At the Grammys, it’s the wild bunch


The Grammy Awards show is always the most flamboyant fashion parade of the awards season. But tonight’s event promises to be even more no-holds-barred than before, thanks to a new generation of pop stars that has brought individual style back to the red carpet.

Led by Lady Gaga, who has shrouded herself in red lace, worn a coat of many Muppets and ignited a fire bra, today’s music artists don’t just rely on top luxury brands to dress them. They go out of their way to find esoteric designers for video, stage and red carpet appearances -- one-upping each other with leotards by Thierry Mugler, see-through dresses by Gareth Pugh and pagoda-shouldered tops by Alexandre Vauthier.

When it comes to Grammy style, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Adam Lambert will be ones to watch. What will they wear? Think corseted cat suits and mini-dresses covered in spikes.

“The Grammys is an opportunity to wear runway looks that are so funky that they probably won’t ever get produced,” says Jen Rade, who is styling Pink for tonight’s Grammys and appears as a fashion commentator on the TV Guide network.

It should be quite a contrast with what we witnessed during the last few weeks at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and what we’re likely to see come March at the Oscars.

For actresses, there is a distinct red carpet “look” -- a strapless or one-shouldered gown in a body-hugging, mermaid silhouette, with minimal surface details -- that renders them almost interchangeable. But for music artists, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna, fashion is key to creating an identity and rising to the top in a field that is now, in the Internet Age, even more crowded.

“I can’t name one top artist now -- Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and now Ke$ha, who doesn’t have her own look,” says Elle magazine creative director Joe Zee, who styled Lady Gaga for the January cover of the magazine and has also worked with Swift, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and others.

For music, the Grammy Awards show is the ultimate visual showcase, which is why historically, some of the most memorable fashion moments have happened there. Who can forget Jennifer Lopez’s navel-baring green Versace gown, Toni Braxton’s loincloth look, Pink’s one-legged pants or M.I.A. in her tent dress by Manish Arora?

“In Hollywood, actresses are criticized for taking a risk, whereas in music, artists are applauded for it,” says Kate Nobelius, who produces the Grammy Style Studio, the Recording Academy’s official styling suite.

Held over four days at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood, the Grammy Style Studio is a place for nominees, performers and their stylists to discover new, often avant-garde, designers such as Basil Soda, the Lebanese designer who dressed Perry for last year’s Grammys in a bubble gum pink gown with overgrown origami flora at the waist.

“It’s a very accepting crowd,” Rade says of the Grammys audience. “You don’t have to worry about conforming or making the fashion pages of W magazine.”

Actresses face a different kind of scrutiny.

“The worst thing to happen to red carpet fashion is the best- and worst-dressed lists,” Zee says. “I long for the days when Cher came out in one of her get-ups, and Kim Basinger made her own gown. I couldn’t imagine any A-list actress today making her own dress. For whatever criticism they got back then, I remember those outfits. Now I don’t remember any.”

Actresses want to stand out just enough to be noticed, while also being a kind of blank slate for a range of potential business opportunities, from acting jobs to perfume deals.

“Actresses ultimately have to be able to play a variety of different roles,” says Rade, who also works with Angelina Jolie. “They want the world, the public and the crowd of producers and directors at an awards show to see them as beautiful, fashionable and stylish. And they need to look a certain way that doesn’t alienate the general public.”

The big European fashion houses -- Giorgio Armani, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana -- dominate the red carpet at the Globes, SAGs and Oscars, because their advertising budgets cover the cost of flying teams to Los Angeles for weeks at a time during awards season, when they wait -- a tailor at the ready -- to rush dresses to celebrities for their consideration.

Big houses also have deep pockets for gifting and deal-making. (This year, some actresses even asked design houses to make donations for Haiti relief in exchange for wearing their things.)

In addition to stylists, publicists also have a say in what an actress wears on the red carpet.

“Publicists have a big role,” says Karla Welch, a stylist who works with Olivia Wilde, Amy Poehler and Jenna Fischer. “They are so worried about what fashion police will say. So there is a desire for actresses to wear something with mass appeal.”

Which is why so far this awards season, it’s mostly been business as usual, with lots of one-shouldered styles (Fergie, Marion Cotillard, Anna Kendrick, Kate Winslet) and color.

And yet, a few dresses have showed a slight edge, suggesting that Hollywood and the music industry could some day meet on the red carpet.

At the Golden Globes, Kate Hudson’s white Marchesa gown with a stiff origami-folded bodice broke the mold, as did Drew Barrymore’s Atelier Versace gown with porcupine-like crystal embroidery at the shoulder and hip.

“Does she realize she has a sea anemone attacking her shoulder?” one blogger commented.

But in the end, Barrymore landed on many more best-dressed lists than worst.

“We’ve been on the worst-dressed and we’ve been on the best-dressed,” says Lee Harris, Barrymore’s stylist. “Sometimes some of my most proud dresses have been on the worst.”

Barrymore first tried on the dress during Emmy season, but the color and the fit were off. So Versace remade the gown, changing it from tan to peachy nude. The beading took hundreds of hours to complete, with more than 15,000 beads applied by hand.

“The Internet and tabloid coverage have made people on the red carpet so nervous of getting criticized that everyone looked the same for a while,” Harris says.

But slowly, things are changing, he adds. “There’s a new wave of coolness. And hopefully more people will start to embrace the kind of creativity and individuality that’s happening in music.”

For now, there’s always the Grammys.