Big night

Oscars double as biggest showcase for designers

Giorgio Armani himself supervised the final fitting for a tuxedo Billy Crystal wore while hosting the Oscars.

“Billy stood there really still, but sort of glowing like a boy being readied for a bar mitzvah, while Mr. Armani looked him over very carefully for at least half an hour, occasionally touching or pointing to a cuff, a lapel, a seam and then turning to the tailor and his assistant so they could make the alteration,” recalls Bill Higgins, the reporter who observed this intimate conjuncture of Hollywood stardom and European fashion celebrity half a decade ago.

Today the collaboration between stars and designers on Oscar night continues to be just as intense, the participants in this mutually beneficial promotional pact aware of the focus by the international media and the millions of television viewers on who wore what and how they looked in it.

A few years ago the rivalry for celebrity clients seemed mainly split between the cool elegance of Armani and the sexy flash of the late Gianni Versace. But today there is hardly a major designer who is not wooing nominees and presenters to sport his or her wares, or being wooed in return — when Demi Moore cases all the European fashion shows it’s a safe bet she’s not looking for clothing for when she wheels her kids in the park!

Chanel, Vera Wang, Alberta Ferretti, Badgley Mischka, Valentino, Donna Karan, Prada et al all have their favorites among established stars and seek to win over those less well-known who leap to fame when nominations are announced.

Full-court press

The corraling of stars takes place year-round: A representative of one company was heard mid-summer on the beach in Malibu discussing potential Oscar-night gowns and tuxes with the actress wife of a star already talked about as a potential best actor nominee. By fall, the mutual courtship goes into overdrive: Designers’ handlers make overtures to stars; top stylists from agencies like Celestine and Cloutier fan their ongoing relationships with the glitterati; and congratulatory notes are sent out when the nominees are finally announced, accompanied by an invitation to stop by the designer’s stores in Los Angeles, New York or Paris to view the latest evening wear.

But the top designers have learned that they cannot be totally indiscriminate about which stars will wear their clothes. Media and public tongues are sharp on Oscar night and a bad fashion choice, as much as a good one, can live on in print for years.

“Of course we get asked by stars who love our clothes, but we have to consider very carefully whether our current styles are actually right for Oscar night,” says a spokeswoman for Gucci, where Tom Ford’s designs are very popular with young Hollywood but may not necessary fit into the extravagant high style now expected on this all-important night of the year.

Old-time glamour”It’s important that the star fits our image,” stresses Kim Flaster, editorial manager for Christian Dior, whose designer John Galliano has drawn raves for his spring collection dominated by romantic and feminine evening wear, viewed as perfect Oscar-night clothing.

“The Galliano dresses are really amazing, really elegant old-time Hollywood glamour,” says Phillip Bloch, who styled several stars for last year’s awards, including such couples as Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance and Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, and who was responsible for Salma Hayek wearing a diamond tiara from Fred Leighton Jewelers with her gold Armani gown. This year Bloch predicts stars will be eager to wear Galliano and also thinks that American designs from Halston will also prove popular.

“Dresses for the Oscars should be something people dream about. So when I dress a star I always try to think about some little girl out there watching who might be inspired to grow up to fulfill her dreams,” says Bloch.

Last year Nicole Kidman was ahead of the curve, going directly to Paris for her striking, apple green couture Galliano gown, which was flattered by her lithe figure and russet hair. Her high-style perfection recalled the impact of past eras when little girls did dream they might grow up to look as gorgeous as ’50s icons Grace Kelly in a Dior-inspired creation from Hollywood costumer Edith Head or Audrey Hepburn in classic Givenchy.

For a time, the demise of the cosseting studio system and the sloppiness of dress in the ’70s and ’80s had made the Oscars literally unfashionable. Many now give credit to Fred Hayman, longtime Rodeo Drive boutique owner, who was denoted official fashion adviser and coordinator by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for mounting a campaign intended to once again make the stars look like dream fulfillers.

“We can only inspire, not dictate,” says Hayman, whose staging of a pre-Oscar fashion show heightens awareness that fashion and film are an excellent collaboration.

Stars attending the Oscars aren’t expected to look like designers’ models but like individuals reflecting their own personalities while satisfying the screen-image expectations of fans. They have to keep in mind they are going to be photographed by both still and video cameras, in daylight, flashlight, television light, party light; from behind, above, below and from all sides and angles; standing, sitting, walking and, hopefully, climbing up to the stage. It’s no easy choice what to wear. Light can play all sorts of tricks on clothes, turning see-through into total transparency (remember Barbra Streisand or Julie Christie), and even limo travel can crush and crease.

“They should be fashionable but never boring. Avant garde is good,” Hayman suggests, aware that not everyone is going to get it right all the time, but happy if it’s clear they tried their best.

“They look fine, very, very nice these days, but I do think it’s more fun when they are a bit wild and crazy,” says costume designer Ruth Myers, who with designer Bill Hargate dreamed up the controversial bustled gown for Geena Davis, which people to this day still love or hate.

“I always seem to get credit for the ones no one likes,” laughs Myers, whose most recent work on “L.A. Confidential” featured wonderful wrapped and pleated Veronica Lake look-a-like clothes for Kim Basinger.

“Ultimately it’s for the stars themselves to decide, it’s not written in stone,” says Ed Callaghan of Harry Winston, making a deliberate pun as he talks about encouraging the stars to “pull out all the stops” on Oscar night. That means wearing diamonds, diamonds and more diamonds, provided by jewelers like Winston, Asprey and Martin Katz.

A fortune in jewels

Uma Thurman, who set a high-water mark for perfection in lavender Prada at the l995 Oscars, also wore thousands of dollars worth of loaned diamonds, and even a previously little-known actress like Brenda Blethyn, nominated last year, found herself wearing almost $3 million in diamonds to complement her yellow Armani gown.

Harry Winston’s has been loaning jewels to the stars since Jennifer Jones wore a diamond-and-ruby necklace and earclips to pick up her Oscar for playing a simple peasant girl in the l943 movie “The Song of Bernadette,” but in recent years the practice has escalated, and now everyone from a host like Whoopi Goldberg down to a nominee’s wife or mum gets to feel the frisson of wearing real gems.

That tingle can reach all the way down to the toes, which, of course, are shod in designer footwear such as Manolo Blahnik or J.P. Tod’s, something the stars can actually keep when the borrowed gown or tux is returned and the jewels handed back to the security guard even before the star is in bed.

J.P. Tod’s linked up several years ago with Sharon Stone, a real trend-setter in the glamour revival stakes, and now many actresses such as Lauren Holly and Jodie Foster flock to wear the company’s Della Valle line of custom-made and hand-dyed pumps and sandals, while actors such as Sean Connery and Tom Hanks have favored the velvet and grosgrain evening shoes.

“Pictures of what the stars wear Oscar night set immediate trends and are also going to be seen l00 years from now, so who wouldn’t want to consider the big picture and look their best with all the help they can get?,” Bloch says, summing up why Oscar is fashion’s biggest showcase.

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