Despite the American viewing public likely regarding Sunday’s Academy Awards with a “collective shrug,” the fashion industry is giving the show a bear hug.
For years, awards season has been an opportunity for fashion and beauty brands to build equity and awareness, quite literally on the backs of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities. Luxury brand ambassadors contractually appear in couture on the red carpet while websites chronicle the evening’s fashion in slideshows and talking heads debate the best and worst dressed.
Recently, though, an increasingly smaller audience has been tuning in — a pre-pandemic trend fueled by controversies around diversity, a reluctance to embrace popular films and the show’s always-lengthy format. But still, fashion’s enthusiasm around the Academy Awards has not waned.
“This award season almost feels like it is more significant as there have been so few in-person fashion moments due to the pandemic,” said CAA commercial endorsements agent Donovan Tatum. “Brands are really hoping to capitalise now more than ever.”
Red carpet staple luxury brands still regard Hollywood awards shows as a chance to bolster their brand’s halo. The marketing opportunity isn’t about driving immediate sales — given that much of the fashion is either couture, archival or simply too expensive for the millions of people watching. But repeatedly seeing celebrities wear custom Dior suits or Chanel gowns drives purchases of accessories and licensed products, a boon for brands given their high margins.
Of course, this year poses unique challenges. Producers, intent on making the Oscars as engaging as possible, are banning Zoom (unlike every other major award show so far in the pandemic) with attendees, presenters and winners expected to appear in live broadcasts from satellite hubs around the world.
On the fashion front, the event will be maskless, and although there will be no traditional red carpet full of paparazzi, there is a dress code. The show’s producers defined it to the Los Angeles Times as a “fusion of inspirational and aspirational, which in actual words means formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not.”
Despite this year’s differences, brands have doubled down on ensuring their presence at the event, and are even embracing them as a chance to bring the pre-show moments into the spotlight.
Fashion and jewellery brands are still working with celebrity stylists to dress attendees and with agents to broker endorsement deals, those at the centre of the dealmaking said. Brands are also inking agreements with the stylists and makeup artists, many of whom have social media followings in the millions themselves, to boost online impressions.
“Many people don’t actually tune in for the actual awards, they’re watching for red carpet and these amazing spontaneous moments between celebrities or wardrobe malfunctions or weird red carpet run-ins between exes,” said Elana Fishman, editor of the New York Post’s Page Six Style. “The pandemic took basically all of that away, which definitely accelerated that kind of decline but … Instagram has become a stand-in for the red carpet.”
Indeed, in a year without the normal fashion fanfare around red carpet arrivals, social media offers an opportunity to preserve the night’s marketing opportunity. But to do so without a mass gathering place, brands must put forth more of the effort themselves. For example, to ensure the high-quality images that normally circulate on photo services, brands have hired fashion photographers to shoot the get-ready, at-home moments as well as the looks themselves, Tatum said.
Even amid dwindling viewership, brands still invest because these shows still continue to be an effective tool. Even brands that are less deliberate in their awards show approach can reap the benefits. When stylist Shiona Turini dressed Daniel Kaluuya in Fear of God for the Critics Choice Awards, for example, the brand’s founder Jerry Lorenzo said it was an organic, surprise moment. But it helped elevate how consumers might think about the streetwear brand, which is “just getting [its] feet wet” in tailoring, Lorenzo said.
Award shows like the Oscars are also an opportunity for independent designers to shine, especially in a year where stylists and celebrities have been more intentional about the brands they highlight. Viola Davis, who is nominated this year and is styled by Elizabeth Stewart, wore Louis Vuitton to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, but opted for Greta Constantine and La Vie by CK for the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes, respectively.
“She’s really branched out,” said Fishman. “We’ve seen her in ... all of these lesser-known brands by designers of colour that may not have gotten that same placement otherwise.”
As much as celebrities and their stylists are interested in highlighting a new generation of red carpet designers, brands, too, see the opportunity in working with new talent. Dressing actors whose stars are rising, like best picture nominee “Minari” leads Steve Yeun or Yuh-Jung Youn, offer brands an opportunity to reach new audiences while piggybacking off the values that talent themselves might signal.
“We’re seeing a lot of brands that hop on these up-and-coming talents and really get behind them,” said CAA fashion agent Josh Otten. “They believe in what they stand for not just as actors and actresses but in what is their bigger, cultural impact.”