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Does Oscars Fashion Still Matter?

As the cultural power of Hollywood continues to decline, red-carpet dressing isn’t what it used to be, writes Amy Odell.
Gemma Chan at the 2019 Oscars | Source: Getty
By
  • Amy Odell
BoF PROFESSIONAL

LOS ANGELES, United States— Christian Siriano has dressed dozens of women for award show red carpets over the course of his label's 10 years in business. And, although he gushes about these opportunities, he acknowledges that they're just one of many important PR vehicles for his brand. "It's actually the relationships that have more meaning" than the events themselves, said Siriano. "Whether that's the relationship with the stylist or the relationship with the actual actress or a musician, even if we get no coverage from something, we know that there will be something later on."

Take his relationship with the rapper Cardi B. The designer took a chance on sending her looks before she became famous, and she stuck with him during her rise, wearing the label in music videos, at award shows and to perform visibly pregnant on Saturday Night Live. Earlier this year, Siriano noticed the impact of a simple Instagram of Cardi B wearing a light purple patent leather look from his pre-fall collection that he had originally sent over for a magazine shoot. "We got so much attention from it — more than we would've gotten if it was just in a magazine," he said.

The Oscars and other movie award shows used to be the place where a year's most impactful celebrity fashion statements were made and monetised. I'll never forget Gwyneth Paltrow's pale pink Ralph Lauren ballgown at the 1999 Academy Awards, or the debate Joan Rivers had on Fashion Police about Nicole Kidman's chartreuse Christian Dior gown by John Galliano in 1997. Back then, it was normal for fashion fans to sit down in front of a TV and watch the red carpet pre-show and the ceremony itself, and then tune in again a day later for a fashion recap. That was before the fragmentation of media, the rise of Instagram and the decline of Hollywood.

Can a celebrity simply post that photo on social media and reach 129 million people in the click of a button?

“I would say it's less important than it ever has been before,” said Simon Huck, principal of Command Entertainment Group, which matches brands with celebrity and influencer endorsers, of award show publicity. “Do we need to have the celebrity on a red carpet? Or can a celebrity simply post that photo on social media and reach 129 million people in the click of a button?”

According to a recent Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll, 44 percent of Americans never watch award show red carpet coverage. Only 6 percent of the 2,203 respondents said they watch for the fashion. Ratings of the Oscars themselves are also in steep decline. In the late 1990s, over 40 million people would consistently tune into the annual Academy Awards telecast. Last year, only 26.5 million viewers watched the ceremony, its smallest audience in five decades. (For comparison, television viewership of the Superbowl has also dipped in recent years, as more and more people turn to digital streaming services, but the game's television audience remains way ahead of late-1990s figures, with 98.2 million viewers in 2019, up from 83.7 million in 1999).

But despite the decline of the Oscars, fashion and media brands accord outsize importance to award shows. Women’s lifestyle websites rush to publish near-identical slideshows of dresses and beauty looks as celebrities step onto the carpet, hoping their round-ups will rank higher in Google search results or on Facebook feeds than their competitors. Many brands specifically allocate budget to advertise against these slideshows. According to data from Chartbeat, a digital content analytics company, page views spike the night of and day after the award show, with social media being a bigger driver than search, suggesting that audience for this kind of content will continue to diminish as Facebook becomes a less reliable generator of traffic for media outlets.

People who are interested in the clothes are often better off going straight to Instagram, where a handy algorithm pushes the photos of celebrities and their fashion statements most likely to be of interest to users straight to the top. Of course, they’ll also see content about celebrities with huge social followings which have nothing to do with that night’s award show.

The labels that will be most successful on the red carpet will mostly likely adopt, not run from, social statements.

"There are a handful of the unicorn celebrities that it doesn't matter whether it's on Instagram, whether they're grabbing a coffee, whatever they wear, it's closely followed," explained Huck, noting that this same set of people (think: the Kardashian-Jenners, Hailey Baldwin, Selena Gomez, etc.) also tend to drive the highest conversions for brands.

Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer at data analytics firm Launchmetrics, says that a brand mention at an award show red carpet is three to five times as valuable as your average brand tag in a standard-issue celebrity post. And, although certain celebrities receive enormous media attention for everything they do, fashion isn't always a part of those moments, which is why red carpets are still so significant for fashion labels. "Unless it's something extraordinary like Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber just broke up, and she gets seen and that bag gets tagged but how often is that bag going to get tagged in that kind of moment?" said Bringé.

Then again, there’s the question of how brands continue to fit into the red-carpet media scrum when actresses are increasingly using award shows for statements on social justice, not fashion. Though the #MeToo #TimesUp black dress movement was short lived, the labels that will be most successful on the red carpet will mostly likely adopt, not run from, social statements.

“I think we get a lot of requests and we do dress a lot of women because we work really hard to make things for all different types of people,” said Siriano, whose consistently casts a diverse range of models for his runway shows. “These amazing women who have to dress up and get the glam and go on the red carpet, they're like, ‘I don't want to just wear a dress anymore; maybe we should wear something that shows the designer or the brand or my stylist supports something.’”

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