Byline: Kristin Young
LOS ANGELES — While the nominee announcement two weeks ago signaled the start of the Oscar fashion race, the rush actually started months ago with the frenzied push to introduce, revamp and tout VIP rooms at luxury stores here.
No surprise that many deadlines are coinciding with the big day on March 25.
European and American houses are clearly recognizing celebrities are part of the brand-building equation. The right product on the right star — particularly when a billion viewers worldwide are expected to tune in to see who wins the gold — can be tantamount to hitting the lottery, be it affluent fans calling in the following morning to order The Dress or brand awareness that sells a lipstick.
Celebrities generally borrow a gown or tux and return it to the designer after it is worn. Sometimes the gowns are a gift, but frequently, the transaction leads to an actual sale.
While companies interviewed here said red-carpet exposure is difficult to quantify financially, many speculate it’s worth upward of $1 million in brand building.
“It was a tremendous help to our business early on when people didn’t know who we were and didn’t know how to pronounce our name,” said James Mischka, recalling Badgley Mischka’s award-show debut 10 years ago courtesy of Terri Hatcher at the Emmys. “Celebrities are one more arm in the PR effort [in addition to] advertising, the shows and editorial coverage.”
What’s more, a red-carpet image can repeatedly appear on TV and in print.
Striving to seal the deal, newcomers and established houses alike are making VIP rooms a top priority, investing big bucks in amenity-filled salons.
It should come as no surprise that in this entertainment-centric town, many of these sequestered chambers are like something out of a James Bond film. Hidden panels close to create secret rooms. Terraces wrap around penthouse salons. And one retailer sneaks its bold-face clients into a luxurious basement.
“We didn’t do it on the cheap,” underscored Arie Kopelman, president and chief operating officer of Chanel Inc., referring to the facelift of the Rodeo Drive boutique, including the fourth-floor VIP room.
Replicas of 18th-century Coramandel screens like those Coco Chanel had in her Paris apartment line the walls of the 720-square-foot space. In contrast is the modern ceiling, inlaid with small lighting fixtures that partially cover expansive skylights that cool the room.
With annual lease rates on Rodeo Drive between $216 and $240 per square foot, cheap is not an option.
Whatever the design, the goal is the same: catering to stars and their stylists in privacy and high style.
Plush sofas, an oversize television and free-flowing champagne and wine are among the amenities that will continue being offered at the Valentino boutique once it relocates to its new address a block up on North Rodeo Drive.
The new 900-square-foot salon will be slightly smaller, but will still feature the most coveted perk of all, noted a Valentino spokeswoman: tailor Levon Emurian and his team. About 50 pieces from the current couture collection hang alongside vintage looks dating to the Sixties in the oval salon. For last year’s Oscars, rows and rows of gowns, some vintage, were flown in from Italy.
An unnamed princess and her family frequent Louis Vuitton’s second floor, where a cozy, 400-square-foot room is set up like a living room with leather couches and chairs and fresh flowers.
“Almost daily, we have A-list celebrities shopping at our store,” said manager Donna Snyder. But not all file up the staircase. “I find that so many of them like to stay down on the floor.”
Across town, at the Art Deco building housing the Richard Tyler boutique on Beverly Boulevard, other Hollywood clients really take overexposure to heart.
“I’ve had celebrities not use the changing room and get naked on the mezzanine, which has caused quite a stir on the street,” said a spokesman.
A long velvet sofa, television and, yes, an extra roomy dressing room are found in the second floor VIP area, which has been a feature since the space opened in 1989 and began attracting award-bound stars such as Julia Roberts, whom Tyler dressed when she won her first Oscar in 1990 for “Pretty Woman.”
Another veteran in the private salon game is, not surprisingly, Giorgio Armani. Next month, the Armani store moves to a space three times its original 1,000-square-foot size to a second-floor store with a view, appropriately enough, of the Hollywood sign.
If only the walls could talk at Armani, which has operated a VIP room since 1988.
“We’ve had everything from practical jokes between celebrities to marriage proposals,” said an Armani spokeswoman.
Of course, as more houses want a piece of the action, the stakes are rising.
In the weeks leading up to the big night, Los Angeles hotels fill with New York- and London-based lines. The Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire, the Mondrian and Chateau Marmont are popular venues.
But the superstar is L’Ermitage, a Beverly Hills hotel that morphs into “the fashion mall” during awards time. At January’s Golden Globes, Pamela Dennis, London hair stylist Charles Worthington and Tod’s were among the fashion and beauty brands greeting a stream of stylists and their clients.
The New York-based house of Badgley Mischka entered retailing with its Rodeo Drive door last September, following several years of setting up camp at the Chateau Marmont. To Mischka and partner Mark Badgley, maintaining a high level of service to Hollywood is crucial to their eveningwear business.
The bridal salon on the second floor can be cordoned off by doors recessed in the walls. Under lock and key are client cards detailing a celebrity’s size, champagne preferences and dietary needs. By the time a VIP enters, several gown options are already laid out. If the store doesn’t have a particular style, it’s pulled from a New Jersey warehouse and in Los Angeles the next day. “No request is too strange,” said Mischka.
In fact, those with Los Angeles stores believe an in-house salon sets them apart from the competition, allows them to better control their images and provides the coveted and all-important privacy.
“I was actually one of those people who shopped the hotels,” said actress Laralee Bell, who owns On Beverly Blvd, an upscale boutique with a VIP room, with partner Shauna Stein. “It was very crowded in the hotel room with one bathroom. People were pushing, and I felt like it was a last-call sale. And everybody sees what you’re buying.”
That can include the viewers of “Access Hollywood” and similar programs, which have featured “insider peeks” at the suites in episodes leading up to an awards day.
Another designer using the VIP room to promote his brand among celebrities and the public at large is Stuart Weitzman.
The footwear maker opened his first West Coast boutique on Rodeo Drive this month, designating a third of the 2,000-square-foot store to accommodate up to 10 VIPs. When two recessed panels are pulled out, the area is sealed off.
“If you don’t do it, other people will run circles around you,” said Weitzman, who plans to make Hollywood history by keeping open round-the-clock during the week preceding Oscar Sunday on March 25.
When Chanel reopened in September, dozens of photographers turned out to capture Selma Blair, Ione Skye and host Christina Ricci. Most of the action that night occurred in the new VIP salon, where Paul Sevigny, Chloe’s brother, helmed the turntables.
But a Chanel spokeswoman emphasized, “It’s a business decision to welcome our clients and not shuffle them to a hotel or some restaurant.” She pointed out that Coco had a history of entertaining clients in her Paris salon. “It’s an important service decision.”
In fact, regardless of how much VIP rooms add to the bottom line, few said they would trade them in for extra selling space.
“It’s a very broad benefit,” admitted Claudio Castiglioni, president of Tod’s, also set to open a remodeled 7,500-square-foot flagship on Rodeo Drive next month. The 1,700-square-foot VIP room is outfitted with a terrace, custom Italian furniture and its own elevator entrance.
“[The VIP room] has to be kept in the spirit of a business,” Castiglioni continued. “If you can afford an extra VIP space, it’s a way to prove that you are among these brands in the world that can afford to give better service. And there are only a few brands in the world that can do it.”