OSCARS: Penelope Cruz, working with stylist Cristina Erlich, wore a vintage… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
When the stars hit the red carpet at the 82nd Academy Awards, the gathering will represent the culmination of a process that includes designer meetings, fittings and hours of stylists' stress, all geared to get an actress looking her absolute best. Those stylists have been working since fall to create the right look and feeling for their clients, and each has his or her own approach to cutting through the craziness, pressure and politics of award season.
"The No. 1 thing is to get everything done ahead of time," says Cristina Erlich, stylist to lead supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz. "Crazy is a personal choice."
Erlich has been dressing Cruz for award shows, premieres and film festivals for six years and has been instrumental in shaping the actress's glamorous and polished style. She began the search for an Oscar gown in October, flying to Europe to see designer collections before they hit the runway. "I sit down with the design team and they throw out ideas, sketches and fabric swatches," Erlich says.
Cruz, nominated for her work in "Nine," always wears something classic and feminine — even regal — and Erlich works to ensure that the next gown fits in the actress' sartorial timeline. "I look at the overall arc of what she's worn throughout the year," she says.
"I take into account whether Penelope's worn a lot of strapless or a lot of black. If she's worn color, what color? I also look at what she wore last year and think about what makes sense next.
"I am not trying to reinvent her look. It's more about what makes her timeless and about continuing on with her being beautiful on the red carpet."
It will be hard to top the princess quality of the frothy white vintage Pierre Balmain ball gown that Cruz wore to last year's Oscars, but Erlich counts on the rhythm they've developed while working together over the last several years as well as preparedness for wardrobe malfunctions.
"It's really all about what's under the dress," she says. "My assistants and I all have a full kit filled with nude Spanx, black Spanx, high-waisted Spanx, Spanx with a bum pad, Neosporin, cutlets [bra inserts] that clip, cutlets that crisscross, baby powder, Band-Aids.… All of these girls need all of this, even the ones with the most beautiful bodies. You don't leave these things for the day of the awards."
Stylist Linda Medevene, who is dressing lead actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe, shares Erlich's insistence on prepping everything ahead of time. "If we have a problem the day of, then we're in trouble. Then I haven't done my job," she says.
On Oscar day, Medevene steams her client's dress, scratches shoe soles so they don't slip and makes sure everything zips up perfectly. "That day is just relaxing. I'm there to make sure my client feels good and confident," she says.
Medevene's work with the "Precious" star started with promotion for the movie and has continued during the current round of award shows. Sidibe has worn all L.A.-based designers thus far, including Kevan Hall and Tadashi, but for her turn on the Oscar red carpet Medevene had a different vision in mind.
"I made a call to someone I admire and who I thought would create something breathtakingly beautiful," Medevene says, calling Sidibe's dress "an absolute Oscar gown" with custom hand-beading. "I work with just one designer. That's it. I don't believe in hurting the designer or costing them time or money." Medevene generally goes through three to four fittings with her client and the designer, from conception until the final hemming.
Erlich, on the other hand, wants to keep her options open. "I never make a commitment, because you never know until that final minute," she says. "But I am very honest and upfront with the designer. I don't lead them on." And it's not just the designer she considers; Erlich says she doesn't hoard dresses from other stylists. "You have to be a team player and help fellow stylists," she says. "When you're done with the dresses, return them."
Stylist Jodi Leesley, who is dressing lead supporting actress nominee Anna Kendrick, supports a no-drama policy when it comes to borrowing Oscar gowns. "It really only takes one dress," she says. "They are going to only wear one dress, not 20, down the carpet. There's enough dresses for everyone."
But, she adds, things can change even at the very last minute. "I'm constantly looking to be inspired, by a dress or jewelry," she says. "Tomorrow I could stumble upon something that blows us away.
"It's about creating a picture that will still be beautiful in 50 years. After the awards are over, all anyone has to look at are those pictures, and the Oscars are about timeless beauty. Any dress that fits that picture is something I always earmark."