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STYLE : FASHION : And the Designer Is ...

March 26, 1995|Judith Michaelson | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

Within a week of Winona Ryder's Best Actress nomination for "Little Women," videotapes, look-books, phone calls and flowers inundated the actress in New York. The most famous designers in the world--Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan--beseeched Ryder to wear their designs to tomorrow night's Academy Awards ceremony.

In London, Best Actress nominee Miranda Richardson ("Tom & Viv") acquired a similiar flock of suitors. Gianni Versace offered to fly her to Milan to view his fall collection. Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Nino Cerruti indicated they, too, would gladly provide Richardson with Oscar gown selections.

And here in Los Angeles, Best Actress nominee Jessica Lange ("Blue Sky") received a handwritten note from the manager of the Valentino boutique in Beverly Hills. Buried in a long silver box filled with orange blossoms, tangerines and kumquats, the note read: "Mr. Valentino and I send our warmest congratulations ... Mr. Valentino would love to create a couture gown for you for the special event."

Such is the other Oscar race--a mad, mad rush by the stars of fashion to dress the stars of Hollywood. Next to Who Wins What tomorrow, the biggest mystery is Who Wears What. And to heighten excitement, designers and stars spin a collaborative web of secrecy around their dance.

It is, for example, anyone's guess whom glamour girl Sharon Stone will make happy with her choice. Actresses are, after all, notoriously fickle. In 1993, Stone wore a gown by Vera Wang and launched the New York designer's Oscar career. But last year, Stone switched to Valentino. And Best Actress nominee Susan Sarandon ("The Client") has worn Calvin Klein, Valentino and Carolyne Roehm before, but this year, Chanel, Donna Karan, Christian Dior, Valentino, Versace and good friend Todd Oldham also have come calling.

The only certainty about the Oscar fashion sweepstakes is that the appearance of a designer's clothes at the event is worth all the politicking that precedes it. More than a billion people watch the ceremony and the pre-ceremony arrivals, making that walk up the red carpet the most important fashion runway on Earth.

"A star in a designer's dress has become one of the best advertising things anyone can have," says longtime Rodeo Drive retailer Fred Hayman. A spokesman for the German design house Escada, which sent gold-papered portfolios of design photos to certain nominees and presenters, concurs. "The worldwide exposure is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars."

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The high-intensity, high-stakes courtship of stars for this year's awards presentation started in November with a visit to Los Angeles by a Calvin Klein emissary. Armani, told of Klein's early reconnaissance, reportedly followed suit. Next came team Versace. And the race was on.

But just try getting the contestants to admit it.

Valentino volunteers only that "we specially hope to bring luck, as we did last year, to our friend Tom Hanks," who was named Best Actor for "Philadelphia." Armani, too, demurs when asked for specific names. "I am always flattered," he says, "when a person in the public eye, whose style and image complement mine," wears Armani to the Oscars.

Words like friendship and relationship are invoked when the subject is designers' financial arrangements with stars. As a Valentino executive puts it, dressing a star for the Academy Awards is "a personal thing, done out of friendship and admiration; it's not like a business thing. Some of these people he knows personally, and some he's entertained at his home."

"Dressing the great Hollywood stars ... allows me to make a small contribution to a world I greatly admire," Armani says. "My rapport with Hollywood is not a one-night-a-year proposition."

Insiders say clothes worn to the ceremony are usually presented to the stars gratis. Italian designer Nino Cerruti gave outfits to Clint Eastwood and his companion, Frances Fisher, Best Actor nominee John Travolta ("Pulp Fiction") and his wife, Kelly Preston, and Robert Redford this year. A publicist says the clothing is being "designed to specifications."

Noting the myriad designer overtures to her client, Winona Ryder's publicist suggests that "with all these people (offering) to dress her, I think it would be rude for them to make her pay $10,000."

"All my clients care deeply about what they wear to a public function," notes publicist Nancy Seltzer, whose clients include Sarandon, "and, regardless (of) what they receive, they also feel comfortable seeking out those designs they might be interested in."

Even if they have to pay for it? "They haven't been asked to (for Oscar night)," Seltzer laughs, quickly adding: "But if they were, they would."

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