Come Oscar night, a major movie star like Renée Zellweger knows that, as she climbs out of her limo and onto the red carpet, fashion watchers from Hollywood to Hoboken to Hong Kong will take the opportunity either to relish or to rip into her outfit. Strutting the red carpet is like stepping into a shooting gallery, in more ways than one. The TV commentators, the tabloids and every at-home viewer with “Queer Eye” aspirations are eager to weigh in. Zellweger’s solution: Carolina Herrera, the designer she’s stuck with through thick and thin.

Since the actress chose Herrera’s midnight blue ballgown for the Academy Awards in 2002, she’s never looked back. She slipped into Herrera’s lithe and lovely gazar gown for the Council of Fashion Designers of America gala last June. She went demure with a pretty pink number for the New York premiere of “Chicago.” Then, after gaining a hearty 25 pounds for her latest screen turn as Bridget Jones, Zellweger cranked up the heat, mesmerizing a giddy David Letterman with Herrera’s va-va-voom red satin stunner.

This story first appeared in the February 26, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The things Carolina makes are classically beautiful,” says Zellweger, a few weeks before Oscar night. “They’re not overpowering. You can feel like yourself in her pieces.”

Still, Herrera says that over the past year Zellweger hasn’t always felt like herself. “For a woman with a perfect figure like hers to wake up 25 pounds heavier, do you think that’s nice?”

Instead of shrouding that excess baggage, however, Herrera advised the star to play up her newly formed curves. “For the “Cold Mountain” premiere I told her, ‘It’s much better to show that you gained weight.’ That’s her work, and she’s a professional.”

Some condemned the jaunty come-hither style Zellweger adopted to suit her voluptuous new self. To those naysayers Herrera and Zellweger offer a united front — and a chipper who-asked-you? “As we go along through the fittings we make decisions together, and we get excited together,” Zellweger explains. “It’s not really about how it’s going to be perceived outside of our own experience.”

During that experience, the two women exchange phone calls, Herrera ships out sketches, oversees in-house fittings and dispatches her fitter to Zellweger’s side. And Herrera says the star’s fashion decisions are highly personal. “People criticize what she wears and say, ‘I would have done this or that,’” she explains. “You can’t please everybody.” On the contrary, Herrera has one woman to please. “Renée’s the one who has to wear it. There’s nothing worse than wearing something that doesn’t agree with you.”

Herrera’s relationship with the star began in 2002 when she sent out sketches to five of the Academy Award nominees for best actress. Zellweger took the bait, and since then the designer has abandoned the blanket approach. She appreciates the reciprocal nature of their arrangement. “Other actresses don’t realize that being loyal to one designer, you will look consistent,” Herrera says. “Look at Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy. They worked together for years.” Of course, at last year’s Oscars, Herrera dressed not only Zellweger but Salma Hayek, when at the last minute the zipper of Hayek’s original gown snapped and her friend Zellweger called Herrera for help. “You know,” Herrera says, “Renée is not one of those silly stars who can’t help a friend.”

Unlike other stars of her caliber, Zellweger chooses her own high-stakes gowns without a stylist’s help. She’s that confident in her own style. And for her important red-carpet forays, she’d rather wear something especially designed for her than an anonymous frock culled from the mishmash of an aggressive stylist. “I don’t want it ever to be just a dress, something we’ve scrounged up,” says Zellweger. “I did that in the beginning, and it’s not enjoyable. There’s a lot of pressure and you end up stepping out in something that isn’t really reflective of who you are, and it compromises your experience. You don’t feel comfortable. I’ve had that happen a couple of times.”

While no one — maybe not even Zellweger — knows what the star will step out in on Sunday night, the Herrera atelier is buzzing with anticipation. Could she choose Herrera for the third year in a row? Zellweger says she’s “pretty certain” what she’ll wear, but won’t give away any details. She’s just finished filming “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” and she might be reslimmed to her featherweight self, or she might serve up a little sensuality like a modern-day Marilyn Monroe. She might wear Herrera. She might wear vintage.

Of course, no matter how many fittings bring the movie star and designer together, Herrera, pro that she is, never counts on a thing. “What Renée wears is her decision. Let’s not talk about it,” she trills, waving away any dreams of Zellweger’s Oscar night entrance. “I always say, ‘You never know until they’re in the car.’”

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