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I’m going to the Oscars, but what will I wear?

Special to The Times

Editor’s note: Carrie Lozano is a graduate student in journalism at UC Berkeley and a producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Weather Underground.” This week she was fitted for her first Oscar gown.

“You’re such a virgin at this,” couturier Colleen Quen says with a giggle, as she watches me awkwardly slip on the “Sake-tini” cocktail dress that she’s made just for me.

A month ago, I didn’t know the definition of couturier, but here I am, the center of Quen’s attention. I squeeze in my tummy while she pulls the zipper up, hoping that I haven’t gained weight in the two weeks since she took my 36 measurements -- the kind of detail that’s a hallmark of couture. I’m scared to snag the dress’s thick silk, or to touch it with my clammy hands.

After two weeks of agonizing over how the dress would look, I can’t wait to see myself in the mirror. When I step onto a round podium and stare at my reflection, it takes a moment for it to sink in that it’s me. It makes no sense. I’m the type of woman who bought a wedding outfit off the rack; who spent the last several years freelance writing and producing a documentary film, without making a living at either; and who juggles graduate school with caring for a toddler and 16-year-old sister (I’m 30).

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Day to day, I live in jeans, and dressing up means wearing heels instead of funky athletic shoes. So a month ago, when I learned that I would be attending the Academy Awards, I couldn’t wrap my brain around all the implications.

The film that I produced, “The Weather Underground,” which we worked on hand-to-mouth for several years, is nominated for best documentary. As word of the nomination spread, the first question people asked me was: “What are you going to wear?”

At first, I didn’t want to get caught up in the glitz of the Academy Awards. After all, I’m a journalist who deals with serious subjects. But when other serious and far more experienced filmmakers told me about their Oscar visits to Harry Winston, I figured, who am I to make a statement? Because I have a meager budget, friends and colleagues called and e-mailed people they know in the fashion industry to help me find a dress. I eventually made contact with a modeling agent who referred me to Quen, who runs a small couture house South of Market -- her dresses range in price from $800 to $14,000.

The first time I met Quen at her modern loft studio in San Francisco, she wasn’t the overpowering, uppity fashionista I expected. She was petite, like me, with shoulder-length black hair, naturally highlighted with gray. She was bubbly and enthusiastic. She called me “sweetie” and kept saying, “You’re so cute.” We sat on her “Swiss Knife,” a red velvet sofa her husband designed, and looked at photos of her dresses, laughing and chatting like old friends.

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Agreeing that I’d drown in one of her dramatic ball gowns, we looked through her cocktail collection and decided on the strapless Sake-tini, which she describes as a “sexy kimono.” Quen said there are only two Sake-tini dresses out in the world: one belongs to a fashion collector and, unbelievably, the other belongs to me. At my fitting, Quen walked around the podium scrutinizing every inch of the dress and how it formed on my body. She was beaming. “You’re the Sake-tini girl!” she said excitedly.

Three layers of silk

Her enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and I got caught up in my own vanity. I stood on my tiptoes to see how my legs would look in the heels I’d forgotten to bring. We talked about jewelry and a wrap, and I started to feel giddy. But couture is couture, which involves a strict method of measuring and fitting, and we had work to do. I was relieved that the dress sat just above my knee, instead of mid-thigh (like it is in the picture I’d been carrying around), and that its bold colors -- “Carmen red,” magenta and orange -- were rich and vibrant, not tacky as I had feared.

But we both stared at my chest. The dress was too loose on top. Quen didn’t want to add more darts(“In couture, everything must have a reason,” she said); that would ruin the clean lines. So she decided to take it in at the seams. She pulled and folded the fabric until she was satisfied, and pushed in some straight pins to hold it in place.

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“I don’t want you to have too much cleavage,” she said. But she didn’t mind if I went braless. “The lining is charmeuse silk, like lingerie,” she said. “Some women don’t wear underwear underneath because it feels so soft against the skin.”

I had a few days to consider this. Quen works solely in silks, and most often in solid colors. Kevin Jones, an expert on haute couture and curator at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s museum in Los Angeles, said couture uses mostly natural fibers: silks, wools, cottons. “Couture uses high-maintenance garments,” he said, “which sometimes cannot be cleaned. This means that the garment will be worn once or twice.”

When I ask Quen about this, she agrees. “I suggest that you try not to clean your dress,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t look the same afterward.” Gulp.

My dress has three layers of silk: duchesse on the outside, a thin layer of organza in the middle, and the charmeuse lining. I’m fascinated by the intricacies of her craft, and Quen spends several hours explaining her profession to me. The idea that a dress could be so complex makes my Sake-tini all the more precious, and I am grateful that Quen made me the dress at a deep discount, charging me $500 for the fabric only.

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At its core, couture is the making of a custom garment to a person’s exact measurements, Jones explains. But the thing I find most fascinating is how interdisciplinary it is. It involves intricate mathematical calculations, architectural philosophy, fine art and artisanship.

When I pick up my dress three days before the Oscars, I try it on one final time so Quen can check the alterations. She asks one of her seamstresses to re-tack the obi (technically a kimono sash) on the back, so it stands up properly. “The seamstresses are here, and we can do last-minute touch-ups,” Quen says.

As I’m about to leave, I take in the trickle of the fountain and the soft jazz playing in the background. I feel a tinge of sadness, doubting that I’ll ever experience this again.

During the fitting, I had asked Quen how she wants me to feel wearing the dress. She said, “I want you to feel playful, flirtatious and powerful.”

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I will.


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