By RUTH LA FERLA
“I love your dress tonight,” gushed Ashlan Gorse, a correspondent for E! Entertainment, thrusting a microphone toward Julianne Moore as the actress walked the red carpet to a Golden Globes after-party last year. “How many did you have to try on?”
“This is it,” Moore told her, swanning unabashedly in a theatrical black-and-white Tom Ford gown. “I emailed Tom and I asked him to make me a dress, and he said that he would.”
Now, that’s clout - the kind that simultaneously affirmed Moore as an actress of serious stature and anointed her as a red carpet diva, a fashion star to watch.
“When someone like Tom Ford does a custom dress for you, it’s like ‘Read between the lines,'” said Estee Stanley, a Hollywood stylist who has swathed clients like Jessica Biel and Lea Michele in satin and lace. “If you’re already getting some sort of acknowledgment for your acting, and you bump it up with a custom-made design, it’s a way of saying, ‘I’m at a place in my career where all designers want to dress me.’ It puts you in a different league.”
In retrospect, Moore’s couture-clad star turn seems to have been a fashion game changer. As little as a year ago, wearing a dress within weeks, or even days, of its debut on the runway was regarded by many as a badge of distinction, attesting to a celebrity’s status as a player on fashion’s rarefied stage.
Lately, however, the stakes have been raised. And when the Golden Globes unfurls its crimson runner on NBC on Sunday night, it’s safe to suppose that many more nominees and presenters will have taken their style cues from Moore, turning up on the carpet in a pedigreed frock uniquely tailored to their tastes and whims.
“Custom is a growing trend,” said Nicole Ferreira, a stylist whose clients include Octavia Spencer and Elizabeth Banks. Her sister and partner, Wendi Ferreira, added that while plenty of designers have been offering one-offs for years, a growing number have lately redoubled their efforts.
The movement, if indeed it can be called that, got a jump-start at the 2012 Oscars, when Gwyneth Paltrow wore a custom Tom Ford dress and Jessica Chastain sauntered onto the carpet in a one-off Alexander McQueen. It gained traction when Amy Adams appeared at the Globes last January in a made-to-order Marchesa gown and Naomi Watts wore custom Zac Posen to the same event.
The momentum continued at the Grammys in February, when Rihanna vamped in a custom-made scarlet Azzedine Alaïa gown and Florence Welch showed up in emerald-green Givenchy, and once more at the 2013 Oscars, when Anne Hathaway arrived at Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair party clutching her golden statuette and wearing a pale blue custom-tailored Saint Laurent sequined halter gown.
Even the Emmys, a once modest event mostly disdained by blue-chip designers, have emerged as a showcase for couture creations. Among them last year were: the cream and white satin gown Thakoon Panichgul ran up especially for Taylor Schilling of “Orange Is the New Black”; the cobalt dress made by Narciso Rodriguez for “30 Rock” star Tina Fey; and the blush-tone lace ball gown fashioned for January Jones of “Mad Men” by Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy.
“They made this for me, so I had to pick it,” Jones declared on the red carpet, barely masking her pride.
Such lofty designer-star alliances seem to be lending a handful of celebrities the courage to stray from the norm, flaunting more adventurous shapes and audacious prints and colors, their confidence stemming partly from a conviction that they have placed themselves in expert hands.
Some are doubtless reassured to know that they are bowing to a venerable tradition: In Hollywood’s fabled Golden Age, which lasted roughly through the 1950s, Gilbert Adrian, William Travilla and Edith Head were among the costumers sheathing the elite in original creations.
In the 1960s, partnerships like that between Hubert de Givenchy and the sylphlike Audrey Hepburn famously helped turn the couturier into a household brand and his muse into an idol.
Stylists, who as often as not are intimately involved in the design process, have been quick to invoke, and exploit, that tradition. Power players like Penny Lovell, who brokered the partnership between Schilling and Panichgul, are known to bring to the table colors, fabrics and visual inspirations. When mulling what Schilling might wear to the Emmys, Lovell turned to old Helmut Newton photographs, which she promptly showed Panichgul, who incorporated some of her suggestions into his design.
Prestige is certainly a motivating factor, but stylists and their clients go custom for practical reasons as well. A one-off can be a reliable option between fashion seasons, when the supply of never-before-worn runway gowns has dwindled to a handful. The Globes are scheduled several weeks in advance of the New York collections, and months after the European spring shows, “so there are only so many new gowns to go around,” Stanley said. “We’re all fighting over them right now.”
It is the celebrity who most visibly prospers when she elects to go with a one-of-a-kind evening dress. Her choice can reflect personal idiosyncrasies - and underscore previously unnoticed charms.
“It adds a dimension to how people perceive her,” said Reed Krakoff, who dressed Julianna Margulies in a custom-fitted evening column for the Emmy Awards. “It gives some depth and texture to her public image.”
Clearly, it raises her stature, if not always with the public, then certainly among her peers. Few actresses would admit it, but a one-off confers bragging rights, said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and host on “Fashion Police” on E!. “These people are only human, after all.”
Among professional style-watchers, “it definitely gives a celebrity more importance,” said Reem Acra, who has confected red carpet frocks for Angelina Jolie and Zooey Deschanel. That is because industry insiders, and even some casual viewers, are well aware that a custom piece requires an unusual output of labor and time - as much as 100 hours in Acra’s case. To say nothing of $100,000 or more, for special patterns, beading and embroideries, the cost of which Acra must absorb.
Acra’s cannier clients view such collaborations as potential image enhancers.
“As an actress choosing custom, you have a different kind of creative input,” said Erin Walsh, whose clients include Kerry Washington and Sarah Jessica Parker. “You have a sense that you are building something - building a brand,” she added pointedly, “and if you’re in that game you can use it to your advantage.”
That thought likely occurred to Washington, the Emmy-nominated lead of “Scandal.” As she told Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, in an interview in September: “There were a couple of actresses whom I felt were having the upper hand career-wise - because they know how to work that red carpet. I was like, ‘I’m missing a really important tool.’ So I sort of developed a new character: Red Carpet Kerry. And I researched her like any other character.’
Hardly strangers to image shaping, designers, too, can reap unexpected benefits, among them hundreds of thousands of dollars in exposure, the sort that can cement or gild a reputation and turn an unfamiliar name into a covetable brand.
“I would never have thought of Thakoon as an awards show designer,” Wendi Ferreira said. Whipping up Schilling’s dress for the Emmys, she added, “opened up a lot of doors for him - and a lot of eyes.”
Indeed as the awards season gathers steam, Panichgul finds himself in unaccustomed demand. He will make several gowns to order for the Golden Globes and other awards events, he said, though he preferred to keep mum about just who will wear them to what.
The results in future sales may not be quantifiable. But in terms of forging connections, the experience can be invaluable. “It’s the relationship-building with the stylists, the talent, the team, that counts,” Panichgul said. “That helps extend your brand in the right direction.”
What’s more, it gives designers a chance to expand their repertoire, showing off a virtuosity that’s not always apparent on a commercial runway. Krakoff felt free to depart from a convention that frowns on prints when he designed his dress for Margulies, embellishing her stark white gown with a long black vine. “The process forces you to stretch a bit,” he said, “to offer something that is not the typical bustier in a bright color.”
Panichgul similarly relished the chance to push boundaries.
“Watching the award show you see the same silhouette over and over,” he said. “There is such a constraint to that.”
Designers really want to move fashion forward,” he added - as do some stars. “They want so much more than a frothy dress.”
There are risks in such partnerships, most notably that the client, after myriad fittings and much deliberation, may, at the last moment, kick that dress to the curb. Insiders scowled, according to Us Weekly, when Washington had an eleventh-hour change of heart last year, ditching the custom Marchesa gown she was expected to wear to the Oscars and opting for Miu Miu instead.
That kind of behavior is judged, at the least, as a serious breach of etiquette. “There is an understanding that if you go ahead and sign off on a one-of-a-kind dress, you will wear it,” the stylist and designer Jeanne Yang said. “If someone has gone to that effort, it’s like saying, ‘I’m going to do a birthday party for you.’ You have to show up.”
Otherwise? The disappointment would be pretty sharp, Panichgul confided. “Of course,” he added, “there is always that risk - it’s part of the game.
“If you want to play, you go along.”