New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman kicked off a panel discussion at the Savannah College of Art and Design on Thursday about red carpet dressing by listing some sensational, but nonetheless true, facts. In 2006, actress Charlize Theron was paid $50,000 for wearing two pieces of Chopard to the BAFTAs, $200,000 for wearing Chopard to the Oscars and $50,000 worth of jewelry in gifts for wearing Cartier to the Golden Globes. Not bad work if you can get it.
The red carpet is a big business, where luxury brands are willing to spend a lot of money for the priceless visibility and press that comes from having a certain celebrity wear their gowns, jewelry and accessories. So how do smaller designers -- like Juan Carlos Obando, Irene Neuwirth and Brett Heyman of Edie Parker -- compete for coveted celebrity placement if they can't afford, or aren't willing, to pay a fee?
It still costs them, but in other ways. Heyman says she will produce bespoke bags for special events, with the hope that a celebrity will be excited to wear something custom-made, even though there's no guarantee she'll wear it. It costs the price of production — anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand — but she said that the biggest sacrifice is time.
Obando is a dress designer whose gowns often appear on the red carpet and at events. Each awards season, he produces many dresses for free in partnership with celebrities and their stylists. Even though the process takes months, there's no guarantee that they'll be worn. "Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t," he admitted. "And most of the time these dresses don’t come back." Obando said he typically dresses 20 to 30 people for the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party. About half of those people actually pay end up paying for the dresses.
Neuwirth's fine jewelry price point is so high that gifting is almost out of the question. "For me to give something away would cost me upwards of $10,000, so if we ever gift anything, it's a very personal thing," she said. "And in return we haven’t been able to dress certain people." But just because someone is willing to borrow something for free doesn't mean Neuwirth is interested in having them associated with her brand. "At the beginning someone would pull something and say, 'I’m pulling for Angelina Jolie but Lisa Rinna may end up wearing it.' I said, 'Absolutely not, we’ll just hold the pieces.'" She admitted she's also actively prevented Kim Kardashian from buying her jewelry. "I know the power of the celebrity and if it's going to be important, I’m going to be really picky about it." She knows her customers would be turned off by the association.
How exactly does the power of celebrity translate into sales? All three designers said the proof is in the numbers. When Kim Kardashian wore a dress by Obando, it sold out in every Barneys location. "With her you are connecting to the pop culture, it would be silly to think that they are not," he said. "Julia Roberts can sell one dress. Millions and millions are looking at Kim Kardashian." Obando has even started selling $400 blouses to tap into a bigger audience that cannot afford his dresses. Heyman says Edie Parker also benefits from Us Weekly-type press. When she first started the brand she thought a one-paragraph write-up in Vogue would jumpstart her business, but it wasn't until Kate Hudson wore one of her clutches to the Met Ball in 2011 that Bergdorf Goodman came calling.
Neuwirth has sold pieces worn by celebrities while they're still walking the red carpet in them. Amy Poehler's necklace at the 2015 Golden Globes sold before the show officially started, as did two emerald cuffs that Julianne Moore wore to the Met Gala in 2013. "They were $150,000 each," she said. "I had never made anything that expensive at the time."
All three designers agreed that the stylist is the most important decision-maker when it comes to red carpet dressing. Obando and Neuwirth are based in Los Angeles, which they credit as helping them maintain relationships with stylists and provide product at the last minute. Obando said that maintaining positive relationships with all of the stylists and their assistants is key. "Jennifer Lawrence — one season was with Rachel Zoe and then switched to Elizabeth Stewart. And then the following season she switched back," he said. "You have to be careful." But sometimes the stylist can be an impediment. Obando has a personal relationship with Jessica Chastain, who will call him for clothes, only to be blocked by her stylist. "We have to go around it," he said.
Friedman asked how far the designers are willing to go to cater to celebrity needs, in terms of compromising their vision. She used Kate Middleton in Alexander McQueen as an example of altered aesthetic. "Never in a million years, if it didn’t have the credit, would I know that it's McQueen because it doesn’t look like anything Sarah Burton shows on the runway," Friedman said. Obando appeared to be the panelist most willing to accommodate celebrity design requests. "When you have the opportunity to dress somebody and you are small company, you are going to do it," he said. "You have to protect your vision and the brand but at the end of the day we are a sales organization. If there are no sales, there’s no organization."
Heyman said she sometimes dislikes the words that people request for a bespoke clutch, especially when it's a curse word or the title of a movie. "I sometimes think that's a little cheap, but if someone wants to wear it we go with it." And it pays off: Bryan Cranston showed off one of her clutches featuring the "Breaking Bad" logo on stage at the SAG awards in 2014.
The designers agreed that the Oscars are losing their influence because its red carpet is so safe, expected and pre-bought. And with the prevalence of social media and constant appetite for celebrity style images, movie premieres and street style can be just as valuable, if not more. "It's great when we are able to dress somebody when something is out in stores," said Obando, who says it's much more likely to have that happen at a premiere where the element of surprise isn't crucial. "We don’t touch the Oscars, it's impossible in fine jewelry," said Neuwirth. "I feel very lucky when people are wearing my things because they are choosing to wear it."
The panelists agreed that the chaos of the red carpet — the mani cam, the shoe cam, the 360 degree angles — is reaching a saturation point of theatricality. "It's taken on such a crazy degree of people analyzing every little thing," said Neuwirth, recalling the scandal that resulted in 2013 when Anne Hathaway swapped her Valentino dress for a Prada one in the very last minute because she discovered that another actress was going to wear a very similar one. Valentino had already sent out a press release, Hathaway had to apologize publicly and "then she fired [stylist] Rachel Zoe," said Heyman. It is a case in point of how high the stakes are on the red carpet and how much brands and actors stand to lose and gain from one single well-documented appearance.
Do viewers care or realize that so much of what they see is a result of money changing hands? Neuwirth says it doesn't matter -- the result is unaffected. "Ryan Seacrest should say, 'Hey, how much did they pay you to wear this dress?'" said Friedman. If he ever does ask, we won't be surprised by the answer.