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I’ve Planned The Met Gala For The Last 8 Years. Here’s What I’ve Learned

Veteran Met Gala planner Sylvana Durrett shares what she’s learned from working on the extravagant charity ball alongside Anna Wintour.

I’ve Planned The Met Gala For The Last 8 Years. Here’s What I’ve Learned
[Photo: Getty]

Sylvana Durrett is out of breath, but that’s not completely due to a massive workload. The cofounder of the newly launched children’s e-tailer Maisonette is simultaneously working her other job as Vogue’s special projects consultant. Her main responsibility right now: Planning the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Benefit–also known as the Met Gala–that’s happening on May 1. Oh, and she’s nearly 34 weeks pregnant with her third child.

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This is no small feat.

For the uninitiated, the Met Gala is a sumptuous, star-studded charity event that revolves around a central exhibition in the Costume Institute. (This year’s cohosts are Katy Perry and Pharrell Williams.) The 2017 event celebrates the Japanese avant-garde designer Rei Kawakubo, marking the Institute’s first monographic show on a living designer since 1983. The gala plays host to upwards of 600 guests, but the size varies from year to year. Durrett would not discuss any numbers, but tickets for the invite-only party in 2016 cost $30,000 a piece, and tables went for $275,000. Not everyone purchases a ticket. Brands will invite celebrities, and the gala’s chairwoman and Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, invites up-and-coming designers.

However, under the supervision of Wintour, Durrett is the one managing every aspect of pulling this off, from schematics to seating charts. Her efforts behind the scenes were part of the documentary First Monday in May, which chronicled the planning of the Met’s China exhibit and the accompanying gala. Durrett was lauded as a scene stealer. A more appropriate word might have been “steeler,” for her unwavering calm in the face of bringing together such disparate elements as negotiating a performance fee with Rihanna and orchestrating the installation of a 30-foot-tall “porcelain” vase constructed of thousands of white and blue roses.

Durrett has been heading up the planning of the gala and 35 other events a year at Vogue officially since 2009 as director of special projects. She started as Wintour’s assistant in 2003 and worked her way up to the role that she stepped away from last year to launch her business. Even as consultant for the gala planning, Durrett says the wheels are set in motion nearly a year before each event. “Simple things like getting a seating chart blown up 100 times,” she explains. “There’s just so much detail. We have a whole fashion GPS system that tracks the guests and their arrival times. From the red carpet to dinner, there’s so many steps in between.” On the day of the event, says Durrett, the full-time staff of five are joined by about 100 others involved in every aspect of pulling the whole thing off.

Through the years, Durrett has learned what works and what doesn’t, not only for the gala, but for her career. Here are some of the lessons she shared.

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On Taking Over Such A Big Responsibility

Especially having worked at Vogue for as long as I had at that point, the entire office is working on it [in some capacity], so you have a different perspective. There was always this perfection of the Met [Gala], and we all sort of looked in awe at the team that put it on every year.

​So once I was sort of called upon to lead that, I was understandably stressed and overwhelmed. But I think that’s the beauty of the way that Anna [Wintour] mentors and leads. Working for her and working for Vogue, you get this great work ethic, and you learn to delegate and make things smaller and focus on those things and then build as you go.

On How Not To Feel Overwhelmed

Understand what you do well and what you need help with. I think we’re only as good as the people that work with us. For me, I think day one, it was about building a team who brought a skill set that really complemented my own. When you’re dealing with such an enormous entity, something that feels so big and overwhelming, it was about breaking it down and making sure that you compartmentalize each part of it, and you give each one of those parts its own committee.

​And so that’s the way that we work, which is we break it down and we have lanes. Everyone’s in charge of their lane. I make sure that at the end of the day, all of those lanes are moving in the right direction before Anna sees them, and I think that helps in making it less overwhelming. You are able to take one point at a time.

On What She Will Delegate . . .

Once you’ve been doing something for a while, it becomes second nature. I’d never say it’s easy, because it’s not. Every year has its own challenges. But you get into a rhythm and a cadence and you come to lean on people, year after year, who you know won’t disappoint you. And so once you get to that place where you have a trusted group, you know that delegation becomes easier and easier. And you’re still responsible at the end of the day for anything that happens. ​So it’s obviously incredibly important.

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I should probably be less anal these days. But I’m not. I try to remind myself that these people know what they’re doing, and you’ve entrusted them with this amount of responsibility, and that’s okay. The exact things that I’m comfortable delegating really comes down to minutiae. It’s the things that I shouldn’t be spending my time on any longer, because the event will suffer from it. I was sitting there typing or printing out names, it’s not a good use of my time.

. . . And What She Won’t

I’m incredibly involved in [the seating arrangements]. That is something Anna and I work on very closely together, just because it’s the essence of the event. It’s why people come, and keep coming. It isn’t just about fashion or business or art. It’s about all of it. We take pride in our seating because people routinely come up to us and say, “I’m so happy you sat me next to this person. I would have never thought to talk to them.”

There’s networking going on, and there are fragrance campaigns that are set because of the people who are sitting next to each other. So it’s a fun way to get people involved and excited about talking to new people and learning about new industries. People have come to trust that we are very cognizant of what we’re doing, and that fun is definitely what we have in mind when we’re seating. That’s why we take it so seriously.

On What To Do When Things Don’t Go As Planned

We’ve had anywhere between 500 and 800 attendees. Eight hundred was probably when we decided we were too big. We do want the experience to feel intimate for our guests, so in the past few years, we’ve really scaled back and dropped numbers by almost 200 or 300 people. We also wanted to be mindful of budgets. We are constantly evolving and learning from all sort of things.

You can’t please everybody. We always like to think there’s not a bad [seat] in the house, which really there isn’t. You have to come away confident in the notion that you are doing your best, and that inevitably not everyone will be happy. But we have a pretty good track record. The instances are few and far between, and we always try and work more closely with them the next year to manage expectations.

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On The Importance Of An Advocate

I’m thankful to Anna. She stands behind me and her decisions and our decisions, and so it’s nice to have somebody in your corner who is telling you you didn’t do a terrible job, and that this happens, and that this is life. The next day will come and the sun does come up. So you try to take it in stride. At the end of the day, we’re planning a really, really beautiful and fun party to celebrate this incredible exhibition. And so you have to try to have some perspective as well. While we certainly aim to please, if anyone’s upset, you have to continue with your life.

On Why Boundaries Are Good For Creativity

There are elements every year that we like to change that are like tent poles. For example, the big reveal when guests come is the information booth when you enter into the great hall. If you’d go into the Met every other day, it’s just a circular booth with brochures on it. And we have to make that into something incredible every year. It’s an opportunity that’s a challenge on a yearly basis, how to make it cooler, bigger, more interactive. So while that’s the same thing every year, it changes.

The first year I planned the Met Gala, we had this 50-foot helium balloon that we brought in on a truck from the middle of the country. It said “American Woman” on it and it was this incredible spectacle. But then once we have an idea, we have to figure out how to make it happen. And a lot of times, it can’t happen, and so we have to start over again and think about another way to do it.  Obviously we want to be incredibly respectful of the museum–it’s harder because you have a lot of restrictions– but we also want our guests to have a new and surprising experience every time.

On Balancing Entrepreneurship, Work, And Family

This is my third child, and I’ve been pregnant for two other galas. So the first time I think was the most daunting. I kept telling myself I knew I could do it. But then I didn’t really know if I could. Then once I did, I felt like, “Okay, I guess I can do this.” I’m obviously very cognizant of my own energy and my own limitations. But it’s a nice distraction from [pregnancy]. I really try to use what I’ve learned at Vogue, which is that you delegate and you’re more efficient with your time. It’s not about face time. It’s not about being the martyr. It’s about getting your work done and then taking the time that you need. And particularly when you’re pregnant, you need a little bit more time.

On Anna Wintour As An Incubator For Women-Owned Businesses

This woman is incredibly decisive. She is the queen of delegating. She’s the queen of hiring the best people at what they do. So it’s hard for that not to rub off on you. She’s so accessible. As her employee, we’ve had so many conversations over the years about my next move and what I should be thinking about. And she’s been such an ambassador and a champion of anything I’ve wanted to do. She treats all her employees that way.

I remember when I interviewed for the assistant job, she asked me then, “What do you see yourself doing in life?” And the answer she wanted to hear was not something at Vogue. She likes people who have this vision for their lives, who are more than just about the magazine and fashion. She likes a well-rounded, interesting human being, who has a ton of interests and is well-balanced. That’s why she has such a strong magazine, because she cultivates these really great teams.

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When I talked to her about Maisonette, she was not only excited, she’s been incredibly helpful. The magazine covered our launch. So it does not come as a surprise to me that so many of her former employees are so successful. And I think we all sort of carry that with us.


Related: What It’s Like To Be Interviewed By Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, And Anna Wintour 


 

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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