THE final — and most exciting — red carpet of the awards season is upon us: the Oscars. Before the attention turns to who wore what and crucially who wore it best — A-list stylists Elizabeth Saltzman, Law Roach and Ilaria Urbinati told Vogue about the styling secrets and behind-the-scenes deals that go into creating those spotlight-worthy Oscar looks.When a celebrity steps onto the red carpet at the Oscars, don’t be deceived by their seemingly effortless demeanour. That ensemble — dress, accessories, jewellery, shoes, hair and make-up included — is the culmination of weeks, or sometimes months, of preparation.
“With awards shows you usually have an idea that it’s not going to be just one, so you need to have a build-up situation,” says Elizabeth Saltzman, stylist to Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman and Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan.
“There are so many moments [press days, events, talk shows and screenings], and you have to have a narrative. You want the public to like them and to make them seem accessible. There’s so much that fashion can do and say — it sends messages. You’re not just putting on a frock and walking out the door.”
The message is perhaps more important than ever this year. An all-black dress code in support of the Time’s Up movement at the Golden Globes, and later at the British Academy Film and Television Awards, sent many stylists scrambling, with designers like Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano and Naeem Khan remaking dresses at the last minute while battling a major New York storm. (The dresses were later donated for an auction in support Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.)
The resulting, globally resounding statement proved well worth the extra effort, and while the sobering dress code is not planned for the Academy Awards, we can expect the conversation to continue.
How does an actress choose a dress?
Most stars — especially the Best Actress nominees, which this year include Margot Robbie, Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan — started the process of choosing a dress in October, when the first awards were announced, with stylists calling in looks from designers or beginning to consult on a custom piece.
As many as 60 different dresses can be pulled for one star, for one event, and it’s the stylist’s job to work with the design houses to ensure there are no repeat looks.
Remember Anne Hathaway’s Prada swap when she took home the Best Supporting Actress Award in 2013?
“The designers all come forward and a lot of them come in wanting [to dress someone for] just the Oscars or just the BAFTAs,” Saltzman explains. “Sometimes these talents have real relationships with designers, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Ford.”
That particular relationship resulted in the breathtaking white cape Paltrow wore to the ceremony in 2012. For others the relationship is a contractual one. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, has a partnership with Dior worth more than $15 million across three years, and Emma Stone a $10 million deal across two years with Louis Vuitton. Such endorsements oblige them to wear the respective label at specific events through the year.
While the money changing hands for such appearances remains private and seldom discussed, the practice is widespread, particularly among jewellery houses. In 2015, Jessica Paster, stylist to Cate Blanchett and Emily Blunt, revealed that celebrities can earn as much as $250,000 to wear a designer on a red carpet, with stylists getting a cut in the range of $30,000 to $50,000. The amount Charlize Theron was paid in 2006 ($200,000) for wearing Chopard on the red carpet caused quite the controversy. (She also allegedly received $50,000 worth of jewellery for wearing Cartier to the Golden Globes, too.)
Other brands shun contracts in favour of ad hoc relationships with stars who they feel represent their brands. “Part of my job is to introduce them and get them excited about certain clients and start to cultivate that relationship,” explains Ilaria Urbinati, who styles Tom Hiddleston, Armie Hammer and Shailene Woodley.
“And certain brands and clients — like for example Shailene Woodley with Ralph Lauren, or Bradley Cooper with Tom Ford — just click, and it’s a thing where the brand fit and aesthetic just happens to work on the client season after season.”
Where a custom-made dress is involved, the field is wide open, with the July couture shows used as inspiration. For stylist Law Roach, who is dressing Zendaya and Best Supporting Actress for her role in Mudbound and Best Original Song nominee Mary J. Blige — for whom he’s exploring a custom gown — fittings are vital, with three to four preferable for a custom piece, and two for a collection gown. “You want to stay away from things we know will wrinkle easily,” Roach explains, adding that colour and patterns are both fine. “After the red carpet we don’t care — you just need to get them to the carpet and get those pictures.”
What does getting dressed on the day involve?
On the day of the event, most celebrities get ready in a hotel room near the venue. The Dolby Theatre in Hollywood will host the 90th Academy Awards this weekend. The dresses are either hand-delivered to the stylist’s office or shipped a few days ahead, and it’s the stylist’s job to ensure that all the pieces of the look are there and ready to go. The dressing process can take anywhere from three to 12 hours.
“The hotel room is usually packed,” says Ali Levine, who styles Rita Wilson. “Everyone is there to make sure everything goes right and without a hitch. There’s everyone from their manager and agent, to their hair and make-up team, the stylist and those assistants, the professional tanning team for touch-ups, a nail tech and more. At some point [the jewellery] is delivered by security.”
“The trickiest part for us is, because we always have quite a few clients attending each awards show — sometimes around eight or so — is figuring out how to have enough hands to go around to get everyone ready,” Urbinati adds.
“Luckily the way it goes with awards shows is that they stack the red carpet arrivals at different times so not everyone gets there at the same time which means I can usually have time to get two to three people dressed on the day and my assistants can do the rest.”
Insider secrets and styling tips from the pros
The attention to detail continues even at the venue.
“Always keep a needle and a variety of thread colours on you,” says Halle Berry’s stylist Lindsay Flores, who often brings a tailor and fashion tape along too. “Static Guard also is something I always spray on the garments, even just the littlest bit on the skirt so that it doesn’t stick on the carpet too much or to them when travelling to and from the event.”
Saltzman recommends Commando or Spanx to help smooth out a dress. Underwear is often sewed directly into the gown to hide any lines or straps, and removed before returning said dress. It also matters how the actress arrives to the red carpet.
“If you have a big dress you’ll often have a mini-van you can stand in,” Saltzman says. “With Gwyneth with the white cape dress I had her lying way back so there would be no folds and then the cape was stretched out into the back of the SUV with two people holding it so it didn’t get crumpled. There are ways to sit or not sit to prevent creasing.”
Lucia Liu, who styles several Chinese actresses and singers, including Yao Chen and Zhou Dongyu, always wants to ensure that her clients look “slim and fresh,” so focuses on the proportions in the fitting. For Liu, it also matters how someone poses in a particular look. “That’s not for everyone, but if someone needs that help we try to give it,” she notes. “It makes the photos look better, which is quite important.”
The end goal, especially with an event like the Oscars, is publicity. But stylists also want their clients to feel confident and have fun. That eventual sense of effortlessness allows the actors to enjoy their big night. “I want [Ronan] to feel the most beautiful she’s felt,” Saltzman says. “I want her to feel happy and genuinely love her look. I always want people to feel better.”
“My job is to bring my clients the best options and help them feel beautiful and comfortable and secure and help elevate who they already are,” Roach adds. “It’s a day packed with nerves, but it’s also a celebration of hard work, especially with a nominee. It’s the culmination of the entire season. I like to come in and help everyone have fun.”