Sunday’s Oscars will be notable for many things, including the possible triumph of a silent movie and the return of Billy Crystal as host after Eddie Murphy’s flameout. But most notable, of course, will be the gowns. This year fashion brands have been poised to fight over new hopefuls Jessica Chastain, Michelle Williams, Rooney Mara, Emma Stone and Bérénice Bejo, along with the usual slew of A-list talents. But how each of them decides on their frocks, jewels and accessories – or what they might be paid to do so – remains secret.
“There’s a hugely evolved culture of paying to wear clothes and product. Some actresses sign four-event contracts to wear designers, with giant perks and huge money,” says a Hollywood insider. “Everyone has a stake: the agents, the stylists, they all profit from the relationship.”
“But stars will not talk about the money,” says Simon Astaire, a former broker of celebrity-brand ambassadorships (notably between Bulgari and actress Charlize Theron, and Armani and Lady Helen Taylor). “They don’t want to be seen to be paid.”
Indeed, in 18 interviews with public relations executives and fashion power brokers, 12 asked to speak off the record when discussing the practice, fearing a negative reaction from brands and – no doubt – celebrities.
Information about paid-for product endorsement does appear in the press, though. Last year US Weekly reported that Oscar host Anne Hathaway was paid $750,000 by Tiffany & Co to wear its jewels throughout the ceremony. The same story said that Gwyneth Paltrow was paid $500,000 to wear Louis Vuitton baubles during her live performance of “Coming Home” that night. Representatives for all parties deny the accuracy of the report but, perhaps tellingly, it is still on the newspaper’s website.
In 2010 the fashion blog Fashionista.com posted a list of fees for celebrities attending fashion shows (usually clad in the clothing of the designers), gathered from anonymous industry sources. Figures ran from $100,000 for Rihanna to $80,000 for Beyoncé to $60,000 for Julianne Moore. The item is still live and as yet appears to be undisputed.
The biggest exposure of the pay-to-wear trend, however, took place in 2008. Charlize Theron’s lucrative sideline in endorsements was revealed when watchmaker Raymond Weil sued her – and her film production company Denver Delilah Films – for her $3m fee plus damages after Theron wore a Christian Dior watch in public at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas during a period she was being contracted to be the face of Raymond Weil.
The case eventually settled on undisclosed terms but what surfaced from a published court ruling were the details of Theron’s second income. It emerged, for example, that Theron was to be paid $50,000 for wearing at least two pieces of Chopard jewellery to the 2006 Bafta Awards in London, and a further $200,000 for wearing jewellery from the firm’s range to that year’s Oscars. In the autumn of 2006, Montblanc agreed to pay a charity $250,000 for Theron to model one of its silver necklaces in an ad campaign. That same year she also wore Cartier jewels to the Golden Globes and, though she was not paid for this, the court ruling noted that a Cartier employee testified that Theron had previously received a $35,000 Cartier ring, a $7,500 bracelet and an $8,000 set of earrings as past “tokens of appreciation” from the company.
“Everyone knows in America you spend $1m dollars a minute on the Super Bowl, because it’s the place to be,” says Astaire. “The red carpet is the same.”
Rita Watnick, owner of the Los Angeles vintage boutique Lily et Cie, agrees. “People say Paris is the capital of the fashion world but, really, it’s Hollywood. There are celebrity events all day every day. There’s huge payback to being worn by a celebrity.”
To give an idea of the exposure involved, at last year’s Academy Awards 5,000 press accreditations were requested. However, red carpet placement is difficult to value. “There’s really no way to estimate the overall value, both perceived and actual,” says Pamela Seidman, former vice-president of brand marketing at fashion retailer Express and luxury brands such as Valentino and Versace. “Metrics aside, everyone just knows that it works,” she says. “Plus, these images live on for ever. Top dresses from years back are bought up. There’s an umbrella effect brand-wise too. But it extends beyond that. A teenager will see an actress wearing a dress by Chanel and become an instant brand advocate. She’ll buy the fragrance, the purse, the make-up.”
For brands such as Chopard, which sponsors many of the awards ceremonies, visibility on the red carpet is about sales as well as brand building, in particular at the Cannes Film Festival. “Visibility absolutely has a direct impact,” says Raffaella Rossiello, director of Chopard international communications, who cites as a recent example Uma Thurman at last year’s festival. “[She] had worn a beautiful pair of green emerald earrings for the awards ceremony. The pair had been spotted by one of Chopard’s VIP clients and was sold on the same day.” Chopard declined to say whether Thurman was paid to wear the earrings.
According to Hollywood stylist Phillip Bloch, who counts Sandra Bullock and Jada Pinkett Smith among his clients, “It’s a business more than ever now.” For James Grant, co-founder of Starworks, the marketing consultancy, the increasing pay-to-wear trend is partly a result of a changing business model in the entertainment industry. “The revenue stream has changed in Hollywood,” he says. “Fewer movies are being made. Action and 3D movies are being invested in but there are less decent dramas and romcoms. TV shows have become reality-driven, rather than actor-driven, so actors have to look elsewhere to make money. With fewer studios backing movies there’s less budget to pay for red-carpet stylists, costume designers and artists. So actors are turning to brands.”
Jewellery is the most lucrative area for red-carpet deals. One industry expert, who has negotiated several such partnerships, says a nominated A-list Hollywood actress can now command $500,000 to attend the Academy Awards in a house’s jewellery.
Meanwhile, popular one-year “ambassador” deals, involving red-carpet jewellery dressing, interview time with press and attendance at a selection of brand events dressed in the signature baubles, run into the millions.
Sometimes, however, as many industry workers are keen to stress, money doesn’t enter into it at all. “There can be lovely relationships where their actress is proud of working with the designer, and does so for no fee,” says Los Angeles fashion PR Marilyn Heston, who this year is working with Zac Posen, jeweller Stephen Webster and Montblanc. She adds that major brands have the advantage over young designers in securing actresses to wear their gowns. “There’s a big machine. The brands will make five or six outfits per actress with lots of custom work. If they get one outfit on one actress they come away a winner. Smaller designers don’t have the resources to do that.”
Few industry-watchers think the situation is going to change any time soon. According to Ilaria Alber-Glanstaetten, chief executive of Provenance, a luxury-branding consultancy: “As long as the celebrity looks great, I don’t think the consumer cares if she’s paid to wear a dress. If that weren’t the case, there’d be no readers for these celebrity magazines. The relationship between the red carpet and sales is still unproven, but it’s a visibility issue. I think there’s almost a fear of not being on the red carpet. It’s become a situation where when every other brand is there, can you afford not to be?”