HOLLYWOOD, United States — Each year, between November and February, luxury fashion houses look to Los Angeles, where a circuit of gala awards shows provides a powerful platform for red carpet marketing, turning attending actresses into walking (and talking) brand advertisements. But no other moment is quite as powerful as the red carpet arrivals at the Academy Awards, Hollywood’s premier awards show.
Commonly known as the Oscars, the event reaches a global audience of “several hundred million in 225 countries,” according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Last year, an estimated 37.3 million Americans watched the Oscars on live television. The show also earns extensive ink in daily, weekly and monthly print publications and is widely discussed online. Facebook reported that, in 2015, 21 million people posted, liked or commented on the Oscars approximately 58 million times. According to Nielsen, Oscars-related activity on Twitter generated 800 million media impressions on the evening of the event.
To be sure, it’s hard to directly link Oscar night red carpet appearances to sales. But these appearances clearly generate significant media impressions (read: brand awareness) for the fashion labels worn by attendees. In 2015, American television network ABC's red carpet special attracted 24.3 million viewers during the 8.00pm to 8.30pm EST time slot alone. And given that it reportedly cost as much as $2.2 million for a 30-second television commercial during this year’s Academy Awards show, red carpet dressing — which typically costs far less for many more media impressions — would seem to offer fashion brands a compelling return on investment.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Oscars, celebrity stylist Leslie Fremar, who is based in New York and cut her teeth working under Anna Wintour and Tonne Goodman at American Vogue before building one of the top client lists in the business, was tasked with dressing three presenters: Julianne Moore, who, last year, won Best Actress; Reese Witherspoon, who was nominated in the same category; and Charlize Theron, who stars in Best Picture contender Mad Max: Fury Road.
During this period, Fremar tapped two assistants to help with the process of fittings and getting dressed. On the day of the show, one of the assistants attended to Moore, while the other remained with Witherspoon. Fremar herself visited both Moore and Witherspoon while they were in hair and make-up. But when she was comfortable that they were ready, she moved on to Theron and stayed with her until show time.
In the weeks leading up to the awards, Fremar flew back and forth to Los Angeles several times for meetings and fittings. The process of selecting a gown can begin as soon as early January, if the client’s attendance is already confirmed. This year, this was the case with Moore, as it’s customary for Oscar winners to attend the following year’s ceremony. Witherspoon and Theron were added to the list of presenters a few weeks later. “You can’t really start until you get the call,” said Fremar.
The stylist has spent countless hours forging crucial relationships with top fashion designers and brings a strong point of view to the initial conversation with her clients. “The first thing I do is collect my thoughts,” she said over breakfast at Locanda Verde, in New York’s Tribeca, a little more than a week before the ceremony. (Fremar was only visiting New York for a few days. For most of the last month, she has been working out of a hotel in Los Angeles). After she agrees on a direction with her client, she contacts designers as soon as possible. “The business is changing because designers and celebrities are requiring exclusives,” said Fremar. “You don’t want to have this grand idea and have them say that they’ve committed to somebody else. That eliminates a lot of your options if you’re coming into the game late.”
In Fremar’s opinion, exclusives — which help actresses differentiate their personal brands and also prevent the press from comparing and contrasting two versions of one designer’s work — can create a bottleneck. “Hopefully, it will loosen up,” she continued. “As long as the house knows that they have two people going, you’d think that they’d be able to make two dresses that are different enough. But people are insisting on it. It makes the game harder.” For the Academy Awards, however, Fremar makes every effort to ensure her clients are wearing custom pieces. “I always choose to go that route, because it’s a more controlled situation. It’s more seamless,” she said.
While Fremar’s clients expect a fashion-forward proposition from the stylist, there are also a number of practical considerations at hand. For instance, Moore wore Chanel to accept her Academy Award for Best Actress in 2015. (The actress has no financial relationship with the house.) “We felt that it would be nice to be loyal,” Fremar revealed. “It’s nice to choose a brand that will support you, that has nothing to do with any monetary exchange.” To help Fremar and Moore choose the right gown, employees of Chanel hand-carried multiple looks from Karl Lagerfeld’s Spring 2016 couture collection to New York for Moore to try on. They settled on a black lace corset dress with a structured top and embroidered straps, inspired by a similar look from the collection. While the piece was multicolour when it was presented at Chanel's couture show, Lagerfeld created a black version specially for the actress, encrusting a layer of lace and organdy with 1,500 Swarovski diamond silver-shade stones cut into geometric shapes. After the stones were embroidered onto the dress, they were completely covered with frayed-edge black silk tulle.
Lagerfeld, who has built a congenial friendship with Moore over the years, altered the original design for the actress, taking the requests of her and her stylist into consideration. (For instance, along with changing the colour, he lengthened the gown so that it would hit the floor.) “Chanel doesn’t usually custom make clothing, so it feels really special and it is a statement that there is a relationship there,” said Fremar. “They have a mutual admiration. It’s a nice collaboration.” The dress was fit on Moore’s body a total of four times and required 500 hours of work and 22 people to complete.
From the beginning, Theron’s choice of outfit was more prescribed, due to her contract with Christian Dior. As the face of the company’s J’Adore fragrance since 2004 and a beauty ambassador for the brand, she almost exclusively wears the label on the red carpet. So Fremar reached out to the Dior haute couture studio as soon as she found out the actress would be attending the Oscars. The stylist suggested colours, shapes and techniques that might work. “In this situation, they came back to us with some ideas and we had questions. We had doubts. We sent them back and made modifications,” Fremar explained. “We did that about three times and then we settled on our final choice. Once that is done, we had her measurements taken and the muslin made.”
The dress was then flown to Los Angeles and fit on Theron almost three weeks before the show. “It really needed work,” said Fremar. “Some of the proportions were off, so there were going to be new panels cut. We’re not going to change the aesthetic of the dress, but there were some fit issues that we’re going to go back and modify,” she continued. “Usually with couture, it’s very helpful to have the person that made the dress do the alterations on the dress,” she added. “If the house is willing to do that it’s always beneficial.” The dress was flown back to Paris, where it was reconfigured in the atelier, then flown back to Los Angeles for a fitting the Wednesday before the show. “Hopefully we’ll be closer. If we feel good on Wednesday, we’ll just fit one final time on Saturday. But I have a feeling we’ll end up fitting Friday as well,” said Fremar. The end result was a red silk crepe backless gown.
The only real wild card was Witherspoon, who wore Tom Ford in 2015 and tends to favor clean-lined styles from top brands like Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Stella McCartney. This year, Fremar and Witherspoon decided to show their support for Oscar de la Renta creative director Peter Copping, offering him what will arguably be the brand’s most significant red carpet placement since his arrival at the New York-based house in 2014, rivalled only by Sienna Miller’s appearance in the brand at last year’s Academy Awards. (As with Moore and Chanel, there is no financial contract between Witherspoon and Oscar de la Renta.) “Reese is very feminine and likes very beautiful, well-constructed things,” said Fremar. “Peter is really clear in his vision. He’s kept the integrity of Oscar de la Renta, but there’s just a little bit of a modern twist, which I appreciate and feel like he is going to bring to her dress. It’s always nice to support an American house. There are definitely benefits to that,” not least, proximity, responsiveness and speed. “To work with an American designer is much easier in terms of timing,” she continued. “The Europeans don’t have the same sense of urgency.”
Fremar took an initial meeting in New York with Copping, who, at the time, was working on his autumn collection and was able to show her different silhouettes on a fit model. He sketched out a style designed specifically for Witherspoon, who then visited the Oscar de la Renta studios in New York for her first fitting. Fremar fitted Witherspoon a second time in Los Angeles. “There were some things that I wanted to change so I came back and met with Peter again yesterday,” she said. “They had their whole team in the meeting redraping the dress on the form. They’re actually going to remake her dress.” Fremar and the team at Oscar de la Renta flew the dress back to Los Angeles for three more fittings before the show. The result was a corseted, strapless dress made of lightly ribbed purple silk with black underpinnings and topstitching.
One of Fremar’s greatest challenges is making her clients happy without compromising the integrity of the designers with whom she works. “You want the best presentation of their design and brand as possible, but you need to manage the process, so that it goes off without a hitch,” she said. “There is a level of respect for the designer. But, ultimately, they know that if it’s not working you can always walk away.”
What Fremar makes clear is that big-name designers still tend to attract the most actresses for major red carpet events, whether or not there is a paid exchange. While Fremar has commissioned Met Gala and Oscars dresses from the likes of Jason Wu and Proenza Schouler, she almost always prefers to take risks with emerging labels for daytime press and more niche events and work with a major house for high-pressure moments. The biggest reason is not brand recognition, but tailoring. “There’s not much room for error,” she said. “It’s hard for a young designer to compete with a house like Versace that shows up with their tailors and is ready if anything goes wrong. They’re hiring freelance tailors that don’t necessarily know their work. The stakes are so high that it does play a part in the choice. You want that support. You want to know if there are major alterations that need to go down in the last minute that they are ready to go.”
“To be honest, it’s very hard to come up with something extremely original at this point. We’ve basically seen everything,” said Fremar. “If you go too far out of the box, then you get criticized for that. You’re working within parameters. You want to push the limits a little bit and you want to look different but you also don’t want to be in this frenzy of criticism. I try to eliminate that for my clients.”
Which makes sense, given that a relationship between a stylist and an actress can be quite personal and last for years — sometimes even decades. “You become very close with your clients. It’s very intimate,” she continued. “You care about them. To wake up the next morning and have all these portals critiquing your appearance, for any woman that’s really hard to digest. I try to subtly push the envelope and keep that in check.”