For fashion designers like me, the Academy Awards are big buzz. There is fierce competition to have one of your gowns worn to the Oscars.
The truth is that a majority of women invited to the show have stylists who tell them what to wear. Additionally, all the dresses are given to the women wearing them. These free gowns can arrive in multiples, with generous gift baskets. The final dress is often chosen from an overwhelming assortment at the last minute. Often, with grim results, there is no one from the manufacturer to help fit the dress.
Some designers object to giving rich people free stuff. But over the last few years, the competition to get an Oscar-goer to wear your dress has gotten so steep that even the wife-of or the mother-of now get free gowns, shoes and jewelry. There is no longer a market to sell Oscar gowns to anyone. All an actress has to say is, “I’ll be walking up the red carpet,” and someone throws a dress at her. Worse, there is no reassurance that the expensive dress a designer gives away gets worn at all, or returned. Where does this lead?
Every year I get to make at least one Oscar dress. I don’t do it for publicity; I do it because I enjoy seeing women in my clothes. The ultimate prestige is when a client passes up freebies from Prada and Armani and opts to pay for one of my gowns. But this is the first year I have lost the opportunity to make an Oscar gown for payment. My particular client went for another designer, who was handing one out free. I am not bitter. I just wanted to make a fancy dress for the ball, but the client took the ball and went home. I don’t blame her. If someone offered me a couple thousand dollars and a pretty dress, I might take it if I looked good.
This year, I had to come into the real world and lend a gown for the Oscars, gratis. I had to finish it anyway, and the lucky young woman looks great in it. I am thrilled—a light blue satin winding delicately around the torso like unopened rose petals. When I showed the dress to my 16-year-old neighbor, she said, “Swweeet,” as if it was made out of magic, different from all others.
In a way, I see some of this as a celebrity tax on the rest of us. A shopkeeper told me that a very rich actress came in and asked her to hand over a $500 bracelet with the promise that her friends will patronize her shop. Just yesterday, I hear about an actor who asked for a free gym membership, claiming that he would attract more patrons.
To my client’s credit, when I did the final fitting and handed the dress over, temporarily, to the elegant red carpetbagger, she said, “Wow, it’s just so amazing, I feel like I should be paying something.”
Looking back, the best Oscar gown ever for me was created by the celebrated artist and designer Gregory Poe, a direct descendent of Edgar Allen. Poe made a dress out of Japanese mood-ring jersey for Teri Garr in 1986. Her crotch, armpits and other warm bits turned orange, while the rest of the gown was blues and purples, according to how she felt where. Fans (the mechanical type) had to be blown at her to keep her body temperature consistent. Now I hear they Botox the armpits and take Xanax to keep the heart rate low so they don’t sweat. But, in the 1980s, people were people.
Gregory describes this event as “disastrous,” but the long eye of history sees poetry—a conceptual piece combining the essence of fashion, entertainment and comedy. I say it’s a brilliant dress.
I got to go to the Academy Awards when I was 17. I wore my grandmother’s 1938 gold silk robe that she bought in China, and Root shoes. My brother won for his documentary. Later, at his very own Oscar party, he proclaimed, a little sadly, “It’s all downhill from here.” He was 25.
Slaving at the sewing machine, wondering how far downhill things go, I just got a call. The free Oscar dress of my former client doesn’t fit. The designer who gave her the dress was present in the dressing rooms, but was so busy giving away dresses that she left this one baggy, saying, “You look just fantastic.” When this poor woman comes in to have me fix her dress, my advice will be: Who knows how many Oscar events you attend in a lifetime? If they remember your dress, they remember you. Best of all is when they remember you in that dress.