The image projected by actors as they take their turn on the red carpet in an array of glittering gowns is one of effortless chic. But for their stylists, awards season is a fashion endurance marathon that kicks off in August with the Venice Film Festival and ends with the Academy Awards in February, with hundreds of premieres, parties and panel discussions sprinkled in between, and never an outfit repeated.
“The Oscars can be really tough because it’s the grand finale and everybody wants to have their strongest moment,” said Jill Lincoln, half of the styling duo known as Jill and Jordan, whose clients include Jennifer Lawrence, Rachel Brosnahan and Anna Kendrick.
“There are only so many dresses to go around and only so many people that make red carpet gowns and by the time the Oscars are on, we’ve seen a lot of them already,” Jordan Johnson, Lincoln’s collaborator, explained. And while established stylists may have a Rolodex bursting with designers they can call on to secure the dress of their client’s dreams, competition can be fierce.
When Jennifer Lopez’s long-time stylists Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn found out she would be presenting the Oscars last December, the pair, who have direct lines to brands such as Zuhair Murad, Versace, Oscar de la Renta and Elie Saab, got on their phones immediately and were rewarded with for-your-eyes-only sketches of nearly every major couture collection before the dresses had even been made.
“Right now, we’ve narrowed it down to about five options. I think we have the most requested dresses from every collection on hold,” Zangardi said a bit sheepishly. “Jen did end up wearing one of the Ralph & Russo couture looks for the Grammys and she has two more events – the Oscars and the Vanity Fair party – so holding a few dresses isn’t crazy. We never know what she’s going to wear until the night of.”
It helps of course if, like J.Lo, your client’s every sartorial statement goes viral, whether it’s a work out ensemble or an awards show gown; or they’re the face of a fashion house. When Lincoln and Johnson first started dressing Jennifer Lawrence, for example, she was under a three-year contract with Dior, reported worth $15-20 million, that stipulated she wear the label exclusively for major red carpet events.
“It’s definitely easier when your client has to wear a particular designer and they are going to work with you to create something,” said Johnson, who has flown to Paris with Lawrence on several occasions to pick out dresses. “If we are doing a custom dress, we will discuss with our client what they have in mind, look at some pictures and use that as a starting point. We’ll go back and forth with the design house, they will send sketches, fabric swatches, and then we get to the toile stage where they make a mock-up for the client to try on before creating the final piece.”
But not every actor has designers lining up to dress them. Stars like Megan Mullally, Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy have been vocal about their struggles to find dresses – especially as the options are usually a sample size (typically a US size 2 to size 4) and loaned at the designer’s discretion.
Emerging talent can also struggle to borrow from big-name designers. “With somebody new it’s always a challenge,” explained Sophie Lopez, who has been working with Yalitza Aparicio, the breakout star of the film “Roma,” this season. “You are asking brands to take a chance on your client, while these big stars are asking for the same dresses. It was tough (with Aparicio) at first, it certainly got easier after the Golden Globes” – “Roma” won Best Foreign Language Film – “and now that we have a Best Actress nomination for the Academy Awards, it’s been a lot easier.”
Aparicio also made the best dressed lists with the turquoise Sandra Weil gown she wore to the Mexico City premiere of “Roma” and the lilac Lela Rose she wore to the AFI Awards. So, does Lopez have a dress locked down for the Academy Awards?
“No,” she said. “I have no idea what she’s wearing right now. I have literally been sending texts during the Fashion Week shows saying ‘Can I have that?’”
But even the best laid plans can be thwarted. Sometimes, after a dress has been picked, a client will be seduced by a dress from another designer seen during fashion week.
“This is a pretty commonplace occurrence and it’s a terrible feeling because we have these great relationships with designers and have all been working really hard to make it happen,” said Lincoln.
Other times the team may get word that another actress is wearing a something similar and decide to switch looks at the last minute. This famously happened with Anne Hathaway in 2013, when she said she opted to wear a pale pink Prada number after learning “there would be a dress worn to the Oscars that is remarkably similar to the Valentino I had intended to wear.”
“The night before the Oscars she didn’t have a dress, so we were sending out SOS signals to our fellow stylists,” said Jill. “Everyone helped. Elizabeth Saltzman was bringing me in and out of our designer’s hotel rooms; Elizabeth Stewart was delivering things to Anne’s house; Erin Walsh was sending us pictures of what she had available at her studio. People think that this business is super cutthroat and we are killing each other over dresses, but that’s not true at all.”
Saltzman, an industry veteran who works with red carpet regulars like Gwyneth Paltrow, has experienced a few fashion crises herself. Last December, she had a beaded Gucci gown selected for her client Saoirse Ronan to wear to the Golden Globes and was ready to power down for the holidays when she got a call from Sandra Oh.
“It was a week before Christmas, meaning most of the factories in Europe were shut down and people were on holiday,” said Saltzman, who was suddenly tasked with dressing Oh, who would be presenting at the Globes and was nominated for her role on “Killing Eve” (she won Best Actress in a TV Series Drama), along with her co-star Jodie Comer and the show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
“These were three intensely different women who were all going to be standing together on the red carpet. I had to listen to what they wanted and then make sure it was going to work when they were all together,” said Saltzman, who ultimately put Oh in a white Versace gown, Waller-Bridge in a red sequin Galvan dress and Comer in black Ralph & Russo. “We pulled it together in a week. It was crazy.”
As the final countdown to the Oscars begins, stylists will be scheduling final fittings and pulling in shoes, jewelry and accessories to finish the final look – which they can expect to be seen by around 26.5 million (last year’s Oscars viewership) and possibly change the trajectory of their careers.
“Experience has taught (Jordan and me) that you plan as much as you can, but the thing you never thought was possible will happen,” said Lincoln. “With 18 Oscars between us, we have definitely learned how to manage stress better though.”