The Hollywood fashion machine is crossing into a new, more commercial era in celebrity dressing as designers and jewelers have begun contracting with actresses to wear their labels at high-profile events. It's a turn in business as usual that could leave fans wondering if their favorite stars are becoming walking billboards for the highest bidder.
Fashion and jewelry houses have long offered gratis designer gowns and sparkling accessories to red carpet-bound celebrities, hoping to catch the right eye and have the creations seen globally on telecasts and in the thousands of magazine pages devoted to awards show coverage. But with all the big-name designers wooing the same big-name actresses, it is a gamble as to what might end up being chosen.
Many of those companies are no longer willing to play the odds.
"It's the dawn of a new fashion deal in Hollywood," said Wanda McDaniel, who has been Giorgio Armani's Hollywood liaison since 1989, when the designer became one of the first with permanent West Coast representation. "When you are preparing your wish list [of celebrities] for the Oscar season, there is a new category and it's called 'off the market.' "
According to McDaniel and other publicists and spokespeople, as well as a number of celebrity stylists, a handful of companies are offering either one-time payments or are signing celebrities to well-paid, exclusive product contracts. In addition, some actresses have begun demanding sole access to particular designers.
This latest artifice of rigged pop culture risks squeezing smaller designers out of the promotional game and could signal the end of seeing any real personal style in Tinseltown, loading the red carpet instead with product placement dominated by a handful of mega-brands.
The practice is also forcing those companies who don't pay celebrities to weigh their financial savings against the risk of being aced out.
At the Golden Globes last month, Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank reportedly ditched their loaned Harry Winston jewels not 24 hours before they were set to wear them on the red carpet, after being handed six-figure checks from rival jeweler Chopard.
"We were scheduled to work with a celebrity and at the very last minute, we had to cancel the guard because they had made a lucrative arrangement with another jeweler," said Carol Brodie, public relations director for Harry Winston.
The stars' publicists would not comment on whether their clients accepted money to wear the dangling Chopard earrings, as noted in a Women's Wear Daily item after the event. Chopard spokeswoman Stephanie Labeille said the house did not have formal contracts with the actresses. But she did say the company has used money as an incentive in the past, defending the practice as commonplace. "Saying one brand pays stars, when they all pay stars is ridiculous," she said.
In a time when Robert De Niro is hawking American Express and legendary rocker Eric Clapton puts in face time for Rolex ads, the new reality in Hollywood is that everyone has a price. "We used to be the proactive ones," McDaniel said. "Now we are being approached by agents looking to make deals" for their clients.
Kelly Cutrone, founder of the New York and L.A. fashion PR firm People's Revolution, said the change started about five years ago when it "went from celebrity gifting to deals being made around conference tables at ICM, William Morris, CAA and management offices all over L.A." The payments began relatively small, said Cutrone, who worked with the jeweler Bulgari from 1998 to 2001, during which time, she said, Theron and Claudia Schiffer were under contract.
"It started with companies saying to celebrities, 'We'll give you $5,000 and a store credit.' Then, 'We'll give you $10,000 and make a donation to the charity of your choice.' Then, 'We'll pay you $50,000' and now $150,000," Cutrone said.
By some accounts, the top of the range is closer to $250,000. These kinds of deals are considered affordable because they allow marketers to use a celebrity's name and likeness for a fraction of what a full endorsement deal might cost, such as Nicole Kidman's $4-million, three-year contract to be the face of Chanel No. 5, for example.
Yet, traditionally, the red carpet was a place for fans to catch a glimpse of star style -- for better or worse. Who could forget when Uma Thurman brought Prada to the public consciousness when she arrived for the 1995 Oscars swathed in ethereal lavender chiffon? Or when Bjork laid an egg on the red carpet in 2001 in the form of that infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress? (The outfit, Bjork later said, was meant as a joke.) Barbra Streisand gave the audience more than they bargained for when she accepted an Oscar for "Funny Girl" in 1969 in a see-through black Scaasi ensemble, and Sharon Stone floored style watchers at the 1996 Academy Awards when she paired a Valentino ball skirt with a turtleneck from the Gap, a precursor, no doubt, to today's infatuation with high-low fashion.
Those times offered a rare glimpse of an actress as a real person, and there was no hiding good or bad taste. The concept of awards shows as showcases for personal expression began eroding over the past decade with the rise of the celebrity stylist, employed to scour the fashion houses -- both established and up-and-coming -- to find the best frocks for a famous client.
Now, in its current evolution, the deal making is becoming more blatant and the message is, "Even the clothes on my back are for sale."
When publicist Cutrone worked with Bulgari, she once tried to get Winona Ryder to wear a pair of diamond earrings to the 1999 Academy Awards. She was having a difficult time placing the jewelry until the company informed her that "there was well over $100,000 available to help with celebrity procurement," Cutrone said. She soon closed a deal with Ryder, though she wouldn't say for how much.
Certainly, the red carpet deals are not yet so common that actresses are going public with their contract ties, which leaves those in promotion circles playing detective -- does Swank have a fashion deal with Calvin Klein on top of her underwear contract? Does Uma Thurman have a deal or not? Renee Zellweger and designer Carolina Herrera are awfully close, what does that mean?
The situation is also affecting lesser-known designers. The red carpet used to be fair game. With that in mind, Susan Ashbrook founded her public relations firm, Film Fashion, 12 years ago to help new designers get the attention of celebrities.
"None of our clients are in a position to pay," Ashbrook said. "And this year, I feel like there are some celebrities we can't approach. And when you are talking about the Oscars, there are not that many women walking the red carpet. It makes the stakes higher," she said. "Someone like Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren, they don't want to deal with the stylists and they can afford to pay. So they've got one person on the red carpet for sure."
Celebrity exposure made the career of Manhattan jewelry designer Lorraine Schwartz, though she's not sure it could happen again under present circumstances. "I got my big break when people chose to wear my jewelry on the red carpet," most notably Halle Berry at the 2002 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she said. "Just like the best movie should win the Oscar, a celebrity should choose the jewelry and outfit that best suits them. When they are paid, the jewelry has nothing to do with the celebrity, it's what a company wants to put in front of the public."
Harry Winston's Brodie represents a company that can afford to pay but does not, she said. "We're just grateful there are stars who would rather be on the carpet and make their money in the entertainment industry. There are so many opportunities for celebs to make money through advertising campaigns. There's nothing wrong with making a financial arrangement between a celeb and a company, just as long as everyone knows about it."
As a marketing concept, bartering isn't new, noted Jonathan Holiff, president and CEO of the Hollywood-Madison Group, a recruiter of celebrities for product endorsements and public appearances. These are essentially quid-pro-quo relationships in which the celebrity agrees to participate in a promotional activity in exchange for a free product.
Sometimes an honorarium is involved, but "it's the exception to the rule," he said. "Usually, payola takes the form of gifts in kind. But there is no question that everyone is in on the action, including publicists and outside firms like our own. And sometimes, complicated agreements are struck."
Those agreements have moved into the arena of full contracts. "Most people in the industry know which celebs have contracts," said Raul Martinez, co-founder of AR, a Manhattan advertising agency that represents Versace, Bill Blass, Escada and other fashion brands. "So I don't think Renee Zellweger would be seen in Versace. And some celebrities have taken advantage of the situation," he said, indicating that they have begun demanding fees.
While the number of deals struck with celebrities is apparently limited to half a dozen or so fashion and jewelry labels, it is likely to grow. "The red carpet has become a business," said Film Fashion's Ashbrook.
Still, some jewelry and fashion house insiders remain coy when addressing the shift. Zellweger has worn Carolina Herrera gowns to several awards shows, though the fashion house denies having a formal deal with the actress. "It was always explained to me that she enjoys wearing our collections," said Ward Simmons, a representative for Herrera.
Ralph Lauren has publicized half a dozen dresses designed for "Phantom of the Opera's" Emmy Rossum to wear for press junkets and awards shows over the past few months. Public relations director Nancy Murray described the relationship as "a friendship, nothing more."
Privately, insiders said that Herrera and Lauren appeal to celebs by giving them the red-carpet treatment, flying them around the world for fittings, even providing stockings, shoes and underwear to go with a gown.
Last year, Calvin Klein commissioned Swank to star in the ads for its Sensual Shapers underwear line. As a result, company spokeswoman Jennifer Crawford said, the house has been "collaborating on her wardrobe" for special events but would not be specific about whether they had a contract. (Swank wore a bronze Calvin Klein gown to the Golden Globes and chose a Chopard cuff bracelet for the SAG awards earlier this month.)
Theron is the official face of the Christian Dior perfume J'Adore but is not contracted to wear Dior clothing, according to public relations director Grace Cha. (At the Globes, Theron was clad in Dior.) Susan Duffy, Chanel vice president of public relations, said Kidman's contract represents the fragrance only and does not include an obligation to wear Chanel clothes (though she often does).
Kate Young, Swank's wardrobe stylist, would not comment and Lisa Michelle Boyd, Theron's stylist, did not return phone calls.
Whether contracts are formal, written or otherwise, those in the image-making business agree that even the hint of money changing hands sets a precedent. Jessica Paster, who dresses Cate Blanchett for red carpet appearances and Donna Karan ad campaigns, said she sees the whole climate of Hollywood changing.
"What gets scary is if I see a beautiful pair of earrings at Chopard and put them on the person I'm dressing, of course I feel my client should be financially rewarded because I know Chopard has done it before. Bulgari has paid people to wear their jewelry too," she said. "But are we going to reach a point when no one is going to want to wear anything until they get money?"
"The next step is that it's going to become a bidding war," said a jewelry-house representative who did not want to be named. "And does that mean we have to start paying the B-list stars who we never even wanted in the first place?"
Perhaps worst of all for the stylists, Paster recognizes that paid product placement on the red carpet could make their jobs obsolete. If her clients are contractually bound to wear certain designers, there will be no need for a stylist to search for new looks or the perfect accessories. It would all be preordained.
"It's all business," she said. "That's why you are not going to see what you used to see seven years ago on the red carpet. It's all endorsements and, at the end of the day, when you have money involved, it's not organic."