“Fashion can create a dream, create a fantasy,” ponders Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour at the start of The First Monday in May. “But there might be some questions whether it belongs in a museum like the Met.”
Wintour is being facetious, of course. New York’s storied Metropolitan Museum of Art has housed and curated the Costume Institute for more than 60 years, and although the department is ignominiously relegated to the museum’s basement, it is also connected to one of the best-known parties in the world: the annual Met Gala, in which A-list celebrities hobnob with famous fashion designers, all for the sake of art.
Much like he did with the newspaper industry in his 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, director Andrew Rossi uses The First Monday in May to take us on an all-access tour of the fashion industry during one specific window of time. As Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton prepares the 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass, which will celebrate Chinese fashion and iconography from historical and contemporary perspectives, Wintour plans the annual Gala, which pulls double duty as fundraiser and kickoff party for the show.
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The movie has been smartly built to satisfy hardcore fashionistas and red-carpet gawkers in equal measure. Bolton travels through Europe to visit the vaults that house entire collections of famed designers, searching for outfits that will fit the theme of his show. “It’s such a tour de force!” he exclaims about a Jean Paul Gaultier dress inspired by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. His exaggerated reaction might seem a bit humorous to the casual viewer, but it also encapsulates the passion Bolton has for his work.
Wintour hunkers down with her staff to plan this year’s edition of the party to end all parties, which begins with putting together a guest list and seating charts. The ruthlessness is brutal. One of Wintour’s assistants strikes Josh Hartnett’s name from the list because, as she puts it, “What has he done lately? Nothing.” Don’t worry, Josh. We weren’t invited either.
The First Monday in May is packed with this sort of small, telling moment. When a journalist interviewing Wintour asks her what she thought of The Devil Wears Prada, the vituperative tell-all written by a former assistant, Wintour takes the high road, saying the book was good for the fashion industry. Her smile is only a tiny bit strained.
Other times, Wintour is more candid. “This is making me violently ill,” she snaps at her staff when she comes across a video installation that doesn’t meet her standards. The movie makes you glad you don’t work for her, but it also leaves you in awe of her undeniable talent. The First Monday in May ends with a double-whammy: The opening of Bolton’s superlative exhibition, which set new attendance records at the Met last year, and Wintour’s accompanying party, during which Justin Bieber is seen chomping gum and posing for selfies while Rihanna makes an entrance in a jaw-dropping yellow fur cape that has to be seen to be believed. Her dress, by the way, was designed by Guo Pei. I googled it, which means The First Monday in May is doing something right.