STYLE : FASHION : And the Designer Is ...

Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

Within a week of Winona Ryder's Best Actress nomination for "Little Women," videotapes, look-books, phone calls and flowers inundated the actress in New York. The most famous designers in the world--Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan--beseeched Ryder to wear their designs to tomorrow night's Academy Awards ceremony.

In London, Best Actress nominee Miranda Richardson ("Tom & Viv") acquired a similiar flock of suitors. Gianni Versace offered to fly her to Milan to view his fall collection. Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Nino Cerruti indicated they, too, would gladly provide Richardson with Oscar gown selections.

And here in Los Angeles, Best Actress nominee Jessica Lange ("Blue Sky") received a handwritten note from the manager of the Valentino boutique in Beverly Hills. Buried in a long silver box filled with orange blossoms, tangerines and kumquats, the note read: "Mr. Valentino and I send our warmest congratulations ... Mr. Valentino would love to create a couture gown for you for the special event."

Such is the other Oscar race--a mad, mad rush by the stars of fashion to dress the stars of Hollywood. Next to Who Wins What tomorrow, the biggest mystery is Who Wears What. And to heighten excitement, designers and stars spin a collaborative web of secrecy around their dance.

It is, for example, anyone's guess whom glamour girl Sharon Stone will make happy with her choice. Actresses are, after all, notoriously fickle. In 1993, Stone wore a gown by Vera Wang and launched the New York designer's Oscar career. But last year, Stone switched to Valentino. And Best Actress nominee Susan Sarandon ("The Client") has worn Calvin Klein, Valentino and Carolyne Roehm before, but this year, Chanel, Donna Karan, Christian Dior, Valentino, Versace and good friend Todd Oldham also have come calling.

The only certainty about the Oscar fashion sweepstakes is that the appearance of a designer's clothes at the event is worth all the politicking that precedes it. More than a billion people watch the ceremony and the pre-ceremony arrivals, making that walk up the red carpet the most important fashion runway on Earth.

"A star in a designer's dress has become one of the best advertising things anyone can have," says longtime Rodeo Drive retailer Fred Hayman. A spokesman for the German design house Escada, which sent gold-papered portfolios of design photos to certain nominees and presenters, concurs. "The worldwide exposure is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars."

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The high-intensity, high-stakes courtship of stars for this year's awards presentation started in November with a visit to Los Angeles by a Calvin Klein emissary. Armani, told of Klein's early reconnaissance, reportedly followed suit. Next came team Versace. And the race was on.

But just try getting the contestants to admit it.

Valentino volunteers only that "we specially hope to bring luck, as we did last year, to our friend Tom Hanks," who was named Best Actor for "Philadelphia." Armani, too, demurs when asked for specific names. "I am always flattered," he says, "when a person in the public eye, whose style and image complement mine," wears Armani to the Oscars.

Words like friendship and relationship are invoked when the subject is designers' financial arrangements with stars. As a Valentino executive puts it, dressing a star for the Academy Awards is "a personal thing, done out of friendship and admiration; it's not like a business thing. Some of these people he knows personally, and some he's entertained at his home."

"Dressing the great Hollywood stars ... allows me to make a small contribution to a world I greatly admire," Armani says. "My rapport with Hollywood is not a one-night-a-year proposition."

Insiders say clothes worn to the ceremony are usually presented to the stars gratis. Italian designer Nino Cerruti gave outfits to Clint Eastwood and his companion, Frances Fisher, Best Actor nominee John Travolta ("Pulp Fiction") and his wife, Kelly Preston, and Robert Redford this year. A publicist says the clothing is being "designed to specifications."

Noting the myriad designer overtures to her client, Winona Ryder's publicist suggests that "with all these people (offering) to dress her, I think it would be rude for them to make her pay $10,000."

"All my clients care deeply about what they wear to a public function," notes publicist Nancy Seltzer, whose clients include Sarandon, "and, regardless (of) what they receive, they also feel comfortable seeking out those designs they might be interested in."

Even if they have to pay for it? "They haven't been asked to (for Oscar night)," Seltzer laughs, quickly adding: "But if they were, they would."

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It used to be that costume designers dressed the stars for the Oscars. There have been exceptions, however. Audrey Hepburn was devoted to Givenchy; Sophia Loren was loyal to Valentino. Then in 1988, Armani opened his Beverly Hills boutique and hired Wanda McDaniel, a former journalist whose Hollywood connections were cemented by her marriage to producer Albert Ruddy ("The Godfather").

By 1990, fashion writers were dubbing the Academy Awards the "Armani Awards." Among the Armani crowd that year: Best Actress winner Jessica Tandy, Best Actress nominee Michelle Pfeiffer, Best Supporting Actress nominee Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster, who began wearing Armani in 1989, the year she took home her first Best Actress Oscar, for "The Accused." (Foster, a Best Actress nominee ("Nell") again this year, will almost certainly wear Armani again.)

It also became tradition for Armani to dress the host of the evening--Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and now David Letterman. And the designer put men on the Oscar fashion map, dressing Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and Jeff Goldblum. Armani was king.

Soon, like one supermarket spotting another on a hot corner, other designers joined the fray. What's changed in the last few years is that designers want to dress the best, not the most.

"The fashion game in Hollywood has become so competitive, difficult and crowded," says Valentino, "that we plan to exclusively dress a few great names."

"Everybody kind of gets their (person)," notes Wanda McDaniel. "I don't see it as this score-keeping exercise. (Dress) Jodie, Annette (Bening) and Michelle Pfeiffer, and you can go home happy."

Now the balance of power has shifted to the side of the stars. "Now, with so many designers calling, inundating these people," says McDaniel, "they sort of, instead of, not feeling an obligation ... what they do is work the room. ... Hey, listen, it's one of the perks of their stature."

This year, presenter Sharon Stone is rumored to have asked several designers to provide her with sketches of custom designs for the Oscars. So much for the notion that she is strictly Valentino's muse.

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Stars can make designers, and make fashion, too. In 1992, Liza Minnelli wore Donna Karan's black turtleneck so-called cold-shoulder dress, which Karan had relegated to the back racks. The dress became a hit and even First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was photographed in it for Vogue.

Vera Wang's spectacular dress for Sharon Stone prompted a media frenzy. "I called it 'a blonde dress for a blonde,' " notes Wang (a former Vogue editor who spotted Stone before her "Basic Instinct" breakthrough and contacted her about wearing some of her clothes). "Totally plain, very couture , ... yards and yards of Lafitte duchess satin, which is $100 a yard," is how Wang describes it. "People told me that, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it looked rather extraordinary. Sharon said people remember that dress to this day. ... Holly remembered it, Marisa remembered it."

Last year, Best Actress winner Holly Hunter ("The Piano") and Marisa Tomei wore Wang on loan, and Wang says Hunter will wear her again tomorrow. "As definite as definite can be," she says after a pause. "Up until the night Sharon went out in my dress, Valentino thought she was wearing Valentino, and somebody else thought she was wearing something else. But I knew she was wearing me."

Stone, who also wore Wang's dress on loan, switched to Valentino last year. "I know when she does get married, I'm getting her wedding dress," Wang says. "And that's a promise from a friend to a friend." She plans to design a wedding dress for Hunter as well.

Stone also figures in a conversation with Pamela Dennis, a rising young New York designer. The actress "asked for one of our Suzy Wong dresses. I'm sure she'll be going with Valentino. But you never know." On Dennis' roster of probabilities is actress Rita Wilson. Tom Hanks' wife wore Valentino last year but is ordering a nude-colored Dennis gown studded with crystals from Neiman Marcus, according to the designer. "It'll almost look like you're naked ... super-feminine and super-glamorous." Presenter Jamie Lee Curtis selected "something very glamorous" from the designer's couture collection--"a hand-beaded bodice with a floaty silk gazar bottom," says Dennis. "And a bustle in the back. (A) soft creamy lemon color--French vanilla."

Curtis wore a Dennis dress to Cannes several years ago and sent the designer a thank-you note. They met last year at a Neiman Marcus trunk show. Curtis' Oscar dress is a gift. "She does a lot of public relations for me, so it's a deal," says Dennis. "I give her my clothes, and she gives me press and confidence and opportunity."

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Pamela Dennis' new Oscar cachet reinforces the prediction Fred Hayman makes about this year's ceremony. "This," he pronounces, "is a glamour year."

He should know. This is his seventh year as fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards. Through an arrangement between the Academy and major fashion houses, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominees and presenters can borrow gowns for the night. Hayman oversees the process. By nomination day Feb. 14, he had confirmed contributions from a dozen top designers, including Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Donna Karan, Emanuel Ungaro and Pamela Dennis. More than 100 gowns were available in a back room at his Rodeo Drive boutique (which will stay open today for last-minute adjustments).

"If they don't find anything attractive to them," says Hayman, "we may send them across the street to Valentino or to Ferre, Dior. I may call Herve Leger in Paris ... if they need me, I'm always there, whether it's jewelry by Winston, whatever. ... I am at their beck and call."

And yet, with the best fashion designers in the world at their disposal, some of the most glamorous women in Hollywood will pass on this year's Oscar fashion sweepstakes. Glenn Close, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan, Daryl Hannah and Drew Barrymore have let it be known that they won't be attending.

"The truth is, Drew likes to sit on the couch with some of her friends in a front-row seat," a spokeswoman says, and watch the Oscars wearing her "coziest clothes."

Just like the rest of us.

* stylist: L'Wren Scott/Visages Style L.A.

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