On the second Monday of September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute and Vogue hosted the first of two galas in honor of its latest fashion exhibition, "In America," which will debut in two parts. (The first, "A Lexicon of Fashion," opens on Sept. 18; the second, "An Anthology of Fashion," will go up on May 5 and have its own ball.) This marks the grand return of the famed Met Gala, which was canceled in 2020 due to Covid-19; though the pandemic is still on going, the Costume Institute marched on with the fundraising event, albeit with what Time reported to be a reduced guest list and a vaccination requirement. And some attendees — like Ariana DeBose, a performer best known for her work on Broadway who's set to play Anita in Steven Spielberg's upcoming "West Side Story" — didn't know they were going until mere days before.
DeBose walked her very first Met Gala red carpet on Monday with one of the greats of American fashion, Michael Kors. Though this moment came together a bit last minute, this is a relationship that, according to her stylists, Zadrian Smith and Sarah Edmiston — a.k.a. Zadrian + Sarah — has been slowly building over time.
"Our studio really is built on strategy, so nothing that we do is haphazard," says Smith. "This is the conversation, the dialogue, that we've been having for a while. Of course, her performing at the show was a really big moment."
Just last Friday, DeBose performed live at Michael Kors' Spring 2022 show during New York Fashion Week. That moment really sealed the deal in terms of proving her star-power, the styling duo argues.
"The Michael Kors show does call in the crème de la crème of New York, from Broadway to the fashion scene," Smith, who was in attendance, says. "We always say to our clients that every appearance is an audition, full stop. There are casting agents looking at you, there are editors looking at you. Ariana came to slay. As the rehearsal started, I was like, 'She's a star.'"
"She had a commanding presence," Edmiston adds.
That was Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, DeBose was at Michael Kors HQ, with an invitation to be one of his dates to the Met and a fitting underway.
That type of curveball isn't a challenge Zadrian & Sarah shy away from. "A publicist was like, 'Everyone knows you're the people that can get 10 minutes and make it really amazing.' We were like, 'Thank you. That sounds like a scheduling career nightmare,'" Edminston says.
"Our job is to use the fashion to tell a story, to collaborate with our clients. Sometimes the story we're telling is their personal story, sometimes it's the story of them in a renaissance and coming into change and rebranding themselves. Sometimes, we're telling the story of, 'Hey, industry, pay attention. I'm ready to be seen. I'm not hiding anymore,'" she continues. "That's probably why we can turn around something amazing really quickly, because we're not coming from depending on this brand to make something happen for us. We're coming from our studio working with the client on their narrative. We always have something great up our sleeve. We always have a rabbit out of a hat. It's part of the fun, really, for us, to make sure that happens every time, whether we get 10 days or 10 minutes."
DeBose, Smith and Edmiston landed on a "fresh off the runway" moment, as Smith teased ahead of the red carpet: a silver metallic sheath dress with floral lace embroidery, from the just-revealed collection. The silhouette is "the most classic '90s reference, the classic slip dress," he says, "but then what makes it so amazing is how delicate the craftsmanship is."
"What you have to know about Ariana is you don't need to give her limelight — she brings her own," Edmiston notes. "She's her own presence. She's a commanding, powerful woman, a force of nature and a force of energy. What we love about dressing her in that vein is that we don't need to do trains and drama. She's that force field. It's showy in one way and it's subtle and discreet in another. It's very classic, it's very her and it's very Michael Kors. I think they're two people who very much know their own identity. We were really lucky and fortunate to find one piece that overlapped for both of their identities perfectly."
What sealed the deal, though, was when, during the fitting, DeBose's partner remarked that she really saw her in the look. "When someone that's very close to the person can say, 'I see my person in this big moment,' we've done our job," Smith says.
Despite the evening's theme, we saw a lot of non-American brands on the Met Gala red carpet. To Zadrian + Sarah, Michael Kors pretty much epitomizes the American fashion industry.
"American classicism has such a different backbone than a European classicism, in the approach to tailoring, in the crossover — there's more gender fluidity in American classic fashion and tailoring. That's something that Michael Kors does brilliantly," says Edmiston (who's Irish). "There's an element of frivolity to it, a brilliant ability to be a jumpsuit or a suit, but then cover one part of it sequins. The American fashion story and history is one of a merge of modern classicism, frivolity and a lack of historical stiffness. There's more of a freedom to the tailoring and more of a freedom to the representation of what is considered an American classic."
To Smith, who is American but is based in London, "American fashion has always been about making money — full stop. It's mass market on a global scale. It's consumerism on a global scale scale. It's capitalism on a global scale. Michael Kors is one of the few American companies who's been able to go public and turn over a billion dollar revenue. That's American fashion. No shame."
"American fashion has always been firmly rooted in its Americanism. That's actually really amazing," he continues. "I think about Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta — these are all designers who were so confident in what they were doing. Don't get me wrong, obviously there was the Battle of Versailles and stuff of that nature, but to be an American designer is a very special thing. It comes with a very special pedigree and training that's so different from an Italian designer or a French designer."
This event and exhibition come at a crucial time, from Smith's point of view, where the industry and American society at large could use a boost from some buzz and excitement. "I was driving past the event, and people were already camping out," he says.
"For us, the red carpet is a celebration of life. It's a celebration of people. It's a celebration of creativity," Edmiston notes. "The red carpet is the highest, most energetic place of the merge of those things — it's people and their art and their stories and their films and their albums and their look... In a funny way, for us, everything is the Oscars. We get so deeply involved in everything. We live it. We love it. It's our life. We're just thrilled that it's back, because it's a really important celebration of all those things."