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On red carpet: a beautiful billboard
- Designers strike deals with stars to sport labels on Oscar walk

New York, Feb. 24: The Hollywood fashion machine is crossing into a new, more commercial era in celebrity dressing as designers and jewellers have begun contracting with actresses to wear their labels at high-profile events like the Oscars.

It's a turn in business as usual that could leave fans wondering if their favourite stars are becoming walking billboards for the highest bidder.

Fashion and jewellery houses have long offered gratis designer gowns and sparkling accessories to red carpet-bound celebrities, hoping to catch the right eye and have the creations seen globally on telecasts and in the thousands of magazine pages devoted to awards show coverage.

But with all the big-name designers wooing the same big-name actresses, it is a gamble as to what might end up being chosen.

Many of those companies are no longer willing to play the odds. 'It's the dawn of a new fashion deal in Hollywood,' said Wanda McDaniel, who has been Giorgio Armani's Hollywood liaison since 1989, when the designer became one of the first with permanent West Coast representation. 'When you are preparing your wish list [of celebrities] for the Oscar season, there is a new category and it's called 'off the market'.'

According to McDaniel and other publicists, some companies are offering either one-time payments or are signing celebrities to well-paid, exclusive product contracts. In addition, some actresses have begun demanding sole access to particular designers.

This latest artifice of rigged pop culture risks squeezing smaller designers out of the promotional game and could signal the end of seeing any real personal style in tinsel town, loading the red carpet instead with product placement dominated by a handful of mega-brands.

At the Golden Globes last month, Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank reportedly ditched their loaned Harry Winston jewels after being handed six-figure checks from rival Swiss jeweller Chopard.

'We were scheduled to work with a celebrity and at the very last minute, we had to cancel the guard because they had made a lucrative arrangement with another jeweller,' said Carol Brodie, the public relations director for Harry Winston.

The stars' publicists would not comment on whether their clients accepted money to wear the dangling Chopard earrings.

Chopard spokeswoman Stephanie Labeille said the house did not have formal contracts with the actresses. But she did say the company has used money as an incentive in the past, defending the practice as commonplace. 'Saying one brand pays stars, when they all pay stars is ridiculous,' she said.

In a time when Robert De Niro is hawking American Express and legendary rocker Eric Clapton puts in face time for Rolex ads, the new reality in Hollywood is that everyone has a price. 'We used to be the proactive ones,' McDaniel said. 'Now we are being approached by agents looking to make deals' for their clients.

Kelly Cutrone, founder of the fashion PR firm People's Revolution, said the change started about five years ago when it 'went from celebrity gifting to deals being made around conference tables and management offices'.

The payments began relatively small, said Cutrone, who worked with the jeweller Bulgari from 1998 to 2001, during which time, she said, Theron and Claudia Schiffer were under contract.

'It started with companies saying to celebrities, 'We'll give you $5,000 and a store credit'. Then, 'We'll give you $10,000 and make a donation to the charity of your choice'. Then, 'We'll pay you $50,000' and now $150,000,' Cutrone said.

By some accounts, the top of the range is closer to $250,000. These kinds of deals are considered affordable because they allow marketers to use a celebrity's name and likeness for a fraction of what a full endorsement deal might cost, such as Nicole Kidman's $4-million, three-year contract to be the face of Chanel No. 5, for example.

Yet, traditionally, the red carpet was a place for fans to catch a glimpse of star style ' for better or worse. Who could forget when Uma Thurman brought Prada to the public consciousness when she arrived for the 1995 Oscars swathed in ethereal lavender chiffon'

Barbra Streisand gave the audience more than they bargained for when she accepted an Oscar for Funny Girl in 1969 in a see-through black Scaasi ensemble, and Sharon Stone floored style watchers at the 1996 Academy Awards when she paired a Valentino ball skirt with a turtleneck from the Gap, a precursor, no doubt, to today's infatuation with high-low fashion.

Those times offered a rare glimpse of an actress as a real person, and there was no hiding good or bad taste. The concept of awards shows as showcases for personal expression began eroding over the past decade with the rise of the celebrity stylist, employed to scour the fashion houses ' both established and up-and-coming ' to find the best frocks for a famous client.

Now, in its current evolution, the deal making is becoming more blatant and the message is, 'Even the clothes on my back are for sale'.

'The next step is that it's going to become a bidding war,' said a jewellery-house representative who did not want to be named. "And does that mean we have to start paying the B-list stars who we never even wanted in the first place'"

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