Oscars 2012: The High-Stakes Business Behind Red-Carpet Style

Craig Semetko/PI/Landov

It's a final assault to get gowns and merch on nominees and presenters, with fashion and jewelry houses flying in reps, collections and seamstresses.

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

While you're watching the gasp-worthy glittering parade of gowns on the Oscar preshow and telecast, just know this: Nothing got there spontaneously. It was all a result of diligent hard work, much of it on behalf of ambitious luxury brands who think of Oscar fashion as product placement. Fashion and jewelry houses have so much to gain (branding, advertising) by jumping on an Oscar-goer's back, they leave nothing to chance. Emissaries are sent from European and Manhattan ateliers the week before the show to lock and load; brand PR reps, couture seamstresses, even entire design teams journey west.

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Donatella Versace takes up residence at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Valentino has sent recent collections to its Rodeo Drive store with top celebrity dresser/schmoozer Carlos Souza, who's got A-list relationships to rival Harvey Weinstein's. Speaking of Harvey, his wife, Georgina Chapman, half of the Marchesa brand, is packing heavy. "Of course we're bringing every dress we showed in New York last week," she said with a laugh backstage after her New York runway show Feb. 15. "But honestly, you never know till the very last minute if they'll wear your dress -- even if it was made for them. They all have at least three options."

Chanel has flown in most of its coveted couture collection, shown in Paris in January, which is in residence in its VIP chambers atop the Rodeo Drive boutique. Stylists are invited -- and should they happen to take a liking to a particular gown, the brand has special seamstresses to take care of last-minute fittings.

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Elie Saab's most recent couture collection has been dispatched to the L.A. offices of laChambre Public Relations, says partner Sahar Sanjar. Saab also sends out his seamstress, Navy, from Paris. For years, people have whispered that stars are paid by certain labels to wear their gowns. Sanjar won't name names but says: "So many people are offering money the last week to wear their things. That's when it gets tricky -- you're suddenly competing on another level. The Elie Saab brand doesn't offer money, ever; it doesn't fly people to European shows."

In 2011, we hear one house offered nominees and presenters $45,000 to wear its brand. This suddenly had agents circling back to a different brand an actress preferred with: "We got an offer of $45,000. Do you want to match it?"

High-end jewelers like Cartier, Chopard, Tiffany and Harry Winston compete with smaller privately owned brands, like actress favorites Lorraine Schwartz, Martin Katz and Neil Lane, to get their names pronounced on preshows then credited in magazines and online. Many take suites at the Peninsula (Schwartz) or the Four Seasons (Buccellati, Marina B.) to entice stylist visits. Schwartz fetes stylists and stars with elaborate suite parties. Other jewelers send out big-ticket pieces with bodyguards to stars' homes. "We'll be doing a fitting at my house," stylist Anna Patrickson (clients include Emma Watson) tells THR, "and all of a sudden, two big armed guys show up." There are stories of actresses with five jewelry reps -- and guards -- lined up in their living rooms, waiting with trays of diamonds. Now these are absolutely intended for red-carpet wear, but that doesn't mean there isn't gifting going on. Persuasion is taking place on a number of levels, obvious and not.

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Jimmy Choo will stock a special Oscar collection in its showroom this year. Even Christian Louboutin bows to awards pressure. "We know they're afraid of tripping on their gowns," the shoe designer told THR, "so we stock our boutique and department stores with lower-heeled styles. We also make a collection just for awards season."

Judith Leiber, the veteran luxury evening wear brand, depends on red carpets to ratchet up its retail sales. That's why the company hired Aimee Carpenter to handle celebrity dressing. Her sister Leslee is head of casting at DreamWorks, so she's well connected in the community. On Oscar weekend, she'll be driving all over, dropping off bags at stars' homes, making sure there are no doubles or repeats. About half the bags might make it onto the arms of prospective wearers.

And those are considered very good odds.