Glamorous Mermaids at Save Venice Gala

Few galas are as over-the-top as the Save Venice ball, which took place last Friday at Cipriani South Street at the southern tip of Manhattan.

By 8 p.m., the cocktail area was a sea of mermaid ball gowns and penguin tuxedos, fitting for a masquerade ball that raises funds for the waterlogged city. Some 500 well-groomed guests — including Nicky Hilton Rothschild, Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece and Denmark, and Sienna Miller — mingled over bellinis and posed for photographs inside a giant, Botticelli-style clamshell.

Some took this year’s theme, “Enchantment by the Sea,” to heart. “This is our favorite gala because we get to be the best version of ourselves,” said Alexandra Salanic, a graphic designer who wore an oyster-inspired dress of her own design. (Her husband, David, wore a hat topped with an oyster platter.) “Other galas are more buttoned up.”

Not everybody went for the undersea theme. “I haven’t been invited to a big event in years, I almost forgot how to get dressed,” said Jenna Lyons, the fashion designer and TV personality who sported an all-white Thome Browne ensemble courtesy of the designer, and came as a guest of Amy Griffin, an investor.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Save Venice, which raises money to restore the city’s “artistic heritage,” and the ninth time that the ball was hosted by Lauren Santo Domingo, the former Vogue editor and co-founder of the fashion luxury retailer Moda Operandi. In 2013, Ms. Santo Domingo took over hosting duties from her mother-in-law, Beatrice Santo Domingo, and turned the ball into what some have called “a warm-up” to the Met Gala because of the high-fashion crowd and the high cost of entry.

It may not have the star wattage of Anna Wintour’s “First Monday In May” (the biggest name at Save Venice was arguably Alex Rodriguez). But the event did manage to raise a record $2.1 million, in part by getting fashion brands that work with Moda Operandi to buy tables (some for as high as $100,000).

“People have been sending me pictures for weeks of what they’re going to wear,” said Ms. Santo Domingo, who wore a black strapless gown by Oscar de la Renta, not coincidentally one of the night’s sponsors. She did not know off-hand whether sales at Moda have gone up since the city’s galas have returned, but added, “We sell evening dresses, evening gowns and ‘occasion wear,’ as it is officially termed — it’s our most important category.”

Alexandra O’Neill, the founder of Makarian, an occasion wear label based in New York, said it was the first time she was invited. “We have a very lovely partnership with Moda Operandi,” said Ms. O’Neill, who ended up dressing more than a dozen guests including the longtime Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin.

After cocktails, the gala moved into the main hall, which was festooned with striped Venetian poles and billowing flags. Between the burrata appetizer and rib-eye steak, more guests snapped photos inside the giant clam.

“I can’t say ‘no’ to a cause that supports art,” said Sarah Hoover, an art dealer, who wore a custom Makarian dress. “I can’t imagine a more worthy cause than to do everything we can to preserve the original mermaid city.”