Swag resurfaces with a conscience

To hear it from a new crop of "gifting suite" organizers like Greg Kwiat, lead sponsor of the Kwiat Diamond Suite Featuring L'Oreal Paris and Arnold Brant, swag in 2007 is all about "making a difference" and "giving back."

"If there is a great theme here, it's that charitable giving is cool again," he said. "It's hip. It's meaningful. And why not try to share and give back as part of the Hollywood experience?"

Back in the proverbial day — well, before last summer, to be exact — pulling in a valuable haul of high-end "gifts" didn't require much more than an A-list pedigree and an acquisitive nature. Swag was a windfall of fame, given away to celebrities al gratis in exchange for their implicit product endorsement.

But then came the IRS decision to tax swag as income. And before you could say "1099 form," the film academy decreed it would stop giving Oscar presenters its legendary gift baskets filled with $100,000 worth of luxury goods and services. Swag became less a guilty pleasure than a guilty secret. Many predicted the practice would disappear.

But as the Oscar season draws to a close, it's become clear that the swag game did not disappear. It just managed to make itself part of the anti-swag movement.

"Socially Conscious Swag, Beachfront Atmosphere," reads the announcement for the PennHouse Awards Suite, being staged at a Santa Monica boutique hotel.

In addition to the spa treatments and eco-friendly beauty products available there, stars have been browsing the "conflict free" diamond jewelry on display — an Oscar-appropriate selection in a year that has honored "Blood Diamond," a film centered on the conflict diamonds (those mined in war zones) that were being mined in Sierra Leone to finance its civil war, with five Academy Award nominations.

Stacy Broff, one of PennHouse's planners, explained the suite's philanthropic hook. "Instead of us saying, 'Ohmygod, take this and take that free. Hey Paris Hilton, have five pairs of jeans,' we say, 'You can have this but be conscious about where in the world things come from.' We do have swag. But as much as we're primping and pampering, we're educating. Everything's like, 'Hey, what can we do to save the Earth?' It's guilt-free."

Melanie Segal's Platinum Hollywood Oscar Gift Suite in the Sunset Hyatt Hotel Penthouse Ballroom is also doing its part to curtail the conflict-diamond trade, albeit with a slightly different M.O.

After they fill a bag with digital cameras, designer denim, perfume, handbags and spa package coupons of their choosing, invited stars are offered a hair care regimen that includes a sprinkling of "diamond dust" and a straightening treatment with a $1-million diamond-covered Chi flat iron.

Boasting its own security team and Brink's truck, the iron will later be auctioned off to raise money for the Blood Diamond Fund through Amnesty International. The suite will also auction off a Celebrity Sharpie Pen, covered with 2,000 Swarovski crystals, to aid Save Darfur, a Sudan relief charity.

As well, celebrities are given the option to "discreetly and privately" donate the products they receive to charity, according to the invitation (never mind the phalanx of news crews and paparazzi). "There's going to be a lot of media there, so why not bring attention to a worthy cause?" Segal said. "The stars are given so much. They can give some back too. We have to remember those less fortunate."

The Platinum Guild International Academy Awards Red Carpet Jewelry Preview in Beverly Hills, meanwhile, showcases a different kind of swag suite sensory overload. Oscar nominees and presenters are encouraged to select from $14-million worth of jewelry available for loan courtesy of celebrity jewelers, including Jacob & Co., Mikimoto and Neil Lane, while sipping from flutes of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.

And attending stars will be asked to sign custom-made platinum and crocodile bracelets that will later be auctioned on the Clothes Off Our Backs website (famous for raising charity money by selling celebrities' designer clothing) to benefit the Children's Defense Fund and Cure Autism Now.

But according to jewelry and style expert Michael O'Connor, who helped curate the Platinum Guild suite, such Champagne altruism doesn't come cheap. "It's costing quite a few hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.

Still, as he sees it, the impulse to give something back supersedes the "gimme" mind-set associated with most swag suites.

"Celebs have always been giving with their time and money," he said. "But lately, they seem to have even more of a social conscience. I don't know if it's because of all the attention being given the gift bags — I don't think so. Celebrities have to go and choose their jewelry for the red carpet anyway. They love the idea of being able to donate something too."

Promoters of the Kwiat Diamond suite have actively billed it as an "anti-swag suite." Strictly speaking, that's true: The Arnold Brant designer suits (in eco-friendly materials that no animals were killed to make) and the million-dollar diamond jewelry there are intended as red-carpet loaners — the stuff has to be returned once the last after-party ends. But "anti-swag" doesn't mean anti-luxury.

Ensconced in a corner of the Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills, the suite is an oasis of bling and laid-back affluence where L'Oreal Paris makeovers are performed and $20 bottles of mineral water aiding the nonprofit Charity Water are handed to every celeb who walks through the door. A case of the water sells for $4,000, the exact cost to build a well in several African countries (Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi, among them), where contaminated drinking water has created a health emergency.

"The vast majority of these suites are designed just to give away product," Kwiat said. "It's lost some of its effectiveness. But we haven't seen any loss of turnout by making this charitable push, in saying, 'We're not giving anything to you. We're giving back in your name.' Charity is not necessarily about the branding."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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