The right dress for the big night


It’s hard to believe but once, not very long ago in fact, the Oscars were all about movies. Now the awards are just as much, if not more, about the clothes. Turn up in a good outfit, as Catherine Zeta-Jones did when she wore a Versace red dress in 2004, and your reputation as a style icon is made; turn up in a bad one, like Cher’s impressive homage to Kiss of the Spider Woman in

1985, and the pictures will haunt you for ever. Coverage of the event these days will almost always focus more closely on the most flattering frock than on the best supporting actor.

And just as those attending the awards have become fixated with fashion, so the fashion world is increasingly obsessed with award ceremonies. “The red carpet is now more important than the catwalk as millions more people watch these kind of events than fashion shows, meaning millions more will imitate their clothes,” says Fiona McIntosh, a columnist on the celebrity and fashion magazine Grazia. “People look at celebrities who look good and they become fashion icons,’’ says McIntosh, “whereas they look at models and think they just wear what they are told.”

The irony, of course, is that today’s celebrities look good because they are told what to wear. And the person who started this off is a beret-wearing, moustachioed man who looks as if he should be strumming a mandolin in a Greek beach cafe.

Philip Bloch was the first modern-day celebrity stylist. He began his career as a male model before coming to New York in 1993 and spotting the potential in allying celebrities with the fashion world. “No designers had thought of this before, other than Armani and Versace,’’ he says.

Bloch’s glamorous style and ability to choose the most flattering gowns for clients of all ages (Faye Dunaway and Jacqueline Bisset were among his older clients) made him enormously popular; in his heyday of the late 90s, he was dressing at least 10 people for the Oscars: “Sandy! Jim! Gabriel! Jennifer! Salma!’’ he barks out, as if reciting a rosary (that’s Bullock, Carrey, Byrne, Lopez and Hayek, by the way.) “They were my girls and I was their Miss Jean Brodie.’’

Many of the above have since moved on but, he says, “celebrities change — they change their husbands, they change their publicists, they change their stylists...’’

Sometimes he would style couples together, such as Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly, or Will Smith and Jada Pinkett but the most important thing was “to bring out their different personalities’’ and to dress to be a winner.

One of Bloch’s most famous sartorial triumphs was the dress Halle Berry wore by the then little-known designer, Elie Saab, when she won the best actress Oscar in 2002. “I’d originally picked out that dress for another client to wear to the Emmys, but I knew she wouldn’t win and that dress is a winner’s dress,’’ he says. Bloch made Saab’s career — “and not just his! Dolce & Gabbana, too. I remember when I started they didn’t care about celebrities at all. They were like, Gwyneth who?’’

Celebrities, however, were cottoning on quickly to the benefits of looking good in public — they noticed that it got them featured on TV and in magazines — and designers twigged soon after that these photos resulted in multiple mentions of their name. The most successful example of this is when Uma Thurman wore an ice-blue silk dress by the then relatively obscure label Prada to the 1995 Oscars, helping to make the label one of the most famous fashion brands in the world. “I didn’t dress her in that,’’ says Bloch regretfully. “But she did look fabulous.’’

The stylist of the moment is Rachel Zoe.

She is almost certainly one of the most influential people in the fashion industry today. She is the personal stylist to, among others, Keira Knightley, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Kate Beckinsale and The OC’s Mischa Barton, all of whom are fashion trendsetters for the lucrative teenage market. Zoe’s trademark style, which she refers to as “fallen 70s chick, a little boho glamour’’, consists of glamorous vintage tops and dresses, designer jeans and slightly messy hair.

At New York fashion week, she admits, she was primarily trying to find an Oscars dress for Knightley, who is nominated for best actress. Did she find something? A long laugh: “I’m not telling! But I will say there were one or two interesting pieces...’’

Designers are so keen to make clothes that Zoe deems suitable for her influential clients that many now ask her to help them devise their collections. “Yeah, that happens a lot. Like that red strapless Calvin Klein dress Keira wore to the New York premiere of Pride and Prejudice — I co-designed that with Francisco (Costa, the creative director of Calvin Klein.)’’ So how much input did she have? “Not much. Just the fabric, the cut, the style...’’

Even when she doesn’t literally put her hand to the collection, Zoe’s touch is apparent in

the clothes. Last year Glenda Bailey, the editor of US Harpers Bazaar, rushed up to Zoe in a restaurant and cried, “Look at the new collections! All the designers are inspired by you!’’

“And I think when someone you really respect says something like that,’’ she muses, “you do

listen.” — The Guardian