Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The First Monday in May

Remember that Guo Pei dress Rihanna wore to the Met gala?
On my flight back from Beijing to Hong Kong, I watched the documentary The First Monday in May, which follows how the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour put together the 2015 exhibition and gala, China: Through the Looking Glass.

It's a huge undertaking, combining Chinese-inspired fashion with museum pieces from the Asian Art collection, pairing outfits inspired by or look similar to actual works of art in the museum's archives. But it's not just about ancient China, it's also about Communist China, and contemporary China, featuring today's designers.


Andrew Bolton is the Costume Institute curator at the Met, his dream job since he was young. He strongly believes that fashion is an art form, something some of his colleagues in other departments don't necessarily accept, but the massive gala is a big fundraiser for the museum, something they can't ignore or look down on.

However, many heads of other departments take the opportunity, as the exhibits shape up, to express their concerns that they don't want the clothes to overshadow the museum pieces.

One exhibit showing the inspiration from Ming vases
It's a telling insight into the politics at the Met, and watching how Bolton navigates through it all.

Meanwhile clothes are already arriving at the museum for the costume department to carefully document and decide how they will arrange them in the exhibits. Different designers are interviewed, and Jean-Paul Gaultier admits he has never been to China, but in a way doesn't want to go, because he wants to have a fantasy in his mind of what China is to him.

John Galliano's fantastical dresses are also featured, Coco Chanel's vintage pieces of gold and black sequinned jackets remind you of sleek lacquered cabinets, and Vivienne Tam's homage to Imperial China and her pop-art tribute to Mao Zedong.

It's disappointing Tam wasn't interviewed in the documentary, as she would have given an interesting perspective about how her clothes shape her identity as a Hong Kong designer.

Vivienne Tam's fun Mao dress
While Wintour argues that art moves people, fashion can as well, though Gaultier says he never imagined his clothes would be in a museum.

The petite woman is a powerhouse, fierce, decisive and meticulous. Wintour is in charge of the invitation list and features all kinds of people from philanthropists, to actors, singers, artists, businessmen and politicians. Imagine having to figure out where everyone sits! Her assistant tries to keep her cool the whole time, but there's a huge snag when Rihanna and her entourage are going to cost much more than they budgeted for...

And then there are many mini crises along the way in setting up the exhibition, making deadlines even tighter and working around the clock...

There are also concerns the exhibition is a gweilo perspective of China, and the only Chinese person working directly on the project is film director Wong Kar-wai, who doesn't seem impressed by how things are panning out. He is rightly concerned that the exhibition isn't authentic enough, and also how everyone seems to want to have a hand in things.

Wong Kar-wai is concerned how the show will turn out
To an extent Wong must be familiar with these kinds of situations, or perhaps as a revered director, he is used to having everything his way?

The exhibition generated a lot of interest, and a lot of coverage of the gala, thanks to Rihanna showing up in a yellow gown by Guo Pei that many immediately pronounced it looked like an omelette or scrambled eggs, and criticized Sarah Jessica Parker's hideous headdress that looked comical.

It's a documentary that keeps your interest throughout and if anyone is interested in event planning, fashion, museum curation and art, then The First Monday in May is for you. It's a riveting eye-opener...

The First Monday in May (2016)
Directed by Andrew Rossi
90 minutes


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