Battle for red carpet exposure gets pricey

It’s no secret that the Academy Awards have become the Olympics of fashion. Ever since Uma Thurman stepped onto the red carpet in 1995 and told the world her ethereal lavender gown and matching shawl were created by Italian fashion house Prada, designers realized their ticket to overnight worldwide fame can be found on the back of a beautiful actress sashaying her way into the Oscars.

But the game has changed a lot in recent years. It’s no longer enough to offer actresses gratis gowns and dyed to match Manolos (so 1990s!). Today, all-powerful stylists who pick the dresses and accessories for the most sought-after stars are being wooed with everything from free trips to plastic surgery.

And the field is more crowded than ever. In addition to fashion powerhouses such as Armani, Versace, Valentino and Chanel vying to dress everyone from nominees to the party girls du jour, there’s a plethora of manufacturers — offering up everything from eyewear to toothpaste — who descend upon Beverly Hills in the weeks leading up to the big night in hopes of basking in Oscar’s refracted glory.

The spaghetti-at-the-wall theory embraced by many fashion companies throwing massive amounts of free merchandise and, increasingly, a fist full of dollars at the stars (more on that later) has reached astonishing new heights — or depths — depending on your perspective.

But are designers and companies who participate in Oscar’s fashion frenzy still getting a bang for their bucks?

“The Oscars are extremely important to fashion,” says Carolina Herrera, whose longtime relationship with Renee Zellweger has resulted in multiple appearances on Oscar’s red carpet for the designer and helped her bridge the pop culture gap between the relatively small number of socialites willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for one of her gowns and the style-obsessed masses who might only be able to afford to buy her eponymous perfume. “The right dress on the right star can be magic,” she adds.

These days, that particular brand of alchemy rarely happens by chance. “Celebrity dressing as we knew it doesn’t really exist anymore,” says Carol Brodie, former director of global communications for Harry Winston. “The red carpet is for sale now. It’s just smart business.”

Herrera maintains that she has never paid Zellweger or any star to wear her creations on the red carpet. “That is not what we do,” the designer says. But Hollywood insiders like Giorgio Armani’s Wanda McDaniel have been outspoken in their criticisms (without naming names) of those who do.

Says another fashion insider, “Unless you’re willing to open your checkbook, A-listers are off the market. Small houses and young designers just can’t compete.”

Fashion mega-brands Chanel and St. John’s have all but insured they’ll be well represented on Oscar night thanks to their lucrative deals with Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie, who appear in their respective advertising campaigns. Each of their multiyear pacts are purportedly worth around $12 million.

Although all involved are mum on the subject, there’s little doubt the companies yield some influence on what the actresses wear at the Academy Awards.

Why all the secrecy? Most likely it’s because actresses — and the companies that pay them — want fans to believe the star is wearing that stunning dress because of her own fabulous fashion sense, not because she’s a paid shill on the red carpet.

Brodie says everyone should come clean: “If you’re going to pay Scarlett Johansson to appear in your advertising (the actress is currently featured in Louis Vuitton ads), what’s the difference if you pay her to appear on the red carpet? It’s the same thing.”

Joan Rivers, who ushered in the “Who are you wearing?” era when she began hosting E!’s Oscar preshows in 1996, disagrees with the cash-for-couture practice. “I think it’s wrong,” says the comedienne, who now covers the red carpet for TV Guide Channel. “We expect to see Nicole in Chanel, but to be slipped money under the table to wear something belittles the whole thing. When you’re making $20 million a picture, you don’t need a free dress.”

But the secret and not-so-secret deals brokered between fashion companies and celebrities have done nothing to dim the glamour quotient of the evening for the average tabloid reader, Brodie says. “The consumer doesn’t care that a celebrity is being paid to wear something. If they see something on the red carpet being worn by their favorite celebrity and they want something from that brand, they don’t care about anything else.”

The public’s seemingly endless appetite for celebrity style has made having a presence at the Oscars, even with its high pricetag, absolutely essential for luxury fashion brands. “They are more relevant than ever,” says Robert Vignola, president of Leiber, whose jeweled minaudieres have been carried to the awards by actresses including Hilary Swank and Helen Mirren. “The ‘Oscar’ effect lasts throughout the year. You can’t put a dollar equivalent on it, but the buzz is priceless.”

Vignola, who says the company does not pay actresses to carry its bags, declines to reveal how much is spent on its Oscar marketing campaign but does say the budget has increased markedly in recent years.

Does it really help sell expensive ($2,500-$6,000) handbags? “It fuels the aspirational quality of the brand. It makes people desire and covet the bags — that’s how we measure it as a success,” Vignola says.

Not all fashionistas are eager to jump into the Oscar fray. Menswear designer Joseph Abboud, who has dressed Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, says he’s never been tempted to enter the red-carpet fashion wars.

Is that because men — and menswear — play a supporting role on Oscar night? “There’s no question that men are just accessories on the red carpet,” he admits. “A beautiful woman at the Oscars is always going to get more attention than a handsome man.”

Still, Abboud says, regardless of whether a designer specializes in gowns or tuxedos, “It’s a nightmarish amount of work, and nothing is guaranteed unless you pay someone. The amount of time, money and effort that goes into maybe getting someone to wear your clothes on the red carpet just isn’t worth it.”

The biggest winner of the night, says Rivers, is Allen Schwartz of ABS, who famously knocks off the most eye-catching designer creations worn at kudocasts such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

Schwartz gets his copies of the dresses in stores just weeks after the awards. “He’s got 16 people watching the show in one room sketching like crazy,” Rivers cracks. “He churns out these $300 prom dresses and is making a fortune. To me, he’s the smartest one of all of them.”

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