Kim Kardashian dominated the fashion spotlight once again on Monday at New York’s Met Gala when she appeared in that dressthe actual sheer, beaded Jean Louis illusion gown that Marilyn Monroe famously wore on May 19, 1962 when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
As controversy swirls in the days afterward — with pointed criticism from museum curators about the ethics of a collecting institution loaning out a piece of fashion history to be worn on a red carpet — The Hollywood Reporters spoke with the executives of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! (which owns the dress) and Julien’s Auctions (which handled its sale and which connected Kardashian with Ripley’s) to get the full backstory on how this 2022 Met Gala moment came about. They also addressed the steps they took to make sure the dress was not damaged.
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“We’ve been keeping it quiet for two months, and I found out on Saturday that everything was confirmed,” notes Darren Julien, founder and president/CEO of the Los Angeles-based Julien’s Auctions, which handled the sale of the dress, which achieved a record-setting price of $4.81 million, in 2016. Both Kardashian and her mother, Kris Jenner, are longtime clients of Julien’s Auctions: In 2019, Kardashian placed the winning bid on a velvet jacket once worn by Michael Jackson, purchased as a Christmas present for her daughter, North, who was six years old at the time. “It’s been a fun relationship with both Kris and Kim,” Julien added. “They are true fans of the auction process and get genuinely excited when they’re the winning bidder.”
So when Kardashian wondered whether the current owners of the dress might be receptive to her desire to wear the historic design to the Met Gala, she contacted Julien in late February to request that he act as go-between. “The owner’s first reaction was, ‘We have a replica dress, she could wear that,’ and I said, ‘Kim doesn’t do replicas,’” Julien remembers.
“We have people who call to ask about borrowing things all the time, and the answer is almost always no,” says Amanda Joiner, vice president of publishing and licensing for the Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment, which operates the Ripley’s Believe It or Not ! museums around the US and indeed was the winning bidder for the Monroe dress in 2016. “We were intrigued to hear what Kim’s thoughts were, but it was never an automatic yes. Many conversations took place once the idea came to us.”
Kardashian and her team took several meetings with the Ripley Entertainment team, including John Corcoran, the company president. Parameters were strictly established, including the limited amount of time Kardashian would wear the dress — only for her walk up the carpeted steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Monroe’s dress also could not be altered in any way, and body makeup was prohibited. Early in the process, Kardashian also tried on the replica dress, painstakingly created by a Ripley seamstress soon after the company had acquired the historic dress, primarily to gauge whether the reality star would fit into the original.
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The replica fit and was actually a tad large. With all criteria met, Joiner boarded a plane to Los Angeles at the end of March, hand-carrying the dress with her. “Around the points [agreed upon in allowing Kardashian to wear the dress] was that a Ripley representative needed to remain with the dress at all times, while Kim also requested that it be a woman on our team who would work with her, especially given the private nature of trying the dress on,” Joiner says.
There was just one problem: The original didn’t fit. “The replica dress was measured to be the exact same size, but it is a newer stretch fabric, and that was likely the difference,” Joiner explains, adding that Kardashian was able to get the dress on, though she made the call that “ I didn’t feel comfortable with the integrity of being able to walk in the dress or walk up the stairs.”
That didn’t stop Kardashian, who asked the Ripley team to give her a few weeks to slim down and fit into the original. On the Met Gala red carpet, Kardashian explained to La La Anthony, co-host of Vogue‘s Met Gala livestream, that she needed to lose 16 pounds, so she eliminated sugar and carbs for three weeks from her diet to do so.
(That comment drew backlash among advocates for body positivity, including actress Lili Reinhart, who followed up her Instagram Story decrying celebs highlighting sudden weightloss with a May 4 tweet in which she noted, “I speak up because I don’t see enough people with large platforms calling out toxic behavior in our industry.” Kardashian’s trainer Don-A-Matrix, speaking with TMZ on May 4, defended his client saying that she lost the weight via a balanced diet and exercise. “It’s possible to lose 20 pounds in a healthy way,” he said.)
“Kim was very determined,” Julien adds. “I don’t think she had many backups for that night. She really wanted this to be the dress.”
On April 23, Kardashian flew to Orlando to discern whether her efforts had worked, and this time, the dress fit, though Joiner and Corcoran also asked Kardashian to walk up some stairs in the dress to gauge its integrity. “We also still had to talk about it internally,” Joiner says. “We had to ensure security was in place, that all our needs would be met with regard to transportation of the dress, and that there would be no further wearing of the dress other than the moment on the red carpet.” To that end, a tented area adjacent to the red carpet was set up exclusively as Kardashian’s changing area. Following her red-carpet walk, Kardashian changed out of the original and into Ripley’s replica, which was waiting in the wings, as soon as she was inside the museum doors, Joiner adds.
Prior to changing into the dress at the museum, Kardashian’s hair and makeup were done in a suite at a nearby hotel. To commemorate the moment, Ripley’s decorated her dressing room with a selection of Monroe memorabilia, including the icon’s makeup case (with her makeup still inside), a poster advertising the 1962 party for Kennedy and the original sketch of the dress, created by Bob Mackie , who was working as the sketch artist for Jean Louis at the time.
In the hours since Kardashian’s high-wattage appearance, both Joiner and Julien have heard and read the comments about the star wearing the historic piece. “I definitely received some emails,” Julien says. Critics include the chief conservator of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sarah Scaturro, formerly a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “In the ’80s, a bunch of costume professionals came together to state a resolution that historic costume should not be worn. So my worry is that colleagues in historic costume collections are now going to be pressured by important people to let them wear garments,” Scaturro told the LA Times.
Joiner confirms that the post-event reaction among other conservators was anticipated and discussed in advance. “Our priority always was protecting the integrity of the dress,” she says. “But we also viewed this as an opportunity to reach a new generation, to educate a younger audience and [Kim’s] fan base about a historic moment in fashion, one they might not be familiar with otherwise. In that regard, we did our jobs.”
Julien agrees. “It was on the red carpet for such a very short time, and for the legacy of Marilyn Monroe, it’s one of the best things that could have happened,” he says. “Kim will create a new generation of Marilyn Monroe fans from that one moment.”
This coming Memorial Day weekend, fans both existing and new will get a chance to view the original dress in person, when Ripley’s Believe It or Not! will debut a new display of the gown at its Hollywood museum. In addition to artifacts that include the Bob Mackie sketch and Monroe’s makeup case, Ripley’s will include in the display both the shawl and shoes (the Adore platform peep-toe mule with seven-inch heel by Brea, California-based Pleaser) that Kardashian wore to the Met Gala.
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