Hell hath no fury like a fashion maven slighted - unless it's a society hostess who's been eclipsed by a rival. The Costume Institute Ball, the annual charity gala held in New York tomorrow night, involves both species. Liesl Schillinger reports on the simmering feuds and icy froideurs surrounding the US fashion glitterati's absolutely fabulous night out

When Giorgio Armani declared in New York magazine this September that "fashion is finished", style addicts shuddered. Not because they dreaded the apocalyptic day when no flatfront trousers would dawn, no psychedelic knits shimmer at noontime, but because they feared that the Milanese tailor might be going a little pazzo. Fashion dead? Impossible. What else were all the glossy magazines filled with? None the less, Armani was too rich not to be taken seriously, so the New York Times duly reported the story on the front page, and later weighed in with a thoughtful editorial. Who cared about African refugees and the American election; fashion was under attack - stop the presses!

Fashion observers couldn't help noticing that this Cassandra had just opened two new shops in the style epicentres of Madison and Fifth Avenue, where he had sold more than $2m worth of clothes in a single promotional launch show. Armani promptly issued a clarifying statement.What was dead, he explained, was fashion as decree; the fashion that must be obeyed. There was a time not long ago when one person, usually a woman, could embody what was or was not fashion. Whether it was Nancy Cunard, Coco Chanel, Grace Kelly or Jackie Kennedy, this woman dressed first and then all other women raced to copy her. The last arbiter of this stature was Diane Vreeland, the gaunt, raven-haired grande dame who was editor of Vogue from 1964 until 1971 and continued to hold court in high society until her death in 1989. When Vreeland pronounced pink "the navy of India", the mot was delightedly declared juste; these days, however, fashion's decrees have a way of sounding like wish-lists. Remember brown being the new black? Didn't happen; the public wouldn't wear it. The shame of being wrongly dressed has grown less intense; the glory of being rightly dressed much smaller; and the fame of anyone who knows the difference much less. In short - or so it seemed to Armani - fashion is no longer autocratic, but democratic.

Not everyone was convinced. For a start, there are limits to what a billionaire tycoon can understand about democracy. More importantly, there are some powerful people who refuse to accept that the monarchy of fashion is defunct. The throne may have been vacant for a while, but there is no shortage of younger grandes dames with ambitions to be queen.

The best place to find such aspirants is at one of the increasingly competitive charity balls around which US high society revolves, and the best of all is the Costume Institute Ball, the annual gathering for New York's glitterati that will be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tomorrow night kicking off the Institute's winter show on Christian Dior. This is where the struggle for the succession is unfolding; this is fashion as drama, fashion as showbusiness - and fashion as power politics. Whatever Armani's demurrals, the glamour-hunters long for a dominatrix, and the frisson around this year's event has been intensified by a supposed spat between two possible successors to Vreeland, British expat editors Anna Wintour, at Vogue, and Liz Tilberis, at Harper's Bazaar.

Last year, when the severely coiffed, emaciated, be-sunglassed Wintour was chosen to chair the Costume Institute Ball (along with millionairesses Clarissa Bronfman and Annette de la Renta), it was seen as a sign that fashion was to be restored to its rightful owner, Vogue, the presumed Bible of fashion; and, via Vogue, Wintour was to be the new fashion queen. The theme of Wintour's ball followed that of the Institute's winter exhibition, Haute Couture. Partygoers were greeted at the door by the image of Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt in a Worth dress; the hall was full of mannequins wearing breath-catching fashions. Wintour herself wore a de la Renta white satin sheath for the occasion.

Wintour's imprimatur was minutely examined by fashion commentators who hunted for predictions and traditions. Liz Smith, New York's most prominent gossip, wrote in Newsday, "The big gala was better than ever!" She admired the "fresh tone", and the "fast" dinner. Fashion observer Suzy Menkes noted that Wintour's Costume gala was "the opposite of Shy Society. Everybody, from hosts to guests, had an agenda to pursue, whether it was flattering fashion designers, returning hospitality or promoting the arts, a cause or a protege. More important, everyone had come to see and be seen."

And yet, despite such accolades, Wintour will not be hosting tomorrow's party. This year, the ball is to be hosted by Tilberis, the sparkling, silver pixie-haired Brit who edits Harper's Bazaar. The queen is dead, long live the queen.

Until Wintour's apparent deposition, the not-unreasonable assumption of gossips and other fashion mavens was that custody of the event had now been awarded to Vogue for good. Wintour was shaping up as an able successor to Vreeland, who, after Vogue, had taken the job as curator of the Costume Institute in 1973 where she electrified what had once been merely the annual bash for New York's fashion industry. Vreeland invited in the American star "royalty" that she had anointed during her editorships - such as Lauren Bacall and Ali McGraw - as well as the expected New York luminaries. She also instituted a two-tiered system whereby the young fashion world and charity-set in-training could skip the pricey dinner but join for the dancing at 9pm for a mere $150 (originally $100), delighting the $1,000-a-plate diners by actually knowing who was who, and who was wearing which designer's astronomically expensive dress, and admiringly calling out their names, begging for a photo. Vreeland knew that the very rich react to flattery differently than other people; they are offended if they are not flattered.

When Vreeland died, the chairmanship of the ball was passed to Patricia Buckley, the yar and crackly wife of conservative panjandrum William F Buckley Jr. Pat Buckley upheld the grand tradition with grace and a minimum of fuss for 17 years, drawing in millions of dollars for the support of the Metropolitan Museum. She hobnobbed with Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, plotting tangerine parasols and tabletop pagodas (which embellished one year's "Orientalism" theme), knowing that, whatever the decoration, the Trumps would come, and the Bronfmans, the Godiva assortment of European crowned and coronetted heads, the Hermes-scarf set, and increasing numbers of fashion models, film stars and designers. The Costume Ball had a captive audience. Every December, the resplendent revellers would stream into the Metropolitan Museum, emanating the sweet dust of face powder and self- satisfaction, proceeding up the grey accordion stairs for dinner in the museum restaurant, crossing to the Great Hall and the Temple of Dendur for dancing, gossip and designer-dress identifying purposes. The lucky ones would discover the following Sunday that they had been photographed for the New York Times.

Then, in 1994, the thought finally minced into the minds of socialite philanthropists: might there be another cause to dress up for besides the Metropolitan Museum? Conservatives blamed the lama-loving actor Richard Gere, who raved nobly and tediously at the Oscars about Tibet, giving the rich and famous a way to be holier than thou and richer than Croesus at the same time. Socialites yawned, but took note. Two years later, the New York Post ran an article, headlined "They're Baaa-ack!" - and what was back were charity galas. Andrew Shue, hearthrob from the popular television soap Melrose Place, threw a dazzling charity ball for under-30 Americans, championing politically correct causes, and MTV, Mademoiselle magazine, and every kind of chic youth product company (Aveda, Absolut) jumped on the worthy bandwagon. More importantly, a thousand young Lady (and Sir) Bountifuls- presumptive were permitted to appear in designer get-up, sip champagne and nibble gourmet biscotti, all in the presence of benevolent movie stars and TV cameras.

In 1994, blonde socialite Blaine Trump defected from the Costume Institute Ball, which she had often co-chaired, moving her allegiance to God's Love We Deliver, a service which brings meals and support to Aids sufferers - and keeps her photograph a standard feature in W fashion magazine's gossip section. Also in 1994, Liz Tilberis, herself an admired survivor of ovarian cancer, further diffused the fashion world's Met focus by putting her support behind a breast cancer awareness group, called Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. Two years later, the cause of women's breast health is so popular that Hillary Clinton hosted a White House gala this year, attended by Princess Diana, championing the cause - and all at once, the Costume Ball began to smack of playing dressing-up charity. It lacked a certain necessary aura of suffering.

Then someone had a brilliant idea: make Liz Tilberis chairwoman of the ball. The idea worked. AJ Benza, editor of "Hot Copy" at the Daily News, and a regular on The Gossip Show on television, explains that because "Liz had beaten ovarian cancer and proven herself to be a survivor," appointing her as chair of the Costume Ball would "show the fashion world that she's healthy and kicking and a hell of a woman" - and by association confer the same attributes on the fashion world. The only slight awkwardness here was that another hell of a woman, Anna Wintour, was already in charge.

Wintour was duly not selected again this year, and, inevitably, tongues in abundantly-facialed heads began to wag. Both Wintour and Tilberis have denied publicly that this means a thing. "It's not as mega-politics as it might seem," protests Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute, in soothing, reasonable tones. "I suspect there's really no hard feeling between the two." He chuckles gently, "People just love to speculate."

There is much for them to speculate about. Some commentators believe that the change supports Armani's argument, confirming that there is no single figurehead currently dominating the fashion scene. "It's a coin flip," says AJ Benza, "either one of them hosting. Both of those women stand for what fashion is all about today. I don't think either one of them has the upper hand." Others see Tilberis's selection as signifying a shift in the balance of power in the magazine ratings war, undermining the Vogue editor's traditional ex officio role as queen of fashion.

Which brings us back to Armani. Fashion may not be dead, but the boundaries between fashion and showbusiness, fashion and celebrity, fashion and the media, fashion and the world at large, have been dramatically eroded. At this year's Costume Institute party, the crowd will not have dressed themselves according to Vogue, or to Harper's Bazaar for that matter. They will have consulted MTV, the movies and television. They will look for fashion direction from Princess Diana, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy (if she's there, as everyone hopes she will be), the movie stars, the singers. And then they will buy the magazines - to remember exactly how it was the superstars looked - and go buy their Nikes, their Levi's, CK1 cologne, and the other things that they can actually afford. To dominate fashion as Vreeland once did, the woman who would be queen has to dominate a whole range of other spheres - including charity balls. Princess Diana isn't the only one who needs to be Queen of Hearts to keep her position.

Under Tilberis's guidance, a new vision both for the ball and for fashion is underway. For example, the fact that she will host the party for Dior is seen as a fashion recommendation, as opposed to Wintour's general exhortation to Haute Couture. She has hired the elegant Parisian traiteurs Potel & Chabot. In the company of Mme Chirac, Sharon Stone and Princess Diana, guests will dine on sea bass roti a la Granville, in a feuilletine with tomato and basil sauce, medaillons de veau with chanterelles and haricots, and tarte tatin with green apple sorbet, followed by coffee and chocolate truffles. In short, she seems to be carrying on confidently with the vision she boldly declared in 1992 in her first issue at Harper's Bazaar: "Enter the Era of Elegance". Has a successor to Vreeland been found, and simply not noticed because she whispered instead of shouted? We will find out in March; when we see what the women are wearing when the snow melts. !

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