Byline: Eric Wilson / Janet Ozzard / Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — How now, brown gown?
It may have been panned in the press, but the olivey chocolate dress worn by Hilary Swank at the Academy Awards on Sunday seems destined to create a retail sensation.
At least it was a winning look from the standpoint of fashion’s copycat kings, who are busy churning out versions of the dress, and it may also have an important impact on dress sales from a fashion point of view, according to retailers.
“The Oscars have really become a fashion happening,” said Caroline Moss, fashion director at Macy’s East. “It’s boosted the whole fashion industry. I think Hilary Swank looked elegant, and her dress is going to be the most memorable, but there really wasn’t a Jennifer Lopez type of dress that got everyone talking.”
Moss was also complimentary about Charlize Theron’s orange chiffon gown by Vera Wang — calling the look “fabulous, really chic” — and Uma Thurman’s red Alberta Ferretti gown.
“It showed people aren’t afraid to wear color,” Moss said. “I do think some of the jewelry didn’t work. I know the jewelry designers are trying to get more play, but the actresses wear these big, big diamonds and they look like they are wearing their mother’s jewelry.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, said his picks included Theron and Cate Blanchett, who wore a Jean Paul Gaultier couture look.
“I think Charlize Theron was the best dressed at the ball, and Cate Blanchett looked really chic,” he said.
Sue Patneaude, vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, stressed the importance of color, noting that the looks at the awards should help customers understand there are alternatives to dressing in black for social occasions.
“We loved Lucy Liu’s red Versace, Charlize Theron’s tangerine Vera Wang and Ashley Judd’s gorgeous purple Valentino,” she said. “We loved it, because we remember when everything was silver or black.”
Ballgowns were a hot topic of conversation at Nordstrom, Patneaude noted, since there were examples of gowns that were not costumey, overblown or puffy.
“We were talking about what makes a sexy ballgown, and we decided you have to have gorgeous shoulders and a defined waist,” she said. “There were also sexy black dresses. We thought Shakira Caine was stunning, and Annette Bening was beautiful.”
Early Monday morning, about 5:30 to be precise, designer Victor Costa and his assistants arrived at their showroom here to start work on his take on Swank’s look, one of his most important dress creations of the year.
On the West Coast, ABS’s Allen B. Schwartz was at work on the same dress, which the knockoff kings have declared to be this year’s top Oscar look to ape.
In what’s becoming an annual smorgasbord of press opportunities for designers who imitate high-profile dresses, Costa and Schwartz are competing to get their looks on TV and into stores, fast.
Costa, who designs an eveningwear line for Rose Taft, had completed enough of Swank’s brown deb dress, copied from Randolph Duke’s original, by early afternoon to have it featured on Inside Edition Monday night and shown to buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue on Tuesday.
“When I first saw it on the red carpet, I though that is was something that Miss America would wear,” Costa said. “You’ve got to move fast while these things are still fresh in the mind and there is still chit-chat about it.”
Costa’s copy will be available to stores within a month, he said.
He’s also thinking about doing the dress Charlize Theron wore — an orange chiffon number from Vera Wang — but said he was waiting for word from Saks Fifth Avenue, one of his top clients. Penelope Cruz’s blue Ralph Lauren dress also has potential, but “there won’t be that much to copy,” Costa said, because it’s a fairly straightforward princess dress.
“All in all, I was glad they abandoned the show-your-body thing,” he said. “Last year, the dresses were a lot easier for us to make. The Gwyneth dress sold very well.”
The pink Ralph Lauren deb dress that Gwyneth Paltrow wore in 1999 was one of Costa’s most successful sellers of the years. It was a hit for ABS as well, selling more than 15,000 at $300 per dress.
“There’s gold in them there Oscars for us because people relate to movie stars,” Costa said.
Schwartz said his picks for 2000 were Swank’s brown gown, Theron’s orange piece, Ashley Judd’s Valentino, Cameron Diaz’s black Versace look and Salma Hayak’s lavender layered piece from Eric Gaskins.
He had several copies in production as of Tuesday and projected samples would be in his New York showroom on Thursday. That gives him time for interviews on the “Today Show,” “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood,” as well as local news stations and newspapers.
Schwartz is scheduled to present his finished product at a trunk show at Bloomingdale’s in New York on Saturday at noon.
“It was a disappointing show, but we have a nice little crop of dresses here,” Schwartz said.
As for his fashion review, Schwartz said Swank “was fabulous, except for the necklace,” referring to the Asprey & Garrard snowflake piece she wore.
“Though Charlize Theron’s look was my number-one favorite, it may not sell because of the back issue,” Schwartz said. “It went right down to the tushy.”
Schwartz believes that after Swank, Judd’s Valentino look and Diaz’s Versace dress are the most marketable to a mass audience.
“I loved Denzel Washington’s wife’s dress, and Jane Fonda’s dress was magnificent, but she’s not part of the new breed,” Schwartz said. “She’s old school, and that won’t sell. I might make Denzel’s wife’s dress, though. It was a beautiful peau de soie.”
And that’s a pretty expensive word to use for someone who deals in inexpensive imitations.
Asked if he knew how to spell peau de soie, Schwartz replied, “I spell it duchesse satin. That’s d-u-c-h…”

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