Designers for Oscar Night Mean Business


"The inmates are running the asylum," a veteran fashion publicist said, at a pre-Oscar luncheon, describing the style derby the Academy Awards has become.

In the past few years, the media have eagerly criticized designers for "besieging" defenseless actresses, begging them to wear their dresses. But for every tale of designers who litter a performer's doorstep with boxes of free clothes (a situation most women wouldn't really define as a problem), there are rumors of actresses who grossly abuse the privileges their positions afford them.

In a year when an extravagantly romantic movie dominated the awards, it would be tempting to see the potentially passionate activity of choosing a special gown as an affair of the heart. We imagine a designer is swept away by an actress' beauty and creates a dress just for her. Or an actress is so moved by a designer's vision that she experiences the peculiar ecstasy of love at first sight--a lesser thrill when the object of affection is a dress, not a man, but a high, nevertheless.

That's how it would work if life were a movie. In reality, Oscar night fashions are as businesslike as a pre-nup. A designer commits time, money and effort to dressing a star in exchange for international exposure. Get out your calculators. A page of advertising in Vogue would cost X and be seen by Y people. Making clothes for Z actresses and employing U publicists to tend to their needs, on the chance that V dresses will be photographed and seen by 80 billion people, is worth W, squared. A designer does the math and makes an economic decision to invest in the Oscar market, or not.

Donatella Versace decided to try. She opted not to present a couture collection in Paris in January but did create four gowns, sending them out on the runway during the men's shows that month. Then she directed the craftspeople in the Versace workrooms to make 20 lace, chain mail, mesh and beaded fantasies, just for Oscar consideration.

In February, publicist Elizabeth Harrison camped in a suite at the Chateau Marmont with the gowns and invited actresses to try them on. The names on her call sheet were a beginner's guide to the event's pecking order.

"We don't want to dress just anyone," she explained then. "We want to dress the right people."

Well, join the club. The competition was fierce for nominated actresses and the presenters, those most likely to be on camera or repeatedly photographed. Many actresses don't have the perfect figures of models, so it's a given that the more glamorous the girl, the more sought-after she is.

"I'd love to see Kim Basinger in one of these gowns," Harrison said. "Celine Dion would look great in a number of them."

Basinger and Dion would look good in bath towels. But chubbettes and wives of actors and directors are less in demand, unless the wife in question is "Terminator" superstar and James Cameron spouse Linda Hamilton. The situation might seem as cruel as a high school clique, but only if you forget that it's just business.

The week before the awards, New Yorker Harrison was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, with her rack of Versaces, coordinated shoes and bags, and a seamstress ready to do alterations.

At the hotel, where even a celebrity eyebrow plucker had booked a suite and was lining up beauties in need of a tweeze, rumors flew that actresses were making last-minute decisions from stockpiles of dresses--including several made just for them.

"Minnie Driver has 25 gowns to choose from, and she can't make up her mind because she's overwhelmed," one publicist said. "With 25 designer gowns, who wouldn't be overwhelmed?"

A non-celebrity could understand the kind of pressure an actress feels on Oscar night by thinking about her wedding day. All eyes will be on her, and she'll be photographed for posterity. No wonder she gets insecure about what to wear.

Stylists are supposed to guide a decision.

"I wasn't even in town," Ashley Judd said Monday night, "so I just left it to my stylist, and she sent me things to try." But there was grumbling that powerful stylists were making things worse. Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. The Richard Tyler gets to go.

And the Versace verdict? Claudia Schiffer, Lisa Rinna and Melanie Griffith wore Versace on Monday night, as did a few lesser-known actresses. None were nominees or were presenters. Better luck next year. And remember, it's just business.

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