FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

When actress Gwyneth Paltrow takes that fabled stroll down the red carpet at the Academy Awards on March 21, all eyes and lenses will focus on her dazzling gown, her sparkling jewels, and even her high-heeled shoes.

Coifed and flawlessly made up, Paltrow, the favorite to win an Oscar for best actress in "Shakespeare in Love," will seem like an apparition of effortless beauty.

Don't believe it. Getting movie stars ready for Oscar night is sometimes a bigger production than the movies for which they've been nominated.

Whatever gown, diamond necklace, shoes and hairstyle Paltrow chooses and as of late last week she hadn't made up her mind will be the result of a marriage between Hollywood and the world of haute couture, often determined at the last minute despite months of preparation.

Rarely does the public get a glimpse at this behind-the-scenes mania, the fruits of which will be seen by millions of people around the world on Oscar night during the pre-award shows as well as the event itself.

For fashion designers, the stakes are enormous. Even now, they are working desperately to convince Paltrow and other nominees to choose their styles, knowing that exposure on the Academy Awards can define, market and sometimes reinvent a designer not to mention the star wearing his or her elegant clothes.

It's not just the actresses who are caught up in the frenzied competition by designers to get their work on the backs of stars. Even men at the Oscars are being wooed to wear sleek new styles at the gala, which will be seen by more people around the world than any fashion show in Milan, Paris or New York.

"The analogy to the Super Bowl is fitting," said Elliot Maltz, who specializes in retail marketing at USC. "There will be a lot of people watching, and you are exposing your brand."

While the efforts to recruit Academy Award nominees by fashion designers are at their height in the weeks before the Oscars, preparations actually started last summer.

Officials at Harry Winston Inc., which will supply millions of dollars in jewels to the stars, began eight months ago by screening most of the films that have Oscar potential. That allows them to narrow down the list of stars they'll be soliciting to wear their jewels.

Once nominations are announced, the competition to marry a star and a designer becomes, to use a word frequently mentioned in the fashion industry, "crazy." Within weeks, stars like Paltrow will be inundated with gifts and gowns. So much is offered to so few that many of the stars actually make their final decision just hours before their limo whisks them to the Oscars.

"It is top secret just what they will wear," said Catherine Olim, a spokeswoman for Versace. "A lot of them want to keep the element of surprise."

Paltrow is playing that game. No one at Miramax Films, which produced "Shakespeare in Love," claims to know what the star will wear. Neither does anyone at her publicist's office.

To entice a major star to wear a line of clothes, designers will often fly stars to their shows in Europe, with the first fitting in Milan or Paris. Critics have called such wooing "bribery," but defenders look at it as public relations.

It is not uncommon, Olim said, for a designer to woo an Oscar-bound star with flowers, champagne or beauty products. Donatella Versace sends personal letters during Oscar season.

Designers don't just woo the stars they also woo their stylists. Many celebrities have personal style advisors, who are paid by the day to carefully manage the entire visual package. They have become important power players in the Hollywood fashion scene, and thus are heavily courted by designers.

"What makes it really fun is to work with an actor or actress who has a style of their own and is secure about it," said Gemina Aboitiz, one of Hollywood's leading stylists, who works for Santa Monica-based Cloutier Agency. "It's also fun working with someone who doesn't. You create something, if they don't back down."

To gain an edge over the competition, many top designers maintain operatives in Los Angeles whose sole duty is to get stars to wear their designs throughout the year. Versace hired PMK, managed by well-known celebrity publicist Pat Kingsley, to push its designs in Hollywood. Armani has Wanda McDaniel, a former journalist, who is the Milan-based company's liaison with the stars and Hollywood executives.

What's at stake for the designers? There's little question that the Oscars can have as big an impact on their business as they do on the box-office results of the films that emerge as big winners.

Prada, the Italian house that was long a favorite of fashion writers and critics, got a boost from Uma Thurman's appearance at the Oscars three years ago. Suddenly, thanks to the sizzle around her, the public became aware of Prada.

The stars can also change their images based on their clothing selections. When Ashley Judd showed up in a slinky white gown designed by Richard Tyler last year, it was not just about getting her photo in magazines around the world it was a career move.

"It enhanced her sex appeal," said Aboitiz. "Agents, writers, producers and studio executives watch who is wearing what. That dress enhanced her sex appeal that was already there, but it brought it out. That's good for her career."

Two years ago, grunge rocker Courtney Love showed up in a white Versace gown that "revolutionized her look," said Aboitiz.

Even so, fashion-industry experts say there is no way to quantify the direct financial return from the Oscars for a designer or the industry itself.

"You get the publicity, but you don't know where the sales will be coming from," said Shirley Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. "But it is clear, these stars are walking billboards."

While the A-list may be inundated with offers, there are plenty of presenters and nominees who aren't considered quite as influential. For these people, there are other alternatives.

Fred Hayman, whose Rodeo Drive boutiques made him one of the arbiters of fashion in Beverly Hills, is now in his eleventh year as the fashion coordinator for the Academy Awards. Hayman said the Motion Picture Academy originally sought his expertise because a number of stars were dressing inappropriately.

This year, Hayman, who closed his boutique on Rodeo Drive, will use Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills as his headquarters for nominees and presenters. This group past winners, or nominees for less-glamorous awards like best sound editor can choose from a wide range of designers selected by Hayman, and fitted at Saks. Among the designers available are Dolce & Gabbana, Betsey Johnson, Bill Blass, Giorgio Armani, Ferragamo, Jessica McClintock, Zandra Rhodes, Christian Dior, Versace and Gianfranco Ferre.

For makeup and hair, the Academy selected another Beverly Hills fashion star, Frederic Fekkai. Many stars will, of course, use their own makeup and hair stylists, but Fekkai is available for everyone else.

"You can't do it all on the same day (the day of the Oscars)," Fekkai said. "It takes days of preparation."

That preparation includes massages, manicures pedicures, hair styling and makeup. "Hollywood sets the trends for the whole world," Fekkai said. "It is the guide. Everything must be right."

Once a designer is selected for the Oscars, the star is fitted. Armani ushers celebrities into its Beverly Hills store to be tailored. If an actress selects Richard Tyler, as Ashley Judd did last year, she will be fitted at Tyler's shop on Beverly Boulevard in the Fairfax District. Versace fits stars in Europe, New York and Los Angeles.

Dresses are not cheap, ranging from $5,000 to $40,000. A tuxedo ranges from $2,000 to $4,000. Of course, price is no object to the stars they're not paying for any of it.

Most actresses whose gowns are tailored to their exact measurements simply keep them, compliments of the designer. Others get them on loan and return them. "Nobody (presenters and past winners) pays for what they wear at the Oscars," Aboitiz said.

Winston's jewels are on loan and must be returned the following day. To prevent any misunderstandings, Winston insists that anyone who borrows his jewels sign an agreement that it's a loan, not a gift. While this had been an unwritten rule in the past, a flap surfaced in 1994 with actress Sharon Stone, who wanted to keep a $500,000 diamond necklace she wore to the Oscars.

Stone said it was a gift. Winston said it wasn't, and sued her for $12 million. The matter was resolved when the jeweler made a donation to a charity backed by Stone, and she returned the necklace.

Despite all the pressure on designers and stars, nothing is a guarantee in this frenzied environment. Actors and actresses are known for changing their minds on a dime.

When Stone was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1996 for her role in "Casino," she was all set to wear a gown by Vera Wang. But at the last minute, Aboitiz said, the actress turned to her own closet for her wardrobe. She selected a Ralph Lauren coat, an old skirt and a turtleneck from the Gap.

"It's a crap shoot," Aboitiz said. "Feelings get hurt. It's become so competitive over the last few years. I don't know where it will go."

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