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."

Illustrations: Jorge Colombo

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."

Marc Bouwer, like most designers, has had his run-ins with the give-away ethic. "Everyone wants clothes for free. We've had the experience of someone very high profile—I can't even give you one clue—who went through fittings, everything, and never wore the dress. She kept it, and the next week she asked for more clothes. We gave them to her, too. It's not always a pleasure, but it's the only way of getting noticed." And even the guy who lost the $1400 boots was able to see some good in the experience: "We always include the actress in the list of celebrities we've dressed."

The building of that list, the prospect of pictures of your dress turning up in InStyle, in People, in Us Magazine, on shows like Entertainment Tonight and Extra, is intoxicating even to designers who profess to take the long view. Though Bouwer insists, "I'm not really an Oscar hound," he certainly has his hopes up. "We do have a few people we think are right for our clothes and we've sent dresses out to them, but they don't decide until 20 minutes before, anyway. Joan Allen requested swatches and sketches, so we have a shot there. The disappointment when someone doesn't choose your dress can be heartbreaking."

It wasn't always thus. In the early days of Hollywood, there weren't any stylists in the picture, let alone fashion designers. "Helen Rose or Edith Head made Elizabeth Taylor's Oscar dresses," sighs Patrick McDonald. "When Edith Head told you, 'You're thick around the middle, you need an empire waist,' you listened." (Or not—in this month's Vanity Fair, William Frye recollects taking Bette Davis to the 1963 Academy Awards, for which she chose to wear an old black dress with an orange panel, backwards.)

With all the attention being paid to every facet of their outfits, you would think these actresses were fluttering around like butterflies, holding free dresses up to their bosoms, and whistling "I Feel Pretty," but that is far from the case. "Stars are insecure, just like anyone," says Steinhart. "They always have people around them saying, 'Oh, no, you can't wear that!' " Not only that, but once a celebrity—or her factotum—has made the final decision, she has to walk the plank and face Joan Rivers, a prospect some people find less than tantalizing. Patrick McDonald says that even dressed to the nines, more than one star has been known to balk at the last minute. "A lot of actresses go in the back door—they don't want the ridicule."

If anyone is presiding over the free-for-all that is modern Hollywood it's the stylist, cruising the hotel suites and bringing the gowns to the gals. Phillip Bloch, one of the best known, and a guy who dates events with phrases like "the year I put the tiara on Salma," says of the period leading up to the Oscars, "This week everyone calls me Mr. Bloch! There are autograph people outside the hotels! Everybody thinks this goes on for months, but no one moves on it until 10 days before—it really all happens in the last week." Asked what styles will be big this year, he replies that he's got a good feeling about corsets: "The whole corset thing will take off—plus, a lot of the other classics." And he isn't hesitant about letting actresses know what he thinks of some of their previous choices; it's not for nothing that he has sat next to Joan Rivers at her Oscar postmortems. "Hopefully Julia will do something besides a black T-shirt this year, and really take the plunge! Really go for glamour!"


"Stars are insecure, just like anyone. They always have people around them saying, 'Oh, no, you can’t wear that!' "


Of course, an ineluctable part of that glamour is the karat-heavy jewelry, but bijouteries, unlike fashion designers, aren't about to give stuff away. This year, Van Cleef & Arpels is sharing the Governor's Suite at L'Ermitage with Diane Von Furstenberg and Helena Rubinstein, among others. "Some companies pay the actresses in money to wear their jewelry, but we don't," says Lisa Kaplan, a Van Cleef spokesperson, adding that serious measures, including bodyguards in black tie, are always taken to insure the gems' safety. "If they have a safe in their house, the celebrity can keep the jewelry overnight, but sometimes they just have a stylist or someone else who runs around and returns everything that night." One stylist said that jewelry companies don't even bother with deploying a bodyguard unless a piece is worth more than $700,000, but that, in any case, Oscar night is crawling with guards in evening clothes, lurking outside the ladies' room and otherwise shadowing their charges.

Rebecca at Fred Leighton, an antique jewelry shop with headquarters on Madison Avenue, was glad to relay previous tales of triumph: "Vera Wang came in and chose those diamond clips that Charlize wore; did you see Jennifer wearing our huge 1950s brooch?" But she clammed up when asked specifics about security issues. "Let's just say, the jewelry is very secure. The jewelry is certainly being watched. No, we've never, never lost a piece." For Fred Leighton and the other jewelers, there can be immediate financial rewards to getting something around a star's neck, arm, or finger: Folks with plenty of money who live far from fancy stores call the shop right after the broadcast and say, "I want that piece!"

Once the free dress and the borrowed jewels have been lined up, it's time for the shoes. Stuart Weitzman, who is also set up at L'Ermitage this week, has upwards of 3000 pairs of shoes in his Beverly Hills shop, a store he'll be keeping open 24 hours before the big night. Twenty-four hours, Stuart? "We almost have no choice. The shoes are dependent on the clothing, and that takes up the actresses' normal hours. We're on call like a doctor. Three thousand pairs won't be enough. We'll always be missing something that they need." More prescient stylists, aware of their clients' shoe requirements, will stop by Weitzman's suite at L'Ermitage, where he'll have 100 samples they can paw over. Whichever ones they pick, "They don't pay for wearing them, and we don't pay them to wear them, either. We might thank them in a cute way, like with shoe candy, or a shoe teapot at Christmas."

Last year a couple of what Weitzman called "established" actresses—Judi Dench and Lynn Redgrave—asked him to design some reasonably comfortable but attractive shoes for Oscar night. "I had three weeks to design something with a two-inch instead of four-inch heel." Sometimes a shoe is so precious only one actress gets to wear it, as was the case of the totally clear Cinderella sandal made of transparent Plexiglas that Minnie Driver donned a few years back. "They didn't have even one screw! We used high-tech microwave adhesion, absolutely great!" Eventually Weitzman gave a pair each to Julie Moran and Mary Hart, hostesses of Entertainment Tonight. "All they did was change toenail color—very sexy." Still, even a fun, seemingly noncontroversial subject like party shoes can be fraught with anxiety. "I have yet to meet the actress who picks her own shoes," Weitzman says. "The stylists tell them what's best. We get the impression that these ladies are the best at looking best, but all of them rely on this guy or gal almost completely."

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