For Ocean’s 8, the latest in the heist franchise initiated in 1960, yours truly was asked to curate a faux Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition that would legitimately showcase some eminently heist-able jewels—no small task! The film is directed by Gary Ross and features an impressive roster of women above the titles, led by Sandra Bullock who plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of the late Danny Ocean, latterly portrayed by George Clooney, of course, and in 1960 by Frank Sinatra. Bullock’s cohorts and accomplices—witting or otherwise—are played by Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and the hilarious Awkwafina and Mindy Kaling, who each do an excellent job with a droll, fast-paced script cowritten by Ross with Olivia Milch.
As you’ve probably surmised from the trailer, the heist is set on the evening of the Met’s annual Costume Institute Gala, and the Metropolitan Museum gave the film unprecedented access to film some scenes in its most storied spaces. Vogue also opened its doors to a scheming assistant (played by Paulson), who is working with none other than the magazine’s own blissfully guileless Director of Special Events Eaddy Kiernan. (I’m biased, of course, but in my view, Kiernan emerges a fully fledged, screen-hogging star.) For added veracity, our own Edward Barsamian interviews best-dressed celebrities on the Met’s red carpet, including Kim Kardashian West, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and such society fixtures as Derek Blasberg and Lauren Santo Domingo. Vogue’s Tonne Goodman and Virginia Smith play parts, too, sneering at the latest offering from Bonham Carter’s eccentric designer, Rose Weil, in a fashion show staged at the Eero Saarinen TWA Terminal staged by Alexandre de Betak. The resourceful costume designer Sarah Edwards created a whole Marnie–meets–Mad Men collection for the purpose.
The after-hours access to the Met’s stately spaces, however, was supplemented with footage shot in a sound stage in the depths of Long Island, where the galleries of our exhibition were created.
Working closely with my associates Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park—who provided invaluable assistance on the exhibitions that I have curated including “Balenciaga: Spanish Master” in 2010 at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in Manhattan, 2011’s “Balenciaga and Spain” at the de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and last year’s epic “House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”—I worked up inspiration boards and a wish list of loans from the archives of fashion houses in Manhattan, London, Paris, and Rome. The conservators at each were immensely generous with their loans and time, and thanks to the generous efficiency of Soizic Pfaff of Christian Dior, Jelka Music at Jean Paul Gaultier, Hongyi Huang at Alexander McQueen, Dolce Maria Rita Cioffo at Vivienne Westwood, Mona Swanson at Valentino, Cara Forte Diaz at Dolce & Gabbana, and so many others, we ended up with pretty much everything we had longed for.
The fictional exhibition that we concocted with the production’s brilliant designers is titled “The Scepter and the Orb: Five Centuries of Royal Dress,” and for the purposes of the movie, I worked on two rooms: a Tudor-themed gallery for which production designer Alex DiGerlando created a wonderful dark paneled space, and a second vast ballroom that suggests an 18th-century hall of mirrors in Paris or Venice and the decay of the ancien régime. The mannequins were poised to float above lapping waters—although, of course, no waters lapped anywhere near the museum-worthy garments in our exhibition. The wonders of CGI created the entirely convincing illusion in postproduction.
I was paranoid that cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s searching lens might swoop in on a label or two as it zoomed through the objects and the glamorous guests, so we wanted them to be entirely realistic and up to the Met’s high standards. Each object, therefore, had its own museum label with historically correct text and a reproduction of a painting or image that might have inspired the designer: Fran?ois Boucher’s 1759 Portrait of Madame de Pompadour for Vivienne Westwood’s Fall 1995 Vive La Cocotte ballgown, a circa 1500 Unicorn tapestry for Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Fall 2016 haute couture Valentino gown, a 1776 engraving by Philippe Trière for Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring 2014 Alta Moda wedding gown with its own maternity bump, and Pierre Thomas Le Clerc’s 1778 engraving of An Elegant Dressmaker Delivering Her Work carrying sets of panniers for Jean Paul Gaultier’s haute couture dress with panniers of its own from Spring 1998.
The Met generously supplied the mannequins from past exhibitions, and museum dressers and conservators were hired to dress the pieces to the correct standards, with several fashion archives sending their own dedicated dressers. Opening the giant crates from Christian Dior containing John Galliano’s fractured Marie Antoinette ensembles from his Fall 2007 couture collection and Raf Simons’s superb embroidered pink 18th-century frock coat from Fall 2014 was a particularly thrilling moment.
So voluminous and intricate were the garments, we commandeered two dedicated rooms just for dressing the mannequins. Many of these clothes, including Zac Posen’s sparkling crimson crinoline gown, originally worn by Naomi Campbell in his Fall 2015 collection, and Sarah Burton’s caged beehive gown from Spring 2013, take up a lot of room! Security guards were hired in shifts to stand watch 24 hours a day over these important and valuable pieces.
Meanwhile, the prop magician Michael Jortner provided some astonishing parures of heist-worthy jewels that were inspired by the legendary royal treasuries of Catherine the Great, Empress Josephine, et al., which proved so much fun to research. The amazing sculptor Penko Platikanov produced a series of exquisite 18th-century figures, depicted in undergarments of the period like corsets, panniers, and undershirts to showcase them. Having seen Platikanov’s maquettes for his sculptures and DiGerlando and his production design team’s rooms full of blueprints and models, it was nothing short of surreal to walk into a vast aircraft hanger studio in the depths of Long Island and discover the finished versions of the rooms, miraculously realized by a huge construction team.
I was on set for a scene with Blanchett, and under the soft museum lighting, the beautifully dressed and mounted clothes took on a life of their own, with a frieze of Platikanov’s sculptures garlanded with those coruscating jewels forming the most dramatic backdrop.
Ever better was the chance to see the exhibition come to life on-screen at the movie’s star-studded premier this week. That Posen dress lights up like Vesuvian magma on-screen and one ermine-tailed Valentino haute couture piece from Fall 2016 provides a stately backdrop to a decidedly un-stately Hathaway vignette in the movie.
The production designers also created a simulacrum of the Egyptian corridor at the Met, complete with masterfully faked ancient statues courtesy of set decorator Rena DeAngelo that looked monumental but turned out to have been made of polystyrene and were light enough to lift in the palm of your hand—the wonders of movie magic. The bathroom stalls, meanwhile, where Gigi Hadid and Lily Aldridge are seen freshening up, were so realistic that between takes one of the extras used one of the prop toilets, with predictably calamitous results.
I hope that our exhibition is similarly convincing.