Big Apple ball, Chinese-style

Major New York exhibition and society event get a China theme

Singer Rihanna arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala 2015 celebrating the opening of "China: Through the Looking Glass," in Manhattan, New York

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In 2007, fashion house Fendi reportedly spent $10 million to host a flashy exhibition on the Great Wall. Four years later, Prada flew over 30 models, as well as a dozen make-up artists and hairdressers to recreate its Milan runway in Beijing. In 2013 Valentino realised that just flying top models across the world was not enough, so it unveiled an entire collection called Shanghai. The clothing – all in red – was sold exclusively in the label’s new Shanghai flagship store as well as in its New York, Paris and Rome outlets.

While it is hardly news that luxury houses have been courting Chinese buyers, even the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is jumping on the bandwagon. The museum’s new show ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ marks the first time the Met’s Costume Institute has curated an exhibit with major financial backing from Chinese donors.“This is the first exhibition that really marks a watershed moment – where we have donors stepping up from China itself,” Maxwell K Hearn, chairman of the Met’s department of Asian art told the Wall Street Journal. “Clearly the Chinese see this very high-profile exhibition as something they want to be associated with.”

According to the Journal, the museum has made no secret of its interest in courting Chinese funds. Met director Thomas Campbell and Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton travelled all the way to Beijing at the beginning of the year to unveil the exhibit’s details. The Met delegation included Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, who told Women’s Wear Daily at the time: “We already have Chinese donors, but obviously you don’t say no to more.”

Thankfully, the Met has friends in high places. Hong Kong textile and apparel mogul Silas Chou, also the Honorary Chair of the Met Gala, and co-chair Wendi Deng Murdoch were both “very instrumental” in recruiting Chinese donors for the show, says Hearn.

The exhibit, which has Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-wai as its artistic director, is nearly three times the scale of previous Costume Institute showings. The 30,000-square-foot display features more than 140 haute-couture and ready-to-wear fashion pieces from designers like Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen and Coco Chanel, against a backdrop of films and Chinese paintings, porcelain, and other art. The theme: how Chinese culture and style have influenced Western fashion designs over the decades.

Take the exhibition’s Wuxia Gallery, for instance, which paid tribute to historical Chinese action heroes. The room is dominated by a monumental sculpture of a bamboo forest, dotted with mannequins wearing Jean Paul Gaultier robes and headpieces. Clips from the film House of Flying Daggers play on a big screen in the background.

Meanwhile, organisers say they picked filmmaker Wong for his artistic eye and also his contributions to fashion: “When you go to any designer, even if the collection’s not about China, there’s always an image from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (a movie directed by Wong in 2000). It had such a big impact on the Western imagination,” Bolton told Jing Daily.

With this year’s theme relating to China, it should be of little surprise that the country’s netizens paid more attention than ever to the dresses worn to the Met Ball, the fundraising gala that coincides with the opening of the annual fashion exhibit. This year’s event lured a host of American celebrities, ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Kim Kardashian.

A-list Chinese starlets also descended on New York for the ball. Red carpet favourite Fan Bingbing did not disappoint, showing up in a gold sequinned dress and an embroidered cape from Chinese designer Christopher Bu. Zhang Ziyi, too, appeared in a Caroline Herrara gown inspired by a traditional Chinese qipao. Gong Li, one of the hosts of the evening, wore a tailor-made Roberto Cavalli gown with with a Chinese fan at the back.

However, it was the Barbados-born singer Rihanna that raised the most eyebrows. She wore a fur-trimmed yellow satin gown designed by the Chinese-born designer Guo Pei. The outfit became the talk of weibo, where netizens said it looked like a pizza or a jidan jianping (a Chinese omelette).

“I’m hungry just looking at Rihanna’s dress,” one netizen wrote.

“Is Rihanna posing as Wu Zetian?” another mocked, referring to the controversial historical figure (China’s only anointed female ruler, see WiC265).

But Rihanna wasn’t the only target of netizen ridicule. Sarah Jessica Parker showed up sporting a flame-like headdress by Philip Treacy, hat designer to British royals, that many pointed out bore a striking resemblance to the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch mascot Huanhuan…

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