This is the time of year when, in the normal course of 21st-century events, an army of stylists, makeup artists, florists, designers and celebrities would be about to descend on the Carlyle and Mark hotels in New York, clogging the elevators with garment bags bearing the hautest names: Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Versace.
It is the time when paparazzi would be checking their equipment, and best and worst dressed lists would start proliferating.
It’s the week before the first Monday in May — which is to say, the week before the Met Gala, the most watched fashion-celebrity-society event of the year, and the party that heralds the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual blockbuster fashion show. But this year, because of the novel coronavirus, the exhibition, “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” has been postponed and the party delayed indefinitely.
At least in real life. In a parallel universe known as High Fashion Twitter or “hft” (Twitter likes to lowercase itself, lest it be seen as shouting), it’s another story.
On May 4, the first hft Met gala will take place. Hosted by a group of Gen-Z students/hft users, it was originally conceived last November as a fun companion piece to an event they all followed obsessively, but assumed they would and could never access.
Since then, however, as the pandemic has swept across the world, putting an end to public gatherings and trapping everyone in sweatpants-styled isolation, what started out at a lark has become the only party in town. One that has a rather different agenda.
Instead of the highly stage-managed, highly branded, extremely lucrative marketing event the Met Gala has become, controlled by its chairwoman Anna Wintour, who determines the guest list and who wears what, when they arrive and what they eat, it will be an open-access celebration of dress as an outlet for self-expression.
Instead of requiring fame, fortune, quantifiable influence — or even new clothes! — to merit a ticket to entry, it requires only enthusiasm, imagination and a willingness to engage.
Guests will “arrive” by posting their looks — collages or photographs or other visual creations embedded in a specially-designed layout — on Twitter with the hashtag #HFMetGala2020. Almost 900 people have signed up to “attend.” (Last year some 550 guests were at the actual Met Gala.) Vogue and “Access Hollywood” have been in touch.
And hft, a highly vocal but not particularly well-known subculture of the social mediasphere dedicated to an extremely curated (some might say extremely critical) approach to the culture, science and exotica of fashion, may never be the same.
Not to mention the Met Gala itself.
Meet the New Co-Hosts
“The Met is really an event that brings us all together every year, almost like homecoming,” said Aria Olson (@pughatory), effectively the Anna Wintour of the event, if Anna were a 19-year-old aerospace engineering major at the University of Michigan given to giggling. The “us” she was talking about was the hft community.
Currently in isolation in Kansas City, Mo., Ms. Olson has a crown of dark hair like Ms. Wintour, though hers is more of a lob than a bob and is not quite as perfectly manicured. After the theme of this year’s exhibition was announced in November, it occurred to Ms. Olson that “it would be good to give back to the community that gave me so much,” and she put out the original call.
Almost overnight she received 97 applications to help organize the event. She chose 10, ranging in age from 15 to 22, from seven different countries.
Known as the “curators” and “coordinators” of the event, they include Senam Attipoe (@mymy_miumiu), 20, a pre-med sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, double-majoring in English and public health science, who is from the suburbs of Bethesda, Md.; Perla Montan (@perlamontan), 19, from the International Fashion Academy in Paris, who is the fashion historian of the group; and Sofia Abadi (@SAINTLIAR), a 22-year-old from Argentina who is studying architecture, design and urban areas at the University of Buenos Aires and who is in charge of the hft Met gala’s graphic design, including the invite and branding. Among a group of equally excited others.
Ms. Olson discovered hft in the spring of 2018. “I was in a really dark place in my life,” she said. “I was very depressed. I was just clicking through when I saw something on the McQueen show “Plato’s Atlantis,” and I just thought, ‘This is a whole new world.’” She hadn’t been especially aware of fashion before that; she was a child math protégé, who started college part-time at 13.
“When I find something I love, I tend to throw myself into it,” she said. “Hft became something to look forward to, a place I could express myself and get as much information as possible.”
Though Instagram is largely touted as the social media home of fashion, unquestionably favored by the industry elite, and though Twitter has never made the same show of courting the industry as Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube — all of which have hired special fashion liaisons — Ms. Olson and her committee insist that Twitter is the more authentic platform for hft.
“Instagram is more based on imagery rather than knowledge — it just feels manipulated and fake,” said Alejandra Beltrán (@wrkhs), 21, a student at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia studying design and industrial engineering. Hft is about dialogue, she added. Its users love fashion but aren’t afraid to kick it off its pedestal.
Not Just for Famous People
As to how, exactly, the gala will work, attendees simply register on a Google form, where they choose whether they will use photos to create a look, style themselves in their own clothes, illustrate a new look or go vintage in an assigned brand archive. Buying new clothes for the event has been discouraged. Guests have to promise to avoid “unnecessary social gatherings.”
Originally the idea was simply to mimic the theme of the Met Gala (the committee has been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf, one of the inspirations for the Met’s show, and posting threads on her work), but the hft gala organizers have since extended the parallels.
Like the party, which acts as the primary fund-raiser for the Costume Institute’s operating budget, they are raising money, though in their case for the International Medical Corps, a humanitarian organization focused on health care, supplies and training. They are asking for $5 contributions; in return, they are going to create an e-book to be distributed after the event, which will function sort of like a Vogue special issue, documenting some of the evening’s most striking looks.
And like the Met party, where Ms. Wintour famously helps match brands to celebrity guests, the hft organizers have created a category called Brand Challenge, where the attendee must create a look by going through the fashions of a house to find something on-theme, though their pairings are done at random, and without any ulterior motives (other than perhaps inspiring a guest to learn more about a brand they don’t know). So, for example, @vauntlaurent has Giambattista Valli, and @hedicelimane has Isabel Marant.
Though there will be more than 60 brands represented — not just names that can afford a $200,000 to $300,000 table, a $35,000 seat or be cool enough to merit an invitation — certain big houses are not included because of their role in past controversies surrounding cultural appropriation. They include Jean Paul Gaultier, Moschino, Zuhair Murad and even Comme des Garçons (in the past a hft stalwart). Cultural appropriation is one of the issues that gets hft most het up.
(Not that hft is without its own share of controversies, including charges that many in the community favor an unrealistic wraithlike beauty ideal, not to mention the Western designer canon.)
And the virtual gala is not going to have best and worst dressed lists. “That’s exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do,” Ms. Olson said.
On May 4, beginning at midnight on the East Coast, the arrivals/posts will start. The organizers will hand off the hosting to one another depending on their time zone, and the party will run for 24 hours. Every look will be open for comments.
What to Wear?
Unlike most traditional Met Gala guests or Vogue organizers, who start planning their outfits months before the actual event, Ms. Olson and her cohort are only starting to think about what they will wear. Or imagine wearing.
They haven’t had time, between the explosion of attention and dealing with some dramas, as when Vogue announced its own pseudo-Met Gala virtual event, the #MetGalaChallenge, in which the magazine and Billy Porter, the “Pose” star famous for his entrance-making outfits, invited Instagram users to recreate their favorite look from a past gala and post it. That idea did not go down well with hft, which called it “copycat.”
Also, some of the organizers are in the midst of finals. “There’s only about four hours when we sleep,” said Ms. Olson, who just learned that she has been accepted to graduate school for industrial engineering.
Still, for her look she is thinking about the gender fluid 18th-century French diplomat, the Chevalier d’Éon, and Thom Browne’s half-jacket silhouettes. (“To be dressed by Thom Browne would be the cherry on top,” Ms. Olson said.) Ms. Attipoe has Tudor headpieces and Alexander McQueen’s 2013 collection on her mind. Ms. Montan is dreaming of Zac Posen and 1940s postwar looks. They are nervous and excited in equal measure. They know that more than their few thousand followers will be watching.
And if part of that nervousness is an unforeseen result of the current global situation — “We are all sleeping, eating and drinking Covid 24/7,” Ms. Abadi said — it is still an opportunity. They don’t want to waste it.
The Met Gala is traditionally “an event that is really super-exclusive, and we are bringing it the world,” Ms. Beltrán said.
There is a certain French Revolution-like air of taking back the party by those normally kept on the other side of the velvet rope that is almost irresistible — and not just to the generation who is driving it, but those watching. It’s like the best fantasy dress-up game, where the choice of clothing is driven by reason and research, not a whack-a-mole game of sales, celebrity and mutual back-scratching. And where the guests (as opposed to brands or stylists) are accountable for what they wear.
“I never thought we would get this far, but it’s like we are a movement on our own,” Ms. Abadi said.
Ms. Attipoe agreed. “It always felt like fashion and the Met pretty much mirrored each other, but I never felt part of that world,” she said. “Now I see us as the leaders who will come next, and for us to be so inclusive makes me feel really excited about the future.”
That’s a development the actual organizers might take into consideration when considering next year.