Oscar Undressed

The Starmaking Machinery Behind the Popular Gown

Here's how it works: You book a suite at L'Ermitage, or the Four Seasons, or some other hotel in Los Angeles; you set up a rack with 40 or so dresses of your own design, or 100 pairs of shoes, or a few million dollars worth of diamonds, and you wait. You wait for a stylist, who invariably shows up at lunch- or dinnertime eyeing the room service menu, then picks over your creations and, if you're lucky, borrows a few things to show whatever ultra-glamorous actress he or she is providing with free dresses for the big night. Then you cross your fingers and pray that when the limo pulls up to the Shrine Auditorium, your TV will justify the time and money you spent sitting around for a week sucking up to stylists, agents, and occasionally even a stray star herself: Your gown, your spike heels, your necklace will come traipsing down the red carpet, and someday, not too far off, your name will resonate with the power of Calvin or Ralph.

"It is demeaning, to some degree," confesses James Purcell, an evening wear designer whose dresses are for sale at Saks and who has managed to garb Angelina Jolie, Leelee Sobieski, and Michelle Pfeiffer on sundry occasions. This week, Purcell and his business partner, Barry Steinhart, are holed up in a suite at the Standard, a hotel Steinhart describes as "so hip it hurts: There's a nude woman—OK, she's wearing a thong—reading behind the reception desk." Even if he fails to place a single gown next Sunday night, there are other reasons Purcell wants to be at an L.A. hotel this week—with the media frenzy surrounding the Oscars, it's just possible some gold dust might fall on him. "The BBC and other crews are set up at all the hotels, too!" Purcell says. "They could do a story on you."

Marc Bouwer, a designer who put Charlize Theron into a silver, square-necked Oscar dress two years ago, turns slightly melancholy when assessing the odds. "There are 500 other designers, and there's no loyalty when it comes to the Oscars. The stars are bombarded with clothes." Bouwer isn't reluctant to admit what is perhaps the most important benefit of winning the Oscars sweepstakes: It brings you a step closer to slapping your name on towels, sunglasses, and underpants, which is where the real money resides. "In a sense it's setting up the glam slam for the licenses. We're working toward that."

When it comes to prestige and building a brand and getting your name out there, you can forget the cover of Women's Wear Daily—what you want is to land a great, big, network-televised fish. When Jenna Elfman, star of Dharma & Greg, was sick of being on the worst-dressed list, her stylist turned to Purcell, and he ended up dressing her for last year's Golden Globes. Though there was no remuneration involved—"When a star wears something of ours to something major, it's our policy that it's hers to keep"—there was, of course, the promise of far vaster payoffs waiting in the wings.

Alas, for Bouwer and Purcell and the hundreds of other small designers camped out in Hollywood this week, the offer of one paltry frock is as nothing compared with the inducements the bigger fashion houses can offer. A designer who didn't want his name used says the current system of funneling dresses through stylists doesn't always mean an actress ends up with the most flattering garment—in fact, the result can be quite the opposite. "The actress thinks everybody's working in her interest, but that's not often the case. A publicist might be getting, like, a 30 percent discount from a designer's boutique as a reward for using a particular dress—it's called a courtesy discount. The stylist, the publicist, the agent, all have an agenda, and there are rewards for all of them—free goods, a discount, maybe an assignment to style a shoot."

Stylists have been known to take dresses from hotel rooms and never even show them to a star; instead, they push their client into a garment by the designer who has promised the most lavish compensation. Sometimes it's the star who gets the present: In addition to the free dress, she can receive a huge store credit, as much as $50,000, as a dividend for wearing a particular label. Patrick McDonald, assistant to couturier John Anthony, who himself has done pre–Academy Awards hotel duty, points to another, more basic problem: "I wouldn't say today's stylists always have the best taste. They're not dressing the actresses to be elegant anymore."

With all these clothes to-ing and fro-ing around the greater Los Angeles area, there are bound to be mishaps. "She stole a pair of $1400 Christian Louboutin boots off us!" cried one designer about an actress who never returned the custom-made footwear. In fairness to the actress, though, it's just possible that she lost her way in the arcane rules of who's supposed to return what and when. After all, so much stuff is gratis. Almost everyone, on or off the record, says that if a nominee wears a dress to the Academy Awards, it's hers forever, though one stylist groused about people who borrowed clothes, promised to wear them to the Oscars, but ended up donning them for something like "the Blockbuster awards." One designer thought that actresses should keep dresses worn to award presentations but return them if it was "just for a party for a disease." Another industry insider said his unwritten rule was that "even if it's Valentino couture worth $35,000, if she's wearing it when she wins the Oscar, it's hers."

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