Officially, the annual New York gala for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research — known in New York, Cannes, Milan, Paris, Sao Paulo and any other glamorous city as the worldwide AIDS research charity that throws the best parties and thrives off the pockets of Hollywood elite — is not the beginning of Fashion Week in New York City.
Staring down its red carpet, you’d never know. Heidi Klum, Anna Wintour, Iman, Padma Lakshmi, Zac Posen, Coco Rocha and Donna Karan were all guests at the charity’s gala held at Cipriani on Wall Street on Wednesday evening.
“They were very smart to connect fashion with this,” Klum told Variety on the red carpet. “You have all these people in town for Fashion Week, and they’ve got a big voice — I think they’ve got something big in their purse, too.”
It’s a brilliant strategy. In 2018, amfAR raised $31 million of the organization’s $42 million in primary revenue from star-studded fundraising events like Wednesday night’s. That year, $30 million went directly into AIDS research — initiatives like medical trials for cures, treatment for millions of people living with HIV, and expanded access to free PREP for gay men — and another 20% went right back into throwing more galas.
Since its founding in the early 1980s by Dr. Mathilde Krim and Hollywood royalty Elizabeth Taylor, amfAR has subsisted off a cash-infused partnership between the scientific and Hollywood communities. The annual gala at Cannes, for example, anchors the film festival and attracts the biggest names in Hollywood, routinely raising upwards of $20 million dollars in a single night.
But the same conceit — flowing wine, irresistible auction items (an original Alex Katz portrait sold for $500,000), high-fashion and the promise of attaching one’s name to a cause that hits close-to-home in the entertainment industry — thrives during Fashion Week, when designers and models descend on New York, stopping first at amfAR.
“Just by being here you are all warriors. You are all pioneers. You’re fighters, and you’re AIDS activists,” Bill Roedy, Chairman of the Board and former CEO of MTV Networks, told the gathered attendees.
“We have a long history with fashion,” Roedy told Variety on the red carpet. “It’s been a part of our DNA. In New York, it’s especially important to us because it’s where we started our fight against AIDS. It’s where we found our home, our roots, our voice.”
At the fundraiser, amfAR presented its Award of Courage to Iman, the Somali-American fashion model, Versace muse, philanthropist and widow of AIDS research activist David Bowie; Marc Glimcher, a multi-million dollar art dealer and CEO of Pace Gallery; and Matthew Lopez, a gay playwright whose Broadway play “The Inheritance” is an epic of gay life in New York, asking what younger generations of queer men inherit from those who survived the epidemic.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about courage recently and wondering how exactly I should qualify for such an award,” Lopez said, accepting the honor. “I began to think about how I was taught to define it, particularly as a child, and this led me to remember my very first exposure to courage. It was watching the Wizard of Oz and the story of the Cowardly Lion. He is so many of us in the LGBT community at so many times in our lives. He understands who he is supposed to be, but he fears he can never rise up to others’ expectations.”
“But a miraculous thing happens to the Cowardly Lion,” Lopez continued. “He makes friends, friends who accept him for who he is. He leaves the forest, journeys to the Emerald City and learns that the true definition of courage is our willingness to stand up for our friends when they are in peril. It is a lesson that the queer community learned at Stonewall, and it a lesson that Mathilde Krim, Joseph Sonnabend and Michael Callen put into action with the founding of amfAR.”
“I wrote ‘The Inheritance’ from that example,” he said, “from the example of Martha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and from the example of so many who fought for their lives and the dignity of AIDS patients. And yes, from the example of the Cowardly Lion. My courage, if I am said to possess it, is inherited.”