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LOS ANGELES — With the countdown to Sunday’s 78th annual Academy Awards almost complete, a consensus has emerged in the precariously high-stakes business of dressing for Oscar — the game has changed.

That is the mantra from designer liaisons, beauty executives, jewelry house publicists, stylists and others who have converged here with the goal of placing their product on a top celebrity.

“What you knew to do no longer applies,” said Susan Ashbrook, founder of Film Fashion, a pioneer in bringing designers to the red carpet, who represents Lanvin, Escada, Monique Lhuillier and Chopard, among many other award-show fixtures. “There are new rules, new twists, nuances. This is probably the hardest Oscar ever.”

Few would challenge that sentiment.

“This is the first year where the commercialism is out and out like never before,” said Jim Haag, a veteran of the red carpet, first for almost nine years with Harry Winston and more recently as managing director of Jacob & Co. For the second year, the New York jeweler has millions of dollars of bling on display at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. “There’s no one person I spoke to this year that isn’t totally exasperated with the deals being made to dress people. [Some celebrities] are already off the market because they made their agreements even before this week.”

Such commitments are a significant hurdle for companies. Most spend an average of $30,000 to $250,000 for the week for three-member teams. That pays for hotel rooms, entertainment, taking care of those who can help influence the choice of the brand and, in the case of the several million dollars worth of precious jewelry on view in a hotel suite, security and insurance.

Just who has slipped into bed with what brand remains to be seen. No one dares to talk. So, for many, “it’s become about the paycheck,” said one publicist.

“Today it’s a grab-all-you-can mentality,” griped another publicist.

But the disclosure during last year’s awards season that Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron and other stars draped in Chopard had received compensation from the jewelry house created a palpable longing here this week for simpler times.

This story first appeared in the March 3, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Lending $500,000 worth of diamonds or a $5,000 frock is no longer enough. Stars want to keep the necklace, or at least receive a pair of earrings for their trouble. Snagging the shoes, the bag — those are a given.

Of Chopard or any other of her clients potentially involved this time in any deal, Ashbrook would only say: “Each opportunity needs to be assessed and those decisions determined with individual clients.”

Something off the rack won’t do, either. Nominees demand couture. Fashion houses are only too happy to deliver. This has been a big year for designers to provide sketches to celebrities, whether they ultimately commit to the dress or the house.

Unless a contract or agreement is in place — as in the case of Theron with Dior (whose contract is said to be almost up), or Renée Zellweger with Carolina Herrera (although both contend there is no deal between them and they are just good friends) — it’s likely that a star and her stylist have more than one custom gown being made. The individual houses may not be the wiser until show time.

As one stylist put it: “There’s no guarantee any dress will be right until that morning.”

But it’s a gamble worth taking.

For Jimmy Choo founding president Tamara Mellon, the customizing efforts are worth it since the footwear brand continues to own the red carpet. Some 450 pairs of a handful of styles are brought to the Peninsula Hotel, of which 20 to 30 pairs finally are prepared for their bold-face fans.

Heels are cut, vamps dyed and embellished, all by exclusive contract with the city’s foremost cobbler, Jack of Progressive Shoe Repair. Although such a highly customized service doesn’t even exist through Choo’s boutiques, including the one nearby, the customization could reach $2,000.

“A lot of people are already done,” Mellon said Tuesday, referring to several who had completed their requests prior to her arrival.

“There is enormous investment, but we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t see a tremendous upside,” said Ellen Maguire, Revlon’s vice president of public relations. The benefits far outweigh the investment, she said. “In terms of our p.r. value, it’s over $2 million dollars,” Maguire said, citing a figure calculated by New York-based company Right Angle Research, which places a dollar amount on editorial hits as a way of comparing them with advertising costs.

Valentino hit the jackpot to the tune of $25 million worth of media exposure when Julia Roberts collected her best actress Oscar in 2001 for “Erin Brockovich” dressed in a black column from the Italian house’s archives. “The global press — the cover of People, incredible articles on front pages, TV shows — that publicity later generates sales in perfume, watches, sunglasses,” said Carlos Souza, VIP liaison with Valentino. “One billion viewers around the world watch the Oscars. Valentino sells around the world. It’s all about branding.”

That goes beyond a lipstick, too. The bigger picture can include retail as in the case of Graff, which intends on opening a door at 317 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at yearend. “That’s why we’re here,” Henri Barguirdjian, president and chief executive officer, said during a Tuesday night dinner at Mr. Chow’s during which he sold several pieces of jewelry to invited socialite pals. “I think we’re going to have great publicity and get the ball rolling.”

While that goal is still about two years out for J.Mendel, it is top of mind now for the designer. “Oscar dressing is not the only thing we focus on,” said Gilles Mendel.

For others, Oscar opens doors to a year-round relationship with Hollywood. Swarovski has revved up its relationship with the Costume Designers Guild and not only by underwriting its annual awards gala, which took place on Saturday (Lacoste and Bulgari are secondary sponsors). The two days following the event, Nadja Swarovski held a seminar and workshop for costumers at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills.

Another unlikely player in the Hollywood fashion game is General Motors. The automaker’s annual event, at which it convinces 10 top celebs dressed in 10 featured designers to walk a specially made runway with cars following, is now viewed as a kickoff to Oscar week.

“Our strategy was to associate GM cars with celebrity, fashion and our company’s passion for design. This event has really worked for us,” said Mike Jackson, vice president of marketing and advertising of GM North America, noting the show, now in its fifth year, attracts 180 worldwide media outlets.

Recently, GM also invested heavily in remodeling the penthouse at the Regent Beverly Wilshire to be used solely for parties. So far this year, Madonna and Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have held parties there.

More traditional red-carpet fixtures, such as Harry Winston, have found other means to connect directly with a star.

This Oscars, Winston began an initiative with Dream–works SKG Studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg to benefit the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which assists industry colleagues down on their luck. In exchange for a best actress or best supporting actress wearing Harry Winston to the awards show, the jeweler will donate $25,000 in her name to the fund.

“This was as much a response to the madness going on — the crass commercialism of paying a star to wear something — as a strategic business decision,” said Winston creative director Susy Korb, who arrived here Wednesday.

Does it loan? Harry Winston, like other jewelers, said it considers each case individually — and only if it’s a loyal client. “Wearing something is the best way to tempt someone into buying,” Korb said, noting the late Bruce Paltrow bought the necklace his daughter, Gwyneth, wore when she won her best actress Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Still, others are cynical of the donations given on behalf of celebrities. “You can dress it up all you want,” said one jewelry house representative. “But money is still being exchanged.”

Six years into the circus of the red-carpet fashion phenom — when there was a palpable shift from Giorgio Armani simply dressing celebrities as he had for years to a legion of brands invading town and setting up shop — the landscape may look somewhat the same to outsiders.

There are still hotel suites filled with branded goods and services for the taking. Combined with the many beauty suites happening in hometown salons or hotel rooms, there are about 20 taking place this week, from the prosaic (the free-for-all Beauty Buffet at a private home) to the posh (the Diamond Information Center’s Aquifer at Soho House).

One step toward that is hiring a locally based publicist, possibly someone in-house, to maintain relationships throughout the year. Many companies, including Oscar de la Renta, are considering this.

Estée Lauder recently named Melissa McCarthy its West Coast vice president of p.r. She doesn’t even have business cards yet.

For the last five Oscars, Lauder has offered its Ultimate Luxury spa to 20 nominees. It relocated from the Four Seasons to the GM Penthouse at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.

Although the cosmetics giant extends its services to celebrity clients’ homes — by way of a Bentley, stocked with Frette linens and Lauder products, including a $900 jar of Re-Nutriv cream — the suite remains key. “This is more of a showcase for press,” McCarthy said. “It’s to put our best faces forward in the media. Some press flew in just to interview [makeup artist] Paul Starr or Carolyn Murphy.”

Ditto Revlon’s Luxury Style Suite at L’Ermitage. None of the Graff jewels or J.Mendel gowns on display will touch the actual celebrities going to the Oscars.

“Those are strictly for display, to give the press a taste of what we are about,” said Mendel, an Oscar Week first-timer.

But Mendel also has dresses for his celeb fans.

“It’s so cutthroat, this A-list, B-list thing,” he said. “I have learned so much about who I should be dressing this year. I’ve said no to so many people, whereas last year I probably would have dressed several of them.”

J.Mendel, like Graff, is reclaiming its power as a luxury brand by swinging the pendulum back toward exclusivity. “I like the idea of not constantly being available. A few years ago the theory was that any press is good press, but that’s changed. I would rather do nothing than do something with the wrong person.”

Choo’s Mellon echoed this. When she and her once-fledgling brand first entered the Oscar-week games five years ago, Jimmy Choo gifted more than 60 pairs of shoes. Some say it was even more.

“We’ve downscaled to just nominees and presenters,” Mellon said. “We get so many requests, it’s very difficult to fulfill everybody. It’s enough to get the exposure we need. It’s enough.”

MAC refocused its efforts this year by forgoing its sponsorship of Soho House for two events at the party place. The cosmetics company hosted a dinner Tuesday night for best supporting actress nominee Amy Adams, and on Thursday, an afternoon tea.

“We are, indeed, in a different era,” observed Valentino’s Souza. Valentino is a staple of the red carpet, and its founding namesake a famously devoted fan of cinema. So it was almost with great irony that the designer’s presentation in Paris would occur Sunday. Because of this, Souza swooped in and out of town by Wednesday in order to get to Paris for the shows.

But Souza made sure his time here mattered. A third-floor apartment on Rodeo Drive, which long had been used as a stockroom by the house, was completely remodeled in chic shades of champagne and modern furnishings. Here and on the terrace, Souza “entertained” stylists and a few celebrities, who could peruse the racks of gowns more privately than in the Valentino boutique nearby.

Besides taking the VIP salon up a notch, Souza refocused the house’s strategy, too.

“The house wants to dress less people, be a little more exclusive,” said Souza, who left behind his assistant and a tailor to service needs throughout the weekend. “The weight of the Oscars is on a different level from other events.”

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