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HOLLYWOOD — If you think the Italians have had it tough, just wait and see how the French react.<BR><BR>With buzz heightening that next year’s Academy Awards could be bumped a week forward into March, the calendar clash that so conflicted...

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HOLLYWOOD — If you think the Italians have had it tough, just wait and see how the French react.

With buzz heightening that next year’s Academy Awards could be bumped a week forward into March, the calendar clash that so conflicted with the Milan ready-to-wear presentations could next year become a Paris problem.

Of course, in some ways, Paris Fashion Week already kicked off a day early right here with the newly reinforced legion of French labels on Sunday’s red carpet — among them, Guy Laroche, Christian Dior Couture, Azzaro, Chanel and Rochas. Natalie Portman, best supporting actress nominee for “Closer,” absolutely shined in a Lanvin gown her friend, Alber Elbaz, made for her — and fast. “He said he didn’t have time with his show coming up [this Sunday],” Portman said. “Then he saw the movie and he really wanted to make something. I saw [the gown] for the first time yesterday ’cause I just got in from Israel and I just had to wear it.”

Add to the list those houses that show in Paris — such as Valentino and Stella McCartney — or have French designers, such as Roland Mouret, who shows in New York and lives in London, and the Oscars this time round were a veritable French festival.

But the Italians — many of whom dashed straight from Milan Fashion Week to the hills of Hollywood to sew away — are far from down and out in the Oscar fashion sweepstakes, with Atelier Versace, Armani Privé, Prada and Roberto Cavalli all garnering their share of stars. Donatella Versace hopped a jet the morning after her presentation in Milan to make fittings here, and Cavalli recently promised he would reschedule his next fall show so he, too, could come (of course, it will be easier if the Academy Awards schedule becomes a Paris issue next year).

Prada had not one but two standouts in Salma Hayek (whose décolletage kept L.A. radio buzzing all Monday morning) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who said she “was choosing between two Prada dresses and I thought this one was hot.” (Her publicist carried her Prada fur stole in a manila envelope along with her Oscar tickets.) Even Leonardo DiCaprio was repeatedly quick to give Miuccia praise for his Prada tux on camera.

This story first appeared in the March 1, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And what about the Americans?

Carolina Herrera, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Badgley Mischka, Monique Llhullier and Michael Kors all had their actresses — although Kors’ red number for Sandra Oh rounded a triple run of strapless red va-va-voom looks, including Lauren on Emmy Rossum and Herrera on Renée Zellweger.

As for Oscar winner Hilary Swank’s much-publicized snub of Francisco Costa and Calvin Klein — which has paid her over the last year to model underwear for Calvin Klein Choice — the actress insisted her switch to navy jersey Guy Laroche was simply a result of the temperature. “I felt like it might be chilly tonight and I wanted something to keep me a little warm.” The two-time best-actress Oscar winner had a quick response to the very obvious fact that her back was entirely alfresco. “I would be really cold if I had everything hanging out. I am cold in the back but the front is warm.”

Oh, well — Swank’s contract with Klein is up this year anyway.  

Laroche designer Herve L. Leroux said Monday that Swank had held on to the dress as an Oscar option since early February on set for a shoot for the April cover of German Vogue. “I knew she had it,” said Leroux. “But I didn’t tell anyone. You never know what’s going to happen until the last minute. Big stars get so many dresses and so many choices.”

Best supporting nominee Virginia Madsen may be doing her own spin control following her blab to one billion viewers in TV land that seven designers had custom-made gowns for her, but at the last moment, she went with the cobalt Atelier Versace. Next time, those houses may do as their peers and try to lock in an exclusive gal.

“Exclusives” was the overriding mantra among many designers and their representatives this go-round to avoid such switches, and as tales of payola and diva behavior among celebrities and their stylists abound, they could provide some insurance that a gown will actually go to the Oscars. De la Renta had an exclusive with Penélope Cruz’s pale yellow gown; Lauren did the same with Rossum, and Valentino secured Cate Blanchett weeks ago, creating two couture gowns — both in yellow — for the best supporting actress winner. Following two fittings in England and another here this weekend, the winning dress looked strikingly similar to the iridescent tangerine gold Valentino that Jennifer Garner appeared in at the 2004 Oscars and which topped many best-dressed lists.

But isn’t Hollywood all about sequels?

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