With just a few days left till the Oscar parade of dresses hits the biggest runway in the world – that of the Kodak Theater at Hollywood and Highland on Sunday night – Oscar fashion excitement and anticipation are at fever pitch in the media. But it’s a different kind of anticipation in the fashion communities of Hollywood, New York and Europe. For those Oscar fashion veterans, it’s the annual high stakes business as usual. Fall fashion week for 2011 is about to kick off in Milan, so Italian designers like Giorgio Armani, Donatella Versace, Miuccia Prada, Alberta Ferretti, and the teams behind Gucci and Valentino are forcibly fixated on their runway samples. But getting their clothes on both female and male celebrities this weekend – a job they bequeath to pr’s and celebrity wranglers – it’s as serious a business as a new collection and its ad campaign. Actually, it sort of is an ad campaign. Oscar nominees are their biggest “gets” clothing-wise, followed by presenters – then any A lister attending – then A listers attending the Vanity Fair party. Because those type A’s will have their photos flying around the world minutes after they arrive on the Oscar or VF red carpet – which means actually being in the red for these designers.Is it about glamour? Check. Sex appeal? Check. Fashion trends? Check. Branding? Double check. But in the end, it’s about good old-fashioned cash – as a major Oscar go-er in designer wares can means millions of dollars at retail. First off, the most attention-getting looks – the ones that get on the magazine covers and blogs – will up the retail orders of those designers’ collections to the stores. Then there’s the retail richoche’: sales of said designer’s perfume, stockings, accessories, eyewear, handbags and makeup immediately shoot up. No matter what you’ve heard, Oscar fashion is not a status competition – it’s a race to the cash register. Here’s the much-abbreviated history of how it all happened: in the early days of Hollywood – the 30’s and 40’s and even 50’s – great costume designers like Edith Head and Helen Rose made original gowns for the actresses. Audrey Hepburn wore chic dresses by her designer best friend Hubert de Givenchy, but he also made most of the clothes for her movies. Then, in the 60’s, Julie Christie went to the Oscars in a mini skirt, and things got a little wild. In the 70’s, Barbra Streisand shook things up by donning a beaded see-through bellbottom look by Arnold Scaasi. In the eighties, Armani – already dressing all the Hollywood agents – went for the celebs and developed loyal followers in Michelle Pfeiffer, Jodie Foster, Richard Gere and Annette Bening. Once the other designers started seeing how this pushed up Armani’s sales – the floodgates opened. By the early nineties, Versace jumped into the game, which at the time was dominated by Armani and Americans like Randolph Duke and Pamela Dennis. Within a year or two, the red carpet was as chic as the European runways, with designs by Dior, Valentino, Chanel and YSL. Nicole Kidman was the standout in terms of glamour – but Halle Berry and Uma Thurman in her violet Prada – were also ladies who would get your brand the right attention. These days, design houses like Lanvin (a favorite of Natalie Portman), Gianfranco Ferre (a favorite of Oprah), Oscar de la Renta (a favorite of Sarah Jessica Parker), Carolina Herrera (who dresses Renee Zellwegger), Vera Wang – and now – Tom Ford – are getting great Oscar play too. The day of the nominations, designers and their reps flood the nominees with sketches and lookbooks. The stylists already have good ideas of their client’s loves and disdains. It’s clear New York stylist Kate Young, a former Vogue editor dressing Natalie Portman all season, has a crystal clear perception of Natalie’s modern Audrey Hepburn approach. Similarly, designer/stylist L’Wren Scott knows Nicole Kidman’s style taste and interprets it perfectly. Rachel Zoe already has ideas of how to dress Anne Hathaway even before she sees collections. These stylists have been glued to the runway, know the trends, know their client’s figures, etc. They know every dress their client wears throughout awards season is really just a build up to the real deal – and if they’re smart, they plan it that way. The kicker at the end of the story, as they say. But maybe the two single most important factors for an actress going to the Oscars are: 1/not to make the worst dressed list – which means, practically no experimentation, nothing too sexy; going fairly tame and classic. (Helena Bonham Carter promises to be this year’s I-don’t-give-a-fig example: at the Oscar nominees’ lunch, she announced, “My Oscar dress will probably be a disaster,” – and if it’s anything like her other awards season looks – it will be 2/they’re expected to wear something iconic, classic, and that’s in order with all their other awards season looks – but to top it, and add the element of surprise. Case in point: Natalie Portman has worn mostly all black, white or blue. At the Globes, it was pink Viktor & Rolf. We predict she will wear color: red, purple, even yellow. She can’t wear green, nor can anyone else: emerald green was the big statement at the Golden Globes (on Angelina, Mila and others.) Not only that – the Fall 2011 collections are underway. Any designer worth their house in St. Bart’s knows they need to refer to the next season – fall – on the Oscar red carpet. They’ve moved on from spring’s corals, off whites and emerald greens to wine, claret, dark red, olive green, pale grey and navy blue. Most nominees and presenters have their Oscar looks in order by this time of the week. They might still be sourcing jewelry and shoes, but they have at least one or two strong dress options. But designers also know that it’s a woman’s right to change her mind, - particularly a famous woman. With Tom Ford, Donatella Versace, Michael Kors and Donna Karan all in town this week – and the new Badgley Mischka store opening next week – new options will be floating from hotel suite to hotel suite, luxury store VIP room to VIP room. The entire Chanel couture collection is in the Rodeo Drive store for “editor viewings’ (sure!) – Chanel also sent all their couture seamstresses! This means last minute options can cut through designer/actress loyalty in about a minute. And then there’s that dirty dirty word: payola. Okay, not “payola” per se – it’s disguised in the form of gifts, trips to Europe to see runway shows, year round wardrobes (we hear Leo DiCaprio has a $250,00 credit at Armani), handbags, jewelry, and gifts or payments for stylists. Oscar nominees have put kids through college on fees and payments from designers – or ad campaigns. Sure, there are ladies who won’t go there – famously, Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey and probably Angelina Jolie – but who isn’t immune to a quarter or half a million dollars to sway their decision? (Answer: someone who doesn’t need the money.) Aaah, the goodl old ways of f---ing up. We all remember Demi wearing bike shorts to the Oscars. Juliette Lewis doing her hair in corn rows. Geena Davis is a look reminiscent of Little Bow Peep. Kim Basinger designing her own (disastrous) gown. Charlize Theron in a Dior that had shapes circling her breasts (that was last year, actually). And of course, Cher with her feathers. Sadly, there will be nothing like those fabulous memorable trainwrecks on the carpet this year, as much as we relish and say we miss them. There’s just too much at stake. For actresses, it’s dignity, legacy – and the status of being thought “stylish.” For designers, it’s much bigger sales. And for everybody, it’s a billion people suddenly being exposed to you and “your brand.” Could there be a bigger marketing opportunity? That’s a lot more people than read Vogue. The pundits’ predictions on color: whatever color has not been overexposed this awards season – or last. That leaves red (a big Fall 2011 hit), champagne, pale grey, silver, gold and even pink. We’ve heard of nominees are wearing nudes and one wearing violet. Blue already seems overexposed. And whose got the most to lose? The newbie nominees, Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld. So far, Steinfeld has come up smelling like roses in young chic looks by Prada and others – working with stylist Petra Flannery, she’s been utterly age appropriate and adorable – and consistent. We now have an idea of who this young actress is. On the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence has worn dress styles all over the map: a giant stiff Louis Vuitton tiered ballgown at the Globes, skimpy cleavage baring Oscar de la Renta’s at other awards shows. At this point in time, style watchers and image makers have no idea who the real Jennifer Lawrence is. The Oscars are her last chance this season to let us know. On the other hand, Nicole Kidman and Annette Bening have nothing to lose. They could show up in H&M if they want. But they probably won’t.