Where were the Americans at the Met Gala?

American fashion designers need to make more noise on the global stage if they are to progress. The Met Gala might have been a good place to start.

Now the dust has settled, it’s worth reflecting more deeply on the Met Gala in early May. Where, oh where, were all the American designers? As an American fashion journalist, I found their absence deeply disappointing.

Compared to France, America came late to the global fashion scene, an historical fact that perhaps has complicated its status to this day. The Met Gala actually covered two events – the first held in September last year, the second this spring’s ball – to mark the Costume Institute In America fashion exhibitions. It appeared that the purpose of fashion’s answer to the Superbowl was to highlight the rich fashion history of the United States and celebrate a new emerging generation.

But instead of shining a light on the unsung heroes of American design, the biggest names that had everyone talking were the usual big brands: Louis Vuitton, Versace, Prada, Gucci and Burberry. On both nights, notable and emerging American designers should have been at the forefront, but there were hardly any to be found. 

On arguably the biggest night in fashion, how does the community reckon with this snub? This was an occasion to give up-and-coming American fashion designers their big break. Perhaps the problem lies with the Metropolitan Museum’s refusal to fund The Costume Institute budget (despite its annual exhibitions that draw millions of visitors). Thus, Anna Wintour, who chairs the Gala, is forced to work with the big fashion houses that fork out over $200,000 to buy a table – way beyond the budget of smaller designers.

But that’s not the whole story. Anna Wintour, a figurehead for the global fashion industry, and Tom Ford, chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Honorary Chair of the 2022 Met Gala, could do more to bring American designs into the conversation. It was a touch disappointing that Wintour wore a custom Chanel dress to the gala in May, not particularly on song with the ‘Gilded Glamor and White Tie’ theme reflecting America’s Gilded Age (1870-1900). Ford at least acknowledges that the Met Gala is not what it used to be. “The only thing about the Met that I wish hadn’t happened is that it’s turned into a costume party,” he’s said recently.

Over the years, the Met Gala has strayed further from its themes and has become an opportunity for Italian and French fashion big-name houses to market their ready-to-wear lines. Add to this the brand contracts that celebrities and models have obligations to fulfill – often they have little say in what they get to wear. 

That’s not to say many of them didn’t look fabulous. Let’s take one superstar – model Kendall Jenner. Check her out in custom black tulle top with net embroidered overlay and black voluminous double silk satin skirt with hand-pleated ruched details. American designer? Sorry, no – it’s all Prada, right down to her leather triangle handbag.

Say, instead, Kendall had dressed American and the Met Gala had invited the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund finalists to interpret the theme and showcase their skills to the public. Anna Wintour stated that this year’s class of 2022 finalists “represent the very best of what America can be – and what it can stand for”. Vogue featured Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss in its September 2021 issue, but his clothes were nowhere to be found at the Met Gala.

And there’s more. Prabal Gurung, Christopher John Rogers, Head of State, LaQuan Smith, Peter Do, Coach, Ralph Lauren, Christian Siriano, Michael Kors and Area averaged two looks each. In totality, they equalled the number of invitees dressed by a single big European brand. Thom Browne was the only American to buy a table and bring a full crew. 

The two–part exhibition is brilliant, as one would expect of veteran curator Andrew Bolton. The first part, In America: A Lexicon in Fashion, looks at the modern vocabulary of American fashion and defines its attributes. The second part, In America: An Anthology of Fashion, looks at its complex history. It’s a triumph. Which makes the low-key contribution of American designers to the Met Gala all the more disappointing.

This is not the first time American designers have been overlooked by the larger industry. A media favourite topic over the years has been the “death of NYFW”. Despite this notion, New York Fashion Week is currently enjoying a revival with critically acclaimed emerging American designers such as Kerby Jean Raymond, Telfar Clemens, Peter Do, Christopher John Rogers, Elena Velez and Connor Ives. They are forging paths of their own, creating new, more diverse identities for American fashion and doing so in a manner that is inclusive and mutually supportive.

While the Met Gala remains a symbol of the power of modern fashion in the world, its relevance for Americans, present and future, could fade if US designers don’t get more of a look-in. That would be one big pity – and a giant opportunity missed.

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