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Red carpet revenue

Award shows give a look at celebrity style, but in a new era of deals between designers and actresses, a star's stroll can mean ...

February 22, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

The Hollywood fashion machine is crossing into a new, more commercial era in celebrity dressing as designers and jewelers have begun contracting with actresses to wear their labels at high-profile events. It's a turn in business as usual that could leave fans wondering if their favorite stars are becoming walking billboards for the highest bidder.

Fashion and jewelry houses have long offered gratis designer gowns and sparkling accessories to red carpet-bound celebrities, hoping to catch the right eye and have the creations seen globally on telecasts and in the thousands of magazine pages devoted to awards show coverage. But with all the big-name designers wooing the same big-name actresses, it is a gamble as to what might end up being chosen.

Many of those companies are no longer willing to play the odds.

"It's the dawn of a new fashion deal in Hollywood," said Wanda McDaniel, who has been Giorgio Armani's Hollywood liaison since 1989, when the designer became one of the first with permanent West Coast representation. "When you are preparing your wish list [of celebrities] for the Oscar season, there is a new category and it's called 'off the market.' "

According to McDaniel and other publicists and spokespeople, as well as a number of celebrity stylists, a handful of companies are offering either one-time payments or are signing celebrities to well-paid, exclusive product contracts. In addition, some actresses have begun demanding sole access to particular designers.

This latest artifice of rigged pop culture risks squeezing smaller designers out of the promotional game and could signal the end of seeing any real personal style in Tinseltown, loading the red carpet instead with product placement dominated by a handful of mega-brands.

The practice is also forcing those companies who don't pay celebrities to weigh their financial savings against the risk of being aced out.

At the Golden Globes last month, Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank reportedly ditched their loaned Harry Winston jewels not 24 hours before they were set to wear them on the red carpet, after being handed six-figure checks from rival jeweler Chopard.

"We were scheduled to work with a celebrity and at the very last minute, we had to cancel the guard because they had made a lucrative arrangement with another jeweler," said Carol Brodie, public relations director for Harry Winston.

The stars' publicists would not comment on whether their clients accepted money to wear the dangling Chopard earrings, as noted in a Women's Wear Daily item after the event. Chopard spokeswoman Stephanie Labeille said the house did not have formal contracts with the actresses. But she did say the company has used money as an incentive in the past, defending the practice as commonplace. "Saying one brand pays stars, when they all pay stars is ridiculous," she said.

In a time when Robert De Niro is hawking American Express and legendary rocker Eric Clapton puts in face time for Rolex ads, the new reality in Hollywood is that everyone has a price. "We used to be the proactive ones," McDaniel said. "Now we are being approached by agents looking to make deals" for their clients.

Kelly Cutrone, founder of the New York and L.A. fashion PR firm People's Revolution, said the change started about five years ago when it "went from celebrity gifting to deals being made around conference tables at ICM, William Morris, CAA and management offices all over L.A." The payments began relatively small, said Cutrone, who worked with the jeweler Bulgari from 1998 to 2001, during which time, she said, Theron and Claudia Schiffer were under contract.

"It started with companies saying to celebrities, 'We'll give you $5,000 and a store credit.' Then, 'We'll give you $10,000 and make a donation to the charity of your choice.' Then, 'We'll pay you $50,000' and now $150,000," Cutrone said.

By some accounts, the top of the range is closer to $250,000. These kinds of deals are considered affordable because they allow marketers to use a celebrity's name and likeness for a fraction of what a full endorsement deal might cost, such as Nicole Kidman's $4-million, three-year contract to be the face of Chanel No. 5, for example.

Yet, traditionally, the red carpet was a place for fans to catch a glimpse of star style -- for better or worse. Who could forget when Uma Thurman brought Prada to the public consciousness when she arrived for the 1995 Oscars swathed in ethereal lavender chiffon? Or when Bjork laid an egg on the red carpet in 2001 in the form of that infamous Marjan Pejoski swan dress? (The outfit, Bjork later said, was meant as a joke.) Barbra Streisand gave the audience more than they bargained for when she accepted an Oscar for "Funny Girl" in 1969 in a see-through black Scaasi ensemble, and Sharon Stone floored style watchers at the 1996 Academy Awards when she paired a Valentino ball skirt with a turtleneck from the Gap, a precursor, no doubt, to today's infatuation with high-low fashion.

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