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Oscars: The Ultimate Advertisement

The big night means instant global exposure for designers, jewelers and cosmetics companies. But high fashion means high risks.

March 24, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Star power is advertising power these days, and an Oscar-nominated actress is potentially the best billboard money can't buy.

If a famous actress wears a designer's dress, she delivers a kind of endorsement that's pure gold. No one knows that better than the elite Hollywood corps of celebrity fashion stylists who can transform ordinary actresses into extraordinary stars by virtue of selecting the right clothes to wear to the right event.

That event, hands down, is the Academy Awards.

As elegant gowns and glittery gems increasingly overshadow the Academy Awards ceremony, the competition among fashion designers, jewelers and even cosmetics companies is reaching a new level of frenzy. The Oscars could be subtitled: World's Most Important Product Placement Opportunity.

"It's the biggest runway show of them all," says Scott Woodward, chief marketing officer of the Movado Group, which launched a multifaceted effort to land its Concord brand of watches on some very famous wrists. "There are two things people care about when they're on their sofa watching the Oscars: who wins, and what are they wearing. I'm not necessarily sure it's in that order."

Just as landing Ray-Bans in movies or Gatorade at the Super Bowl can skyrocket awareness of a brand, dressing stars at high-profile awards shows has become one of the most important marketing moves for fashion companies.

"It's product placement out of control," said Suzanne Kramer, president of Epaulette & Associates, which is helping Concord give away five $20,000 movie-themed watches to the movies' stars and loan dozens of custom-made styles, some $150,000 each.

"If you're not a player on this level, you can't be considered a leader in your category," she said.

All this fuss is about the 10 actress nominees and a handful of presenters and male nominees, plus an occasional head-turning date. Behind-the-scenes discussions focus on the four young nominees who have demonstrated a fashion sense: Hilary Swank, Julianne Moore, Angelina Jolie and Chloe Sevigny. Other nominees such as Toni Collette, Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton could explode into the public consciousness like a modern-day Eliza Doolittle with one fabulous dress.

The L'Ermitage has become the favorite staging ground for the attack on stylists, who at Oscar time become as important as agents, lawyers and publicists in Hollywood. They can earn up to $1,500 a day.

Here and at the Four Seasons, the Mondrian and the Peninsula Beverly Hills, so many fashion designers, jewelers and even cosmetics companies have buzzed into town that the hotels have become sort of a West Coast version of New York's Seventh Avenue.

The ritual courtship of the stars and their support staffs is both subtle and not. By putting Swank, who wore Versace at the recent Golden Globes, in the front row of his Paris show earlier this month, Valentino basked her in fashion's limelight. Stylist-to-the-stars Phillip Bloch is regularly center-stage at New York shows.

The courtship intensified weeks ago, when fashion companies began staging a datebook-clogging array of parties and dinners. Giorgio Beverly Hills invited stylists for cocktails to see the Oscar gowns that the store commissioned. Shoemaker Jimmy Choo held a tea; Escada, a brunch; Barneys New York, an exclusive cocktail party. But the most oddly compelling invitation was to a dinner Tuesday at the exclusive Hotel Bel-Air, where--only in Hollywood--the jeweler to England's royal family, Asprey & Garrard, could dance to the '70s power rock band Styx.

At the hotels, negotiating the throngs is no glamorous shopping trip.

Awake since 5 a.m., top stylist Jessica Paster burst into the L'Ermitage suite of Pamela Dennis early last Friday morning, seeking that special something for her Oscar clients.

In under 45 minutes, Paster had scanned the three rolling racks of clothes, memorized fabrics and colors, placated publicists, dodged questions, phoned Chad Lowe about the details of his tuxedo fitting, rejected a special Dennis dress swathed in $1 million in diamonds, answered her beeper three times and returned two other calls, all while 15 people buzzed through the room.

Paster maintained her laser-beam focus while Dennis' publicist, Piera Rossi Blodwell, pressed her to reveal her Oscar-night clients.

"Oh, gosh, you know," Paster demurred. "We don't have to say if we don't want to. We really don't. But I do want a pair of pants for Cate Blanchett." Blanchett, a presenter at the ceremony, is one of the A-list actresses whom designers beg to dress.

"We'll make them specially," Blodwell offered.

"I don't want anybody to make me anything," Paster countered. "Because, you know what, afterward, everyone goes crazy and says, 'Oh, she made us make something.' They offer, and then . . . if you don't wear the designer, there's always a snide remark that you did something wrong, and you didn't."

Tight Schedule Results in High Stress

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