LOS ANGELES — Versace might not be the first designer that pops to mind when it comes to Reese Witherspoon. Particularly when it comes to award shows, the Italian house is typically the province of such vamps as J.Lo and Britney Spears.
But the actress — nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as a sorority queen who finds she has as much a penchant for law as fashion in the movie “Legally Blonde” — embraced it Sunday for exactly that reason.
Of course, the tea-length, spaghetti-strap number was more “Reese Versace, than J.Lo Versace,” said Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell, who has collaborated with Witherspoon on her Globe look for two years running. For the 2001 Globes, the duo chose a ladylike Chanel, with a single strand of pearls.
“Reese has always gone for more vintage-looking choices and cocktail styles. But she’s grown up now,” said de Rakoff Carbonell, her native British accent still strong after 11 years in the U.S. “The Versace was definitely a deliberate decision. We wanted something pretty — but something brave.”
If anyone understands what Reese wants, it’s de Rakoff Carbonell. The pair have only known each less than two years, but spent countless hours on the set as principal actor and costume designer of “Legally Blonde” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” the latter currently under production in Atlanta and New York.
Though her stint as personal stylist has been limited to Witherspoon and husband Ryan Phillippe (whom she suited up in Paul Smith for Sunday’s event), de Rakoff Carbonell’s career — first as music video stylist, then costume designer — has mostly involved projects with a heightened sense of contemporary fashion.
For “Legally Blonde,” the costume designer draped Witherspoon’s character in Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Jill Stuart, as well as her own designs and plenty of vintage. (The Costume Designers Guild announced Saturday that de Rakoff Carbonell was nominated for an award for her work on “Legally Blonde.”)
“I’m a huge vintage fan,” de Rakoff Carbonell said in a phone interview last week from the Atlanta set of “Sweet Home.” “I collect stuff from the Twenties and Sixties mostly.” She prefers the Melrose Avenue vintage boutique Decades over the favorite source of most stylists: eBay.
“She has this inherently very clever style,” said Decades owner Cameron Silver. “There’s nothing calculated about her look.”
While de Rakoff Carbonell had an entire cast to dress for “Legally Blonde,” she believes it was her understanding of Witherspoon’s character that lead to the job. “It’s designer, but really kitsch. I think that movie really opened the doors.”
The romantic comedy “Sweet Home Alabama” will likewise appeal to fashionistas. In it Witherspoon goes from white trash to social-climbing fashion designer in a role opposite Patrick Dempsey and Candice Bergen. The runway footage and clothes designed by her character actually belong to Marc Jacobs, who, incidentally, is a longtime personal favorite of the actress.
Prada, Carolina Herrera and vintage pieces also make appearances, but de Rakoff Carbonell noted it wasn’t all designer duds. The cast involved some 50 speaking parts and an additional 400-plus extras. “We shopped Kmart, Penney’s. We shopped according to the demographics of the characters. Obviously, we also made it a bit over the top.”
Neither film nor costume design had initially entered her mind as a career option. Even though she grew up in the film business, thanks to her father, assistant director Arkadi de Rakoff, and brother, writer-director Alex de Rakoff, she always dreamed of becoming a journalist.
She moved from England to New York at age 21, and eventually began writing for the downtown glossy Paper, while waitressing nights at then-club-of-the-moment Nell’s. When her boyfriend moved to Los Angeles to work on movies, she went with him and continued to write, supplementing her income by assisting stylists on music videos.
She set a goal to design her first feature film by age 30 and achieved that goal a year ahead of target, with a 1998 indie film which never saw the inside of a movie theater. Her latest projects include the upcoming “All About the Benjamins,” starring Ice Cube and directed by her boyfriend, Kevin Bray.
Would she consider devoting more time to outfitting celebrities off-camera?
“Not full-time, but they do go hand in hand,” she said. “Costume design is totally about the character and making it as good as you can within the story boundaries. For the Globes or other events, it’s really about making someone look great and making sure they’re comfortable.”