Star clients keep stylists on the run

Special to The Times

Besides rich clients and the world's fashion journalists, there are a handful of others who descend upon Paris each season for the haute couture shows, which took place this week. They are the celebrity stylists, such as Fati Parsia of Los Angeles, who come for a firsthand look at the world's most glamorous fashions for their clients to wear in magazine layouts, music videos, TV appearances, movie premieres and awards shows.

"Even though I get 'look books' and videos, that is not enough to experience the fashions," Parsia said. "It's my job to see for myself what's out there."

Parsia has dressed Kim Basinger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Heather Locklear and, just recently, Shania Twain for the American Music Awards, a four-outfit occasion for Twain, who made her grand entrance in a black-buckled Givenchy couture gown chosen for her by Parsia.

For stars, fashion-consciousness is no longer optional. The public's interest in red-carpet attire is insatiable, and the pressure on celebrities at awards ceremonies can be intense. People, US and other publications are snapping photos of the beautifully clad as they arrive at the Oscars, while editors and commentators are baring their claws for their fashion-bloopers items.

"The pressures are enormous," Parsia said. "The press and every person has an opinion. The celebrities need you to get them through all this. If they get bad criticism from the press, you are the fall guy."

To ensure a client's good press, Parsia and other stylists must keep up with the trends. While only the tiniest sliver of the population can afford haute couture, the business functions as a kind of hothouse for fashion, allowing designer creativity to flourish without concern for the bottom line. (The money is made on ready-to-wear and licensing arrangements.)

In couture, pieces are hand-tailored, often requiring as many as five fittings per garment. The simplest gowns sell for a minimum of $15,000; prices rise steeply from there. The more hand-details and the more precious the materials, the higher the price.

Although many people believe celebrities get their clothes free, given the cost of haute couture, this is not always the case. Most fashion houses said they expected their samples returned. Some said exceptions are occasionally made but would not name names.

For Parsia, helping prepare a client for a big event usually requires from a week to a month of preparation. For the Oscars, that means at least a month of 12- to 16-hour days, Sundays included. She spends hours on the phone to design houses in Europe and New York, arranging to receive dress samples.

Part of the stress of the job is the competition with other stylists whose clients may be vying for the same dress. Cultivating relationships with designers is paramount.

In Paris, Parsia not only attends the shows but also visits each showroom.

"It's important to see the pieces up close and to tell the people how impressed I am," she said. "I want to do this personally, not on the phone."

At Chanel, Parsia lifted the dresses from a rack one by one. She handled each like a jewel, touching the whisper-light fabrics and studying the way the hand-stitched beads caught the light. From time to time, she turned to Chanel representative Anne Fahey to express her admiration.

Celebrities choose their stylists based upon the image they want to project. Some stylists are better at funky, some are better at sophisticated.

"I do sophisticated, glamorous and sexy," Parsia said. Still, she said, the work is a team effort: "I can be nuts about something, but if my client is not comfortable, it will not work. My clients have to feel 150% excellent, or the most beautiful dress won't work."

This week, Parsia had good reason to feel 150% excellent herself. Gaultier, Dior, Chanel, Ungaro, Valentino, Versace, Lacroix and Givenchy presented exceptional spring collections. Some said this couture season was the best in years.

Parsia sat riveted throughout the Christian Lacroix show. "He is such an artist. His designs are amazing," Parsia said. "I live for moments like these." Parsia put Catherine Zeta-Jones in Christian Lacroix couture for her wedding to Michael Douglas; the flower girls and mother-of-the-bride all wore Lacroix couture too.

One of the best-known stylists, Phillip Bloch, was busy with Sunday's Golden Globes and did not attend the couture shows. He planned to check them out on the Internet. It was Bloch who chose the stunning dress with the embroidered flower bodice that Halle Berry wore last year at the Oscars, showering attention on Lebanese designer Elie Saab.

Saab already had a strong following in the Middle East, and his ready-to-wear line is sold at Nieman Marcus. He said he has created a $2.5-million wedding dress, encrusted in diamonds and emeralds, for a princess.

"We have had many, many customers before," he said. "We work with all the royal families in the world. Sultans, not stars."

Still there can be no better occasion for fashion exposure than the Academy Awards. When Berry wore his gown to the Oscars last year, the world knew his name overnight. "We had faxes, e-mails, phone calls from everywhere," said Saab's assistant, Zena Chedid. "To this day, we see new pictures in magazines of the Halle Berry dress."

Bloch, who has also dressed Lauren Holly, Catherine Dent, Angela Bassett and Beyonce Knowles, said stars are more savvy about the runways than they used to be. "They know about fashion," he said. "Madonna and Gwyneth and Julianne Moore -- they have all sat in the front row. They are educated. They look for couture."

This week's front-row faces included Ashley Judd, Elizabeth Hurley, Brittany Murphy, Sophie Marceau and the rap star Eve. Even if they have stylists, many actresses want to see the fashions for themselves.

"I picked some things myself today," said Elizabeth Hurley, after Dior's extravaganza of a show, during which models alternated with Chinese acrobats, who somersaulted down the catwalk. The first kung fu fighter bounded out with such enthusiasm that with one leap, he shattered part of the glass runway. (The show went on.)

Ashley Judd, who wore vintage Valentino couture in her 1999 film, "Eye of the Beholder," was in town for the Valentino show. "It will be a sad day for couture if Valentino ever retires."

Stylists don't only pull from the haute couture closets for their clients. "For the Oscars, I have to look at everything," said Parsia.

Bloch, too, said he does not rely strictly on couture for his clients. "Sometimes couture gets costume-y." What appears on the runway, he said, can be "a little too out there."

For instance, said Bloch, "There could be a gorgeous dress and Galliano could put it on the model backward and then throw shearling on top."

If a stylist put such an outfit on a client and trotted her out for the media, he said, even "the most beautiful girl in the world would be crucified."

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