For would-be frock stars, there is no showier stage than the Oscars.
It's Hollywood's most dizzying confluence of celebrity and style, capable of transforming ordinary actors into sartorial superstars. An iconic gown is enduring, splashed onto magazine covers, discussed ad nauseam on the entertainment shows, and industriously knocked off by more accessible copycat designers. And a debacle? Well, just ask Celine Dion, whose 1999 white backward tuxedo from Dior set the standard for notable fashion flops.
The pressure to look stunning? Think of hunting for a perfect wedding dress — and multiply it by 10.
"The challenge is doing something new and interesting, something someone hasn't done before, something you haven't seen a million times before. You have to find that combination of accessibility and being fashion forward. And of course, it's the Oscars, so you have to be glamorous," says Rachel Zoe, who is paid by celebrities to style them for special events, interviews and outings.
"Your client has to be happy and feel beautiful. There are so many people scrutinizing the red carpet that it's about having fun and playing with something original, something couture, something interesting, but also giving people what they want: a glamorous Hollywood moment," she says. (Zoe's clients include Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner and Cameron Diaz.)
Entertainers aren't immune to the emphasis placed on red-carpet razzle-dazzle. For best-actress nominee and front-runner Viola Davis, finding the right dress is "very important. I don't want to look bad. I want to look like I belong on the red carpet and I'm comfortable on the red carpet and that I'm stepping into the role that has come to me at this point in my life and it's reflective of me and who I am as a woman of a certain age and of color. I always want it to be me at my best. Not trying to put on a mask. Just me," she says.
Newcomer and best-actress contender Rooney Mara says she goes with her gut. "I don't think about it in terms of what people say or like or think. I try to find something that I feel comfortable in. I do like fashion, but if it's not comfortable, I won't wear it," she says.
Payoff for dressmakers
Sure, for A-listers, it's about looking and feeling their best on one of the splashiest nights of their careers. But for the folks who are involved in dressing them, it's a big and carefully orchestrated business. When a bold-faced name wears your design to a major event like the Oscars, the payoff is immense.
That is true both for established dressmakers and for an up-and-comer such as Brett Heyman, who is the creator of the Edie Parker line of clutches recently carried by Debra Messing, Bérénice Bejo and Evan Rachel Wood. Her quirky collection is competing with event mainstays such as Judith Leiber and Roger Vivier, and every time an A-lister picks one up and the bag gets identified in blogs and magazines, the exposure is priceless.
"It is wonderful for brand recognition, and hopefully, that translates to sales," Heyman says. "Personally, it is incredibly flattering and gratifying."
Typically, a designer knows that his or her creation is under consideration by a star and the star's stylist. But until Madonna, in off-the-rack Reem Acra, struck a pose on the red carpet at the Golden Globes in January, the clothier wasn't sure she had scored a wardrobe home run.
"You can never predict if it will happen or not. You get a shot. Just by her picking that particular dress, it's amazing. She picked it on her own," Acra says. "It puts (our brand) on the front level. We are seen by everybody."
All very hush-hush
And designers make sure of it, hiring public relations firms to inundate media outlets with minute-by-minute announcements of who wore what on Oscar night. Still, despite the lengthy process of nailing down the perfect ensemble, most actresses — especially those considered Oscar front-runners — won't even discuss any Academy Awards attire until they hear their names called on nomination morning.
"They don't want to jinx it," says stylist Leslie Fremar, who dresses Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon and Julianne Moore. "Which means you can't get prepared in advance. Once the announcement comes out, you call your client to discuss concepts and what you're thinking. You start reaching out to designers."
And they reach right back. Generally, Zoe says, it's a symbiotic, collaborative process. "A lot of times it comes from the design house side that they want to dress my client, but most often I give direction on the colors and fabrics," she says.
Sometimes she has 15 fittings for one dress. Sometimes it's just one. For something as significant as the Oscars, stars generally have multiple fittings leading up to the big day.
"It's a lot of back and forth about sketches, swatches, fabrics, fittings," Zoe says.
'Going the custom route'
Naturally, the bigger the celebrity, the wider the options. The truly A-list women, the ones who always seem to end up on the best-dressed lists, can have a top-tier designer (think Gucci, Versace or Dior) custom-make a dress for them. When Hathaway hosted the Oscars last year, the majority of her eight looks were custom-made, as was Keira Knightley's stunning one-shoulder Vera Wang concoction from 2006, Maggie Gyllenhaal's multicolored Dries Van Noten from 2010, Jennifer Garner's Valentino stunner from 2004 and Gwyneth Paltrow's Ralph Lauren frock from 1999.
"I prefer going the custom route," Fremar says. "It's special. No one's ever seen it. If you decide that, you can ask a few people to sketch ideas for you, and then you choose one. You can visualize what the dress is going to look like.
"Your intentions are for them to wear that dress. A lot of work goes into it, and basically you're committing to that dress from the beginning. Or you can have two people make a dress, and you choose one at the end."
That's why for top stylists, absolute honesty is de rigueur: You never string clothiers along because the expense of creating something from scratch is sizable. Zoe says she'll never have more than three dresses created, and she always plays fair with designers.
"I tell them it's not a guarantee and I am having several made," she says. "I don't like to lead people on. I tell them, 'Listen, it's down to two dresses, and yours is one of them.' I don't tell anyone what they're wearing until they're in the car on the way to the venue."
There's also the possibility of wearing something vintage, as Julia Roberts did in 2001 with Valentino and Beyoncé did in 2005 with Atelier Versace. These togs "tend to be very original choices, and no one has seen them or tried them on before," Fremar says.
Their worst nightmare
But you can run the risk of donning a design worn before by someone else, a major awards stumble: It's what happened to Witherspoon, who at the 2006 Golden Globes stepped out in a Chanel creation worn by Kirsten Dunst in 2003.
Another option is to borrow a one-of-a-kind gown — like one of the luxe creations seen at the most recent haute couture Paris fashion shows — and modify it to fit the wearer. In this case, you need to be a sample size (meaning a 0 or 2). "You can do a fitting and try on as many dresses as you want," Fremar says. "You try them on, take pictures, and make a decision on what fits. The day of, you usually have your dress and a backup dress."
The competition for pricey couture threads is savage. Some celebrity stylists hoard dresses, and fight over the best ones.
"I've had stylists who are friends and we send dresses to each other," Zoe says. "But there are other stylists who hold the dresses until the Oscars because even though their client isn't wearing it, they don't want anyone else wearing it. It's wrong to do to the designer. It's bad karma."
The design houses have wised up because they realize the value in having a red-carpet presence. "The dresses are on their own schedule. If the dress doesn't work, they're on your doorstep picking it up the next day," Fremar says.
The day after the Oscars?
If it's couture, "most of the time designers want the dresses back," Zoe says. "It's different every year. Some go back to designers because they like to archive them."
Of course, if Vera Wang or Marchesa's Georgina Chapman whip up your threads from scratch, chances are, they're yours.
After all, it's not as if anyone else will ever slip on something that appeared in thousands of photos. "If an Oscar dress is made for a client, they can, of course, keep it," Fremar says. "It is usually cleaned and packaged and kept in a very safe place."