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Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Oscars: A Brief History of Fashion Designers, Hollywood & the Red Carpet

Anne Hathaway in Armani Prive

On Sunday is the most notable awards-show of the year, the Academy Awards. For months to follow, images of stars on the red-carpet will be filling space in magazines as everyone assesses the success or failure of outfit choices. The designers behind the most glamorous looks will receive untold amounts of "free" publicity. On this night they hand out Oscars, acting and fashion both take the spotlight. It should be no surprise that the majority of fashion designers are jockying until the final moments to have their clothes on as many stars as possible. However, it hasn't always been this way.

In 1955, Christian Dior was asked to make a wedding dress for Brigitte Bardot for a movie the rising starlet was in. Perhaps typical of the culture and the time, Dior refused. To him, the aristocracy were the truly aesthetically elegant and those on the silver screen were merely cheap imitations. There was no way he would willingly allow his designs to be put on what he viewed as vulgar display.

Later in the '50's, Hubert de Givenchy and one of the most stylish icons of all-time, Audrey Hepburn, developed a strong relationship. As a result, Givenchy became synonymous with Hepburn. Who can forget the little black dresses and her iconic style in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's?
While there were occasional relationships forged between designers and stars, for the next 30 years it was the exception, not the rule. While the French didn't hold movie-stars in such high regard, Italians understood the power of film and publicity. Italy had a thriving movie industry and a head-start on forging relationships with actors and actresses at home. With the global influence of Hollywood, the transition was more intuitive.

Not a stranger to Hollywood, most notably for dressing Richard Gere in 1980's American Gigolo, Georgio Armani opened his Beverly Hills boutique in 1988. Using the boutique as a local home-base and developing a publicity machine, he used his already strong connections with celebrities to get his designs on Hollywood's most influential stars and become the designer of choice. His success became a major component of his master marketing plan. By 1991, so many stars were wearing Armani that Woman's Wear Daily dubbed the Oscars, "The Armani Awards". The publicity that resulted was priceless advertising. By broadening and deepening his relationships with the stars, he was then able to leverage it by inviting them to shows and special events. By having such  star-studded attendees, he was guaranteed widespread media coverage.

Quickly following in Armani's footsteps was another Italian, Gianni Versace. While Armani enlisted A-list Hollywood stars, Versace's flashiest stars included Elton John, Elizabeth Hurley, Axl Rose and Tupac Shakur who mirrored his designs. Over time, a myriad of mainstream stars have been associated with the label. Gianni Versace felt that the public was tiring of unrealistic models and that those in Hollywood came across as more "real".
Jane Fonda in Gianni Versace with husband, Ted Turner 

So it was Armani and Versace who first used red-carpet star power to enhance publicity and image. Soon after the two designers had clearly made their mark, Hollywood and designers became a free-for-all. Many designers will send boxes of clothes to stars, with no obligation for them to wear them in hopes of wooing them into wearing their designs. While back in the 80's stars felt honored to be asked to wear designer's  clothes, today many stars ask for much more, including money, to wear a designer's gown or suit. The rat-race is on.

Armani was quoted as saying he was very against the idea of paying stars to wear his line. Fortunately for his great classical designs and his own star-power, Armani is still prevalent on the red-carpet as many image-conscious stars view his clothes to be a safe bet, even if they don't get paid for the privilege. So this year when viewing the stars and what they're wearing, imagine the drama and rush behind the scenes; that may be Oscar-worthy itself.
Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy

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