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LOS ANGELES — “5,877 minutes to Hollywood’s Biggest Night” read the digital signboard at the entrance to the Hollywood and Highland shopping center. As the “Star Wars” theme blared over the loudspeaker, a group of 15 tourists readied to tour the Kodak Theatre.

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the Oscars won’t be the same this year. With red carpets being rolled up on Wednesday from the Academy Awards, to galas throughout town, the fashion world was rushing to assess how the scaling back of so many photo-ops would affect their businesses.

The Oscar red carpet is often dubbed the biggest fashion show on earth, but the evening and the events leading up to it have become more than an opportunity to play dress up. Fashion houses, cosmetic companies and the media worldwide invest millions in the week, knowing that any coverage could ultimately translate into sales and brand awareness long after the televised event, which is seen by over a billion viewers.

Cancellations filtering throughout Wednesday from attendees such as Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett, who was set to be a presenter, had the fashion and Hollywood communities here wondering whether the Academy Awards would air at all on Sunday. If they’re postponed, it wouldn’t be the first time. The awards have been delayed three times in the past: in 1938 because of floods in the Los Angeles area, in 1968 because of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and in 1981 because President Reagan was shot that day.

For those stars still going, stylists were scrambling all over town Wednesday to have a plan A (all out) and plan B (cocktail attire) for their clients. One observer said stores’ telephones were ringing off the hook with calls from stylists demanding more toned-down ensembles. Suddenly the $2.2 million dress — covered in 450 karats of colored diamonds designed by Oscar newcomer Randi Rahm and jewelry designer Stefan Hafner was suddenly out of style. And Stuart Weitzman announced at his dinner Tuesday night that his ruby and platinum slippers worth $1.3 million would be saved for another occasion.

“I feel comatose, wondering ‘What should I do?’ This is my livelihood,” said Blanchett’s stylist Jessica Paster. “People are going to be more somber. For Nia Vardalos we may go black, and I haven’t yet spoken to Marcia Gay Harden. But I’m not in the mood to go running around looking for the best gown and a shiney piece of jewelry. I wish every girl of mine who’s going would turn around and say, ‘I’m not going,’ but I already got one phone call from someone wanting something fabulous.” Paster said that for clients with whom she has a close relationship, she’s advising them to tone down. “Most women are down with that.”

But, for now, it appears most major attendees won’t change direction with their choice of dress for Oscar Sunday. “It’s a little late,” said Kate Young, stylist for nominee Salma Hayek and presenter Jennifer Connelly. “I’m sitting in a fitting with Jennifer right now. Plus I think it’s wasteful for people to trash dresses that cost a fortune to make in favor of a simpler dress that has to be made anyway. lf it seems inappropriate to wear a nice dress, it’s even more inappropriate to trash one.”

New York Times creative director Elizabeth Stewart, who was setting out to scope out showrooms on Wednesday, said, “Obviously, I want Calista Flockhart to be dressed appropriately, so I will absolutely be keeping my eyes open for two options. I have heard that Marc Jacobs is getting a lot of requests for their spring cocktail dresses. Personally, I think they should postpone the show. Just by changing a dress from short to long doesn’t change anything.”

As far as the patriotic sentiment extending to the provenance of the gowns, Stewart said, “I think fashion is such an international business….Things are bad enough, if we started boycotting French designs that would be worse. At least let’s do our part to keep our business together.”

Valentino’s Carlo Souza agreed. “It’s ridiculous if there’s a boycott. When I hear the comments on TV it really puts people in a panic. We Europeans have been living with terrorists and bomb attacks for a long time.” At the Italian designer’s Rodeo salon, business went as usual. No appointments were canceled. “There have not been any requests for demure dressing. Maybe, like during World War II, this might be the time we need a lift. It’s all so unpredictable right now,” added Souza.

As for the jewels to go with the gowns, Sunday night, as Oscar’s 75th anniversary, was going to be a big one for diamonds. The stone is still around, but in a smaller form.

“It seems everyone is scurrying to have a backup plan,” said Jay Carlisle for Martin Katz. “I hear that the major actresses are still going ahead with their plans. One major movie star was committed to a long diamond chain and major earrings of ours, but I don’t think that will happen now.”

DeBeers spokeswoman Joan Parker agreed. “I think people will now think twice about wearing big, big necklaces — but they don’t have time to change their dresses. But we have Iman coming and wearing jewelry to events.”

Others remain hopeful, however. “We brought out a showstopping 75th collection, as well as classic studs and diamond drops,” said Carol Brodie Gelles, global director of communications for Harry Winston. “Now I think we’ll see more understated elegance than over-the-top glamour. I absolutely believe there will be jewels on the red carpet. They’ll just be toned down.”

Interest in anything other than diamonds, in fact, was already rising mid-Wednesday. Despite light overall traffic at Le Meridian Hotel, the new OscarMart this year, Australia’s Artore was seeing great interest in its South Sea pearls. “I thought because of the anniversary that it would be a huge challenge for us to get people to consider,” said spokeswoman Christine Bookallil, “but we had a big surprise this morning when all these stylists started coming in asking for pearls.”

Those still in attendance will be entering the Fort Knox of security, according to officials who are pulling out all stops with the increase of threats. “Last year, security was unprecedented and this year, we’ll surpass that,” said Lt. Horace Frank, LAPD’s head of media relations.

Among the security firsts this year are sealing manhole covers around the venue, stationing closed-circuit cameras around the facility and on nearby high-rise buildings, and taking random airborne samples, in case anything unusual is released into the air. In addition, onlookers at the event will have to pass through metal detectors at two as-yet-unselected locations.

Also on board is the 9th Civil Support Team from the National Guard, based in Los Alamitos. Members of the unit have training in chemical, biological and radiological attacks.

Precautions have continued to build up leading to the big day. Hollywood Boulevard between Orange Drive and Highland Avenue has been closed to all traffic except city buses since Monday night. Officials are tightening up security along the Awards Walk path of the outdoor mall, leading up to the Kodak Theatre and home to about 20 stores. Officers from the FBI and LAPD will do a sweep of those stores for security clearances Friday evening and close them off to retailers and shoppers Saturday and Sunday. The entire complex will be closed Sunday.

“We’re taking our lead from the Academy,” said LeeAnne Stables, the center’s chief marketing officer, noting the center didn’t close the Awards Walk on Saturday last year.

ABC continues to insist that the ceremony will air in its time slot, but even if developments in Iraq force the network to air part of the ceremony on tape delay or should the Academy postpone them altogether, ABC’s advertisers are along for the ride. “We’re committed to being in the Oscars, and if they move to tape delay or move the time, we’ll move with them,” said a spokesman for General Motors’ Cadillac division. “That’s the agreement we have with ABC, and I believe all the other advertisers have the same agreement.”

Other companies that paid as much as $1.3 million for their 30-second spots and are sticking with them include: Mastercard, American Express, Washington Mutual and Anheuser-Busch.

But ABC postponed Barbara Walters’ annual interview special scheduled to feature Nicolas Cage, Renée Zellweger and Julianne Moore and writers for the Oscar show were said to be furiously rewriting Steve Martin’s script.

Fashion watcher-favorites Joan and Melissa Rivers will broadcast their scheduled two hour pre-show on E! “but we do not know where they will be broadcasting from,” said a spokesman. “It could be from the top of a hotel.” One thing that may be changing is Rivers’ planned show will be Joan’s wardrobe. “She had ordered something and I’m assuming she’ll change according to the Academy’s standards of what’s appropriate,” he said.

For the legion of photographers who count the Oscars among the most lucrative days of the year, the news is dire. Mario Anzuoni, a photographer for The New York Post, said that established photographers stand to lose anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 by not shooting Oscar arrivals. Tech staff earn daily rates from $500 to $2,000 and film messengers about $200 for Oscar night. Freelance photographers, who use their Oscar access to get jobs from other publications, come away empty-handed since they don’t get paid unless they sell images.

The flock of celebrity and pop culture weeklies are all still moving forward with plans for Oscar covers, but contingency plans have quietly been assembled in case the nation is at war when they close their issues next week.

“We were always planning around the possibility of war,” said People managing editor Martha Nelson. “When we heard the news that the red carpet was going to be cut and that war seemed imminent, we came up with five different contingency plans that range from the Ocars going on Sunday to them being postponed. But if they’re postponed, the news event [i.e. the war or a possible terrorist attack] will become the cover. This is a news organization and we know how to respond.”

Should the show go on, Nelson said, there could be “some opportunity to photograph people,” though it will not be the same as having unfettered access. “I expect the academy will be servicing us in some limited way. People will get something they can use, though it probably won’t be a lot of exclusive coverage. This may be a night where very little is exclusive. It’s an important night for us, but world events are unfolding that are of greater significance. We have to keep this in perspective.”

Bonnie Fuller of US Weekly said that should the ceremony be postponed, she will run a celebrity profile as the cover story instead. Fashion coverage, she said, is already being given less page space because of the red-carpet situation. “Obviously fashion coverage has been a dominant part of Oscar coverage over the last 10 years,” Fuller said. “But these are not ordinary times, and they understandably call for different measures.”

In Touch Weekly executive editor Stephen LeGrice said his magazine was prepared for a postponement, should one happen, but otherwise would cover the Oscars without mention of the war and its chilling effect on the festivities. “I think we’re going to be more interested in what there is than what there isn’t,” he said. “People are still going to want to know what went down.”

As for those all-important after-Oscars events, those were being rejigged as well. Any hopes that Vanity Fair’s Oscar party could provide the jolt of glamour likely to be missing before the ceremony have been dashed by the magazine’s decision to freeze out the press. “We’re following the lead of the Academy, which means we will have no red carpet, no broadcast and no photographers,” said a magazine spokeswoman. “We will have our own photographers inside, but we will not service anyone. It’s going to be a more muted affair, more low-key, and we’re not doing any press.”

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