There was a lot going on at Tory Burch's normally composed Flatiron showroom on Saturday morning.
It was the third and final fitting for the gown the actress Freida Pinto would wear to today's Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and there was still a lot to get done. The three members of Burch’s design team tugged at the dress’s hem, waist, and shoulders. Pinto, meanwhile, pored over jewelry options spread out across a glass table. Burch herself, lips pursed, quietly took in the scene and offered feedback. Elsewhere, Pinto’s glam squad caucused over inspiration images on a cell phone screen. And, perhaps for the first time during a Met Gala fitting, an engineer was on call for the occasion.
The gala's theme this year is “Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology,” and it’s offered a challenge for designers looking to innovate on a night already known for its intimidating red carpet. During the fitting, there was a rumor Katy Perry might wear some sort of smart leather contraption, but Burch opted for a more understated affair — a warm, white gown incorporating color-changing Swarovski crystal panels arranged across the front in a retro-inspired geometric pattern. The panels — and this explains the engineer — are wired from the inside, a computer-slash-battery pack hidden inside the hip, and the e-ink display cycles in unison through a series of color patterns from white to deep blue.
The dress arrived in Burch’s Flatiron showroom earlier that morning before the designer or her muse. It was a cozy space, carpeted moss green with mirrors lining the walls, racks of Burch’s designs, and plush velvet chairs dotting the floor.
A few members of the Tory Burch design team pulled at the slight puckering between the crystals, conversing in a combination of French and English. The finished version would consist of bonded silk crepe and organza, but the backing wasn’t in place yet. The glue securing the crystals caused the fabric to buckle and risked damaging the wiring. But the crystals were fully functional when Pinto (wearing Tory Sport, naturally, paired with faded, distressed jeans and silver loafers) strolled in a few minutes later, greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek.
Like pretty much everyone, Burch was first introduced to Pinto through her career-making performance in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. They finally met met at the 2011 Met Gala for “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” — Pinto’s first and, until now, only Met Gala appearance.
“I love actors with integrity, and people that have a voice and that are strong women and stick up for women,” Burch said.
They decided to work together about two months before this year's gala, a partnership borne of Pinto’s desire to “embrace the theme” and Burch’s long-held fascination with the intersection of fashion and technology.
From the color and the cut of each gem to the speed with which the panels cycle, Burch designed every detail of the crystals — “the tech,” as it was called throughout the fitting — in conjunction with the Swarovski Innovations team. They’ve never before been incorporated into a dress design, and the panels’ development was accelerated to be ready for today.
“Technology can be scary,” Burch said. “We were thinking, 'Okay, how do we make this, do more of a subtle nod to technology, where it’s graphic and ’60s and chic and not sort of taking it where you become a victim of the theme?'”
“You don’t want to get too gimmicky,” Pinto added.
The dress hung, a magnetic centerpiece, on a rack tucked into one alcove of the showroom. The whole team admired it for a few moments before Pinto whisked off into a back room to change into the prototype.
She emerged a few minutes later, teetering on sky-high Charlotte Olympia heels, and peered into the mirror.
“Are the other girls going to be jealous?” she asked, laughing. Actresses Emma Roberts and Mindy Kaling will also be seated at the Burch-Pinto table, both similarly outfitted in Tory Burch designs. (Pinto’s is the dress, though, thus the envy.)
“I love this dress,” Burch said, softly. She peered at it, eyeing the puckering her team had noted earlier. Much of the fitting passed in quiet contemplation, with Sam Smith and Amy Winehouse spinning on the stereo and the sound of snipping scissors punctuating the air.
The gown had already presented its share of design challenges, Burch explained: The crystal arrangement had to be linear because of wiring constraints, the fabric sufficiently weighty to bear the crystals while remaining comfortable, and it all had to be navigated before the crystals were even in place. In its final iteration, it bears only a passing resemblance to the original design. It’s gone from deep blue to snowy white, while the open back and quasi-cape nod to the caftans that have been a part of the Tory Burch repertoire since its first season.
Then there were the logistical concerns. Dominique Bastard, a member of Burch’s design pod, recommended that Pinto not sit — but then, how would she get from her dressing room to the museum Monday night without sitting down in the van? (Someone suggested, teasingly, airlifting her in.)
“The shoes look great, right?” Burch said. The hair, makeup, and accessories consults went on as the dress was slowly deconstructed around Pinto’s body. One seamstress sliced a gash up one side of the skirt — they would alter the silhouette, making it more of a sheath. The gown would have to be remade anyways, they decided, to incorporate the design changes that would make it functional and photogenic the night of the gala. (At one point, Burch snapped a photo on her phone to test the gown under a camera’s flash.)
“Great job, guys,” Burch said, clapping a couple times. “I’ve given them so much grief.”
Suddenly, it was 11 a.m. and she had to go — she was due at a train destined for the White House Correspondents Dinner that night — but the work would go on.
Pinto and the rest of the squad pondered the dress for another 45 minutes, and then: poof! The dress was off, back to the lab for more tinkering, not to be seen again until Monday afternoon on the steps of the Met.
Watch Demi Lovato get ready for the Met Gala here: