The new red carpet economy

On Sunday evening, the Oscars’ red carpet was dripping with predictably glamorous fare: Penelope Cruz in a purple duchess satin Donna Karan gown; Kate Winslet in ice grey silk satin Atelier Yves Saint Laurent; and Charlize Theron in lilac floor-sweeping Christian Dior.

None of these designs, however, had ever been seen before – not on a runway, not in a luxury boutique, not even (heaven forbid) on the back of another A-list star. Instead, all three – and a coterie of other idiosyncratic gowns in the Kodak Theatre – were custom-made one-offs, destined for one film star’s red carpet moment, and that moment alone. Welcome to the new red carpet economy.

Where once designers would send a handful of red carpet dresses to an actress on a stylist’s request, never knowing who might emerge in which creation on the night, now, they choose the celebrity and create a one-off dress. This way, there is a direct and quantifiable relationship between the investment and the marketing pay-off.

For an established haute couture house used to creating two collections a year, making a one-off bespoke dress leaves only a minor dent in resources and the result can significantly enhance their global status – last year’s Oscars were viewed by 36.3m viewers in the US.

However, for younger designers, many of whom are increasingly creating capsule red carpet collections purely for celebrities, there is a much higher financial risk. Cameron Silver, designer consultant and owner of LA-based vintage boutique, Decades, says: “There is never a guarantee for a [younger] designer and it is a major expense. Now with stars there is such a sense of entitlement that they will pull three gowns and not make up their minds until one o’clock on Sunday afternoon. I know of one presenter and I think that there were several offers to make her a gown and maybe she accepted two. I think it’s harder now because unless you have a contractual obligation, most actresses want to be able to change their outfit.”

In an industry where brand ambassadors are increasingly vital to image and audience perception, many design houses are keen to tie actresses in. “Yes I think there are contractual obligations with certain actresses and designers,” says Mr Silver, of one-off red carpet gowns. “If you are a ‘face’ of a brand and you are doing a campaign, probably. I think that’s a sort of standard and I’m sure it is negotiated.”

Charlize Theron, for instance, is the face of Dior’s J’adore Dior fragrance and wore, naturally, Christian Dior on Oscar night. She is said to have a promotional deal with the LVMH-owned brand, according to fashion industry journal Women’s Wear Daily.

Valentino lit the touch paper in 2005 by designing an exclusive dress for Cate Blanchett’s big Oscar moment. Many others have followed. Alberta Ferretti, for instance, created custom-made gowns for Meryl Streep at last year’s Oscars and for Up In The Air actress Anna Kendrick at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. “Every woman sees herself in that actress, that’s why for a fashion designer it is really important to create special gowns for these celebrities, even a different one for every event,” she says. “For the designer it is an exercise of style, for the celebrity a sign of special care and attention, and for the audience the materialisation of a vision that doesn’t appear on the catwalk or in the shops.”

As James Grant, chief executive of the global communications agency Starworks, says: “There is a certain level of trust and familiarity: the designer knows what will work best on these women, both in terms of fit as well as what will make them feel beautiful, and the celebrities will keep coming back to designers that make them feel good.” He cites Drew Barrymore’s relationship with Monique Lhuillier as one example.

Many designers, however, insist it is not a matter of contracts. “I believe in personal relationships, not in paid testimonials,” says Alberta Ferretti, “as a fake relationship based on money is easily understood by everybody. I believe in friendship, in clothes and in a dedicated service we offer.”

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