Red carpet sees more one-of-a-kind designs as actresses get haute ideas

Every February, fashion prognosticators gaze into their Waterford crystal ball.

Will this year’s Oscar red carpet see a preponderance of jewel-toned gowns? Will Valentino reign again? Yet, try as they might, there’s no real way to predict what will make it up the steps to the Kodak Theater.

As fashion stylists and publicists nail-bitingly know, an actress often decides what gown she’s going to wear only minutes before stepping into the limo. And there’s never a rhyme or reason to it. Therefore, nothing to try and predict.

What is interesting, however, is how the rules behind who will wear what are changing. The marketplace for designers is unbearably tight. Competition for a star’s favor is fierce. And for an actress, making an indelible fashion statement on the biggest night of the year — the after-effects of which could have career-changing ramifications — has become a near impossible feat. It’s sad but true: Everyone’s beginning to look the same.

So in these drastic times have come drastic measures. Customization is key. Now more than ever, stars are working with designers and jewelry makers for a one-of-a-kind couture look, something they’re sure no one else will have.

Nicole Kidman may be partly to blame for this. For the 2002 Oscars, when she was nominated for “Moulin Rouge,” she wore a couture Chanel gown that Karl Lagerfeld made specifically for her, and a rough-cut diamond Bulgari necklace that she helped design. When she presented at the ceremony last year, she again wore couture Chanel and a never-before-seen, rough-cut green diamond Bulgari necklace that stylist L’Wren Scott designed for her.

“People at this level of the game aren’t willing to wear something that’s been seen either on a runway or in a magazine,” says fashion publicist Marilyn Heston, who arranged for the custom-made Roland Mouret gown that Scarlett Johansson wore to this year’s Golden Globes. “People like the element of drama and surprise. You know Nicole Kidman’s going to look amazing, but you’re still really excited to see what she’s going to wear. It’s why stars don’t want to reveal the name of the designer who is making a dress for them.”

“It’s the most luxurious alternative that exists,” explains stylist Vincent Boucher, who put Teri Hatcher in a one-of-a-kind Donna Karan gown for the Globes. “Nominees like something that’s more personalized. But it’s a commitment. You have to commit yourself to several fittings and decisions about the dress.”

And that commitment is mutual in more ways than one. Much ado has been made recently about the fact that various stars now are being paid to wear a designer’s dress or necklace, anywhere from $20,000 to $1 million or more. And Sally Morrison, of the Diamond Information Center, doesn’t think anyone should be apologizing for it.

“We all know that in Hollywood there’s terrible pressure for women to find interesting parts after the age of 30,” she says, “so as far as I’m concerned, if they can make a little money by getting endorsement deals, whether it’s from a couturier or a jewelry brand, it’s fine by me. Why shouldn’t they? People do ads for cosmetics companies. Why is it worse because it’s jewelry?”

When Halle Berry wore Elie Saab’s gown to the Oscars in 2002 (when she won for “Monster’s Ball”), the then-little-known Lebanese designer’s business boomed 30%. These days, stars understand their currency, and designers have been quick to pay for it.

Yet such stakes usually mean the red carpet is a safer playing field.

“People are afraid to wear the ‘wow’ dresses; maybe their fan base won’t understand it,” says fashion publicist Margaret Schell.

“The Oscar ceremony is the most conservative event of the year,” seconds Heston. “There’s a level of respect that goes with being nominated, so people will go for the most tasteful and beautiful look.”

However, in the end, “actresses want to look great, deal or no deal,” says Boucher.

“They’ll turn down a deal if the dress is not going to look good on them. After all, those red carpet pictures have such a shelf life now.”

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