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MILAN — Leap year is looming with a potential setback for the fashion industry.

Come Feb. 29, the world’s biggest fashion show, the Oscars, is going head-to-head with that other major style event, Milan Fashion Week. As designers and editors grow increasingly alarmed about the fast-approaching conflict, some are calling for a change in the fashion show calendar —or for the Oscars to go back to March.

This story first appeared in the October 8, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the chances of either happening, at least next year, appear slim.

“The situation is a mess — our show is scheduled for the 29th,” a visibly upset Donatella Versace said backstage moments before her show on Saturday. “For us it presents a challenge because we send our most talented team of seamstresses to Los Angeles to take care of our clients, but we also need them here to work on the collection and backstage.

“Unless things change — and I’d be happy to support a date change of the Milan shows — we’ll set up monitors to broadcast the red-carpet arrivals at our post-show dinner.”

A Missoni spokeswoman echoed similar concerns.

“For us, it will be a big issue because we have a small team, so we’ll have to sit down and figure out what to do,” she said. “Normally, we bring the fall collection to L.A. but evidently that’s not possible this time, so we may need to put some looks together especially for the Oscars. Also, we bring our chief seamstress to alter the clothes on the stars and since we’re dealing with knitwear we need our experienced people. Last but not least, Margherita and/or Angela normally fly out to L.A. and they won’t be able to do that.”

Editors are also voicing concerns about the overlap.

“I think that, for once, everyone has to sit down and address the issue, otherwise everyone loses out,” Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, said on the sidelines of the Milan shows last week. “The Academy Awards are the ultimate fashion show and, through no fault of the Italians, it’s a very unfortunate situation. I worry about the Italians because the Oscars create such a worldwide media blitz that it will overshadow their work. The Milan fashion shows should be pushed later because the Academy Awards aren’t changing.

“Designers who don’t do couture will be particularly hurt because, by then, these collections will be old hat,” she added, referring to the spring-summer 2004 designs parading down the catwalks last week.

Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview magazine, also didn’t mince words: “It’s the worst case of planning I’ve ever heard of because these two worlds need each other so much.”

She said she hadn’t yet figured out how she would straddle the events, but suggested it would be in the fashion industry’s best interests to adjust its schedule. “The people who will suffer the most are the designers,” said Sischy. “It doesn’t give them a chance to focus fully on both events, which are equally crucial.”

However, it’s no small task to reconfigure the international fashion calendar.

Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said the Milan fashion shows Feb. 22 to March 1 coincide with other important trade events in the city, and venues were scheduled years ago.

“We defined this calendar on Sept. 14, 2001, and we don’t do anything on our own,” he said. “We have to check with organizers in New York, London, Paris and with our Italian designers, so the decision is not only ours.”

Didier Grumbach, head of the Chambre Syndicale in Paris, said there is “no chance” of changing his fashion week, slated for March 2-10, short of a “crisis.” But he noted that he’s heard no major outcry from French designers, who tend to dress stars in couture or custom-made dresses anyway.

“For most of the designers showing in Paris, Milan or London, [the Oscars] are not primordial,” he said. “The ready-to-wear calendar is not only a question of image. It’s an industrial necessity for a lot of companies.”

Reached on Monday, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce said they usually don’t attend the Oscars and seemed unfazed by the date dilemma. “We don’t really see it as a conflict that would effect us in deep way,” Gabbana said, noting that their L.A. press office could handle any requests.

Robert Triefus, Giorgio Armani’s executive vice president for worldwide communications, also downplayed the situation.

“I don’t think we should overreact,” he said. “The Milan fashion shows and the Oscars, which are all about celebrating a year of cinema and are not directly related to fashion, can go on simultaneously.

“The Oscars are not for the fashion world, but for achievement in cinema. Many outfits on the red carpet were inspired by the runway collections, so what will happen now is that designers will probably be providing outfits simultaneously rather than consequentially,” he continued. “Most of the designers who work with the awards have large teams to help them who can be split between the Oscars and the fashion shows.”

Giambattista Valli, artistic director at Emanuel Ungaro, also sees no conflict, characterizing the runway and the red carpet as one and the same: “Whatever happens first.”

“I have never been interested in dressing many celebrities. I am happy to work with one who inspires me,” he added.

A Chanel spokeswoman said the earlier Oscar dates may actually benefit couture houses, since actresses now prefer couture and “the collection will be more fresh. As you know, celebrities want to wear new things.” The couture shows in Paris are slated for Jan. 20-23.

“It will take more work to follow both worlds — fashion and entertainment — at the same time, but we’ll make all the effort to make it work,” said a spokesman for Valentino.

Luisa Beccaria, a designer who has dressed the likes of Uma Thurman and Charlize Theron, among others, said she was thinking about showing her next collection in New York.

“It would probably be best to have the Milan shows after the Oscars, not before, since there is less and less time in-between collections,” she said. “Also, I’m hoping to personally go to the Oscars.”

The overlap first came to light as far back as June 2002, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it was moving up its annual awards show by one month in 2004 (it decides the date on a year-to-year basis, so it’s not certain what will happen in 2005). The change is designed to boost its television ratings and help it stand out against a glut of similar shows. At the time it was clear major dress jockeying would ensue.

But while the initial announcement created few ripples in the fashion world, now that the date is only six months away the possible repercussions are dawning on all concerned parties.

“It can’t help the fashion industry when an event that supplies a lot of glamour coincides with its most important industry event,” said Cathy Horyn, fashion critic at The New York Times. “It will become news overkill. It just seems like two tidal waves colliding and I think the fashion industry will lose. Let’s face it: more people will be watching the Oscars. They have so much to gain from moving.”

Hal Rubenstein, fashion features director at In Style, predicted that fashion designers would capitulate.

“I think someone’s going to shift a day. The designers are not foolish,” he said. “Some time has to be given over to dressing these celebrities. You have an audience of [more than 1] billion people. You can’t miss that.”

“Why can’t the Oscars move?” asked Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Italian Vogue. “Obviously two fashion-oriented events will overshadow one another.”

“The shows maybe won’t get as much publicity, but I just don’t feel strongly about this issue, and about celebrity events,” said Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune. “The Oscars organizers are pushing so that the Oscars are not just another celebrity event, but you don’t necessarily have to be there to know what’s happening at the awards. Anyway, there is too much focus on celebrity fashion. I look forward to the day when a model will be back on the cover of a magazine. I’ll rush and go buy it!”

Elizabeth Saltzman, fashion director at Vanity Fair, made it clear the overlap is “not helpful” for a magazine keenly interested in both the fashion and celebrity worlds — not to mention one that throws a massive bash around the Academy Awards. But she suggested it could be a boon to American designers, who will have finished with New York Fashion Week and can turn their full attention to dressing stars in Los Angeles.

“It’ll open the door for someone smart,” she said.

It’s not only designers and the fashion press who are grumbling about the Oscars date change, though. The switch will mean that Oscar nominations will now close more than a week before the Golden Globes winners are announced. It’s a blow of sorts to the Globes, which has been gaining prominence — both among Hollywood and fashion observers — in recent years, because the ceremony, hosted by the Foreign Press Association, is seen as a precursor to the Oscars, even influencing Academy voters on how they will vote. Of course, the Globes have something the Oscars doesn’t have: TV stars. And with the small screen gaining greater importance in the eyes of the fashion world (consider Sarah Jessica Parker — even though spring will be her last season on television, for now, with the final run of “Sex and the City”), it will likely maintain its influence.

Nor was the Oscars date switch simply a tale of two rival shows. The change prompted a shuffle throughout the awards season calendar. The Screen Actors Guild scooted from March to Feb. 23; and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards jumped two weeks earlier than its traditional slot, to Feb. 8. The changes even reverberated into the music arena. The Grammy Awards, which usually took place in mid- to late February, have bumped the show date up to Feb. 8, prompting the competing American Music Awards to move from its mid-January slot to this coming November. For the AMA’s it could also prove a lifesaver: it, too, has been declining in ratings, in part due to a lack of star wattage to the rival Grammys.

Despite the Academy’s love-hate relationship with acknowledging the fashion component of the Oscars, it has, for all intents and purposes, spawned a cottage industry of its own — one that the Super Bowl of the award shows has benefited from. Oscars looks, good and bad, are touted year-round and, with them, the repeated reminder of the event. A small army of stylists, publicists, makeup artists and merchandisers descend on Los Angeles for the show, adding to the economy and the city’s image as a capital of glamour.

Jessica Paster, considered one of Hollywood’s leading stylists, having dressed Oscar nominees and red-carpet fashion plates since 1997, is furious over the date change. “The Academy is screwing with the one part of the Oscars they shouldn’t screw with — the fashion part,” said Paster. “If they produced more interesting — and shorter — shows, they’d get more viewers. Viewers don’t care about some stupid comedian. They tune in to see whether Nicole [Kidman] looks better than Renée [Zellweger]. They want to see the clothes, the jewelry. It hasn’t just been about the awards for a very long time. It just proves the Academy needs to get with the times.”

Getting the job done with the new schedule will take some adjustments, conceded Paster, whose roster this year has included Cate Blanchett and Marcia Gay Harden — both already receiving Oscar buzz. “I’m not new to this. I know the drill. But it would’ve been nice to first find out who actually is nominated, then see the [runway] shows, and then be able to pick the dresses,” said Paster. “I already started a month ago going straight to the designers and talking to them about making a dress. But I’m so superstitious — I don’t like to talk about dresses before the nominations. But we don’t have a choice. Start when the nominations happen in December? Sweetheart, that’s too late.”

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