don’t get out much,” he says in a warm, Northeastern accent, over the phone from upstate New York a few days before the event. “I’m really looking forward to going out, and seeing some people I haven’t seen in a long time, and I don’t know what to expect after this crazy year and a half we’ve all been through together.”
The 42-year-old actor – who played Thranduil in The Hobbit movies, is currently playing Ronan in the Captain Marvel and Guardian of the Galaxy franchises, and will soon be seen in Apple TV+ mega-budget sci-fi series Foundation – isn’t alone. After the pandemic closed doors and emptied social calendars, the Met Gala – the vaunted, annual fundraiser gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute – took a fallow year. It has been missed. While awards ceremonies and other red carpets were still rolled out, the passion project of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour stands apart from the Oscars. There are no official awards here: no soaring orchestral interludes or poorly disguised disappointments. Just a theme, a cadre of insiders, and some of the most awe-inspiring outfits that weren’t built to exist in real life. Or, for that matter, on a regular red carpet. As such, it has become one of the hottest tickets in Hollywood, despite taking place almost 3,000 miles away in New York City. Everybody wants to go.
Though the very first Met Gala was held in 1948, it arguably began in earnest when Wintour assumed the chairwomanship in 1995. Working in tandem with Andrew Bolton, the Metropolitan’s curator of the Costume Institute, and partner of fashion designer Thom Browne – whom Pace can thank for his invitation – the event has since snowballed into a pop cultural confluence that has become reliable sidebar fodder for tabloids, newspapers, websites and social media accounts of all stripes and dignities. It isn’t Pace’s first rodeo either. “I went in 2008, and even back then, it was extraordinary. I went to Julliard [performing arts conservatory], I lived right across the park from the Met,” he says. “So to go and actually be at a party there, and be at the Temple of Dendur where they set the dinner up? It was so extraordinary.” Of course, a lot of things at the Met Gala have changed in the 13 years since Pace first attended. The guest list’s flinch-inducing star power is not one of them. “Everyone’s guard is down after the red carpet. I met Tom Ford that night and went on to have a very small part in A Single Man, so I’ll look forward to seeing him, and shaking his hand. I ran into so many people.”
There are no rolling cameras inside the Met Gala: attendees have been partially forbidden to post on social media since 2015 so as not to dissipate the glittering smokescreen. Still, a few leaked tidbits from Snapchat-happy celebrities have allowed the rest of the uninvited world to understand the sort of all-access privileges guests are afforded. In 2017, Kylie Jenner, in authentic Kardashian form, broke the no-phones diktat to upload a bathroom mirror selfie that included A$AP Rocky, P Diddy, Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Frank Ocean, Brie Larson, Paris Jackson and Lily Donaldson, among many other Very Famous People. In another, designer Prabal Gurung revealed the women's washroom as the unofficial designated smoking area. Rita Ora also uploaded a photo of Dakota Johnson honking on a cigarette. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like it where the red carpet is so major,” says Pace. “It’s a very old-fashioned experience. So I’m down for that, and it’s fun to be a part of it.”
Getting in amongst all of that at the Met Gala seems easy enough, then. Actually getting in, less so. Like Mordor, but just with a little more Moët and acupuncture, one does not simply walk into the Met Gala. This entire event operates on the fumes of celebrity and exclusivity. Or at least it does during normal years. And, as we’re so often told by rolling news, this is no ‘normal’ year (just like the last). With much of the world still barred from entering the US altogether, a select few have either invoked the power of their American passport, laundered their entry requirements with a larney two-week stay in Oaxaca de Juárez, or been granted special passage by a bullish TSA to enter an elite enclave that has become even more cloistered, even more elite – a feat which takes some going after four years of big beautiful walls. The Met Gala has never been so exclusive.
With the likes of Harry Styles, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and the Hadids all on past guest lists, the Met Gala is one of the few invitations beyond awards ceremonies that the A-list frantically seek out. It helps if you’re part of that set. Because, while tickets reportedly go on sale for anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000, you’ll need more than a fat wallet to get in. A 2017 report from the New York Post’s Page Six alleged that Wintour personally vets each and every ticket application – even the 100 members of the Friends of the Costume Institute, a committee that raises funds for the Met Museum and makes the entire event possible. Vogue famously refuses to comment on the ticketing process.
That said, Andrew Rossi's 2016 documentary The First Monday in May afforded a rare glimpse into the Met Gala's byzantine and uncompromising assembly line. When Calvin Klein wished to bring along Josh Hartnett, his requests were swiftly denied by Vogue’s director of special projects, Sylvana Ward Durrett. “What has he done lately?” the elfin staffer asks on a call. “Nothing. You’re all set.” When asked why 2021 was set to be his big Met Gala return, Pace was refreshingly candid. “Oh, well, I was invited – that’s really the short answer to it,” he says with a laugh. “But I have a show coming out in like two weeks, so it’s a good time to dust off the suit and show up in public.”
Like its guests, the Met Gala also needs to show up this year. After the 2020 postponement, the board is no doubt keen to prove that the fashion industry – and its biggest, most gilded bash – is still in rude health despite an extended period which forced many to rethink and reassess their shopping habits. Sure, we’ve all flocked to the post-lockdown party, but this time, we’re more than happy to revive our pre-lockdown stuff. With a planet on fire, and brands applying green face paint with a trowel, how does the Met Gala keep the spotlight on what is, ostensibly, one long fashion show full of one-off, never-to-be-worn-again pieces? It will be interesting to see how – or if – such questions are addressed this year, or in the future.
Regardless of the many hurdles in place, The New York Times reported that labels are still happy to pay north of $275,000 for tables that are filled with muses, senior aides and ‘friends of the brand’. In 2018, Jared Leto and Lana Del Rey accompanied Gucci’s Alessandro Michele; fitting tablemates given their ambassadorships of the Gucci Guilty fragrance. In 2019, Katy Perry, who has long attended Moschino shows at the pleasure of creative director Jeremy Scott, arrived in a very Moschino chandelier dress. Prada took Frank Ocean. Burberry and Ezra Miller. And, of course, Thom Browne and Lee Pace.
“I’ve been a friend of Thom’s for some years now, since 2017,” says Pace. “He was showing in Paris and I just remember thinking that the collection had such a sense of humour, an intelligent sense of humour. It was creative and fun. He came along to the opening of Angels in America when I did that on Broadway. So when he asked me along to the Met Gala, I was thrilled at the invitation.” When asked over email how he decided upon his roster for this year's event, the designer said: “I am always inspired by people who are the best at what they do... Andrew [Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute] and I had the privilege to see Lee perform on the opening night and witness this in person.”
Pace, and Thom Browne, also seem to understand the theme of the Met Gala – a dress code which changes with each passing year. For 2021: ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion’. It is straightforward. Pace gets it. “I’m intrigued to know where this goes. Andrew has such a sharp eye, as does Thom,” he says. “Earlier this week, I had a great conversation with Thom about what black tie means to him, and all of us at the table will be in a version of that black tie. Whenever you go into the Thom Browne office, everyone is in uniform, and it just looks so chic, and there’s something powerful and polished about how everyone looks when there’s a cohesive statement of ‘this is our code’. There’s something uniquely American about that, and black tie and its expression.”
Pace is on track to nail this year’s Met Gala then. He’s got the connections, the résumé, the talent, and full marks on the theme. Prior dress codes have included ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ and ‘Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years’. All relatively comprehensible. Other years, to non-fashion types, have been about as clear as mud: ‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’, ‘Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between’ and ‘Cubism and Fashion’. Herein lies the problem when celebrities aren’t always armed with the knowledge of a Central Saint Martin’s postgraduate. Failure to meet the temperature set by the Met Gala’s committee can result in much sniffing from fashion’s criticerati, who observe the red carpet with the hawkishness of a Premier League football scout. Case in point: the year centred upon Rei Kawakubo, the legendary founder of Comme des Garçons; several outfits weren’t very Comme des Garçons, or very directional at all (the exception being Rihanna, who, as is tradition, did the homework, and did remain as The Internet’s darling-in-chief thanks to a floral explosion in 2017).
But the most important part once you’re in? Finding the mirth in it all. While fashion is a serious business, it was, and should still be, a fun one. That makes the Met Gala, a night that is a direct tribute to costume, something of a circus. And Thom Browne, with its shrunken suits and schoolboy whimsy and genderfluid bent, is incredibly fun. Pace seems acutely aware of that. “I have more fun with things now. I probably don’t take myself as seriously as I used to,” he says. “This occasion is formal, but there’s fun to it, there’s a sense of levity… It’s part of the occasion, so y’know, I would really cringe to think that I was taking it too seriously.”
We talk of his outfit for the evening: a black tie short suit that has become a permanent signature of Thom Browne. “It was always a given that I was going to wear this. I think they’re fun, and kinda sexy?” Pace says. “When I tried it on a couple of days ago, there’s something irreverent about it. It feels like me.” Which, again, is an important part of an evening where Zayn Malik dons robotic battle armour and Billy Porter arrives on a golden Sedan chair. It would be a waste to get in and not get a bit weird.
As the world tries to move on from the pandemic, the Met Gala has, pleasantly and unintentionally, become about much more than a silly night of fashion and fame. As the red carpet is unfurled this evening, there’s a rewinding of the timeline as big, magic cities awaken once more: London, Paris, or New York trying to restore the evenings that made them so mystical in the first place. The Met Gala, then, feels especially earned this year. “It’s a big night, and we’re getting back to it now, we’re starting to repair,” says Pace. When I ask about his pre-Gala ritual, of the customs necessary before what will be a hazy blur of a night out, the actor has the city in his sights – and still looks forward. “I’m going to run around Central Park, which I haven’t done in a long time. That six-mile loop brings back so many good memories,” he says. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to: a nice New York weekend, and the memories of that. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
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