the greatest fashion show on earth

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The Independent Culture
Forget who's going to win what at the Oscars. More important

by far is the question: who's going to wear what? The designers'

yearly fight to dress the stars is becoming an all-out war

TODAY is going to be a hectic day over in Los Angeles. When the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard, manicurists, pedicurists, hair colourists and leg waxers will be lacing up their sneakers for the busiest day of their year.

Over on Rodeo Drive, usually sleepy on a Sunday morning, a dinky little van marked "Chanel" will be loading up a few wisps of chiffon and matching shoes. Up the street, behind the cool slate and glass faade of the Giorgio Armani store, gowns dispatched by courier from Italy on Friday will be being steamed, packed in tissue and sent across town. Mean- while, an unmarked armoured car will be being stacked with several million dollars' worth of diamond necklaces - just the first delivery of the day from Harry Winston, jeweller-to-the-stars.

Behind the security gates of the Bel Air and Malibu mansions, or in the penthouse suites of the Peninsula Hotel and the Chteau Marmont, Oscar nominees and Oscar presenters will be nervously asking themselves: "Is that gown, that tux, right after all? Is this how I want to appear before a television audience of 1 billion people?" And some will answer: "No".

So the stylists to the stars will be feeling jumpy from sun-up today. One bleep from their pagers could signal a last-minute change of heart. Ahead of California time, over in Milan, in Rome and in New York, the publicity officers of the biggest designer names in the world will be wondering if, at last, they dare fax out global press releases confirming which stars they have "bagged" for what is the biggest fashion show on earth. It might still be too early.

But on Monday evening (or early Tuesday morning UK time), the question on everyone's lips will not be: "Do you think you will win?" but "What are you wearing?" The replies - "Valentino", "Armani" or "Calvin Klein" - will be chanted like mantras by nervy stars who know that they will appear on either the best- or worst-dressed lists in tabloid newspapers across the world by lunchtime. This year, the brave will say "Prada" or "John Galliano" or "Lily" (a second-hand store that few outside Hollywood know about).

The Academy Awards have always been as much about fashion as about movies. Until the collapse of the studio system in the early Sixties, it was taken for granted that the stars, dressed by the in-house costumiers, would look fabulous. But then followed the free-fall years when style spiralled downwards; this culminated in 1990 with Kim Basinger turning up in a one- armed bandit bridal gown of her own design. By that time, however, the household name fashion giants had stepped in and made other Oscar stars chic again, a move driven not by altruism but by recognition of the huge publicity potential of the awards. Needless to say, the competition is ferocious. "You know how many people I offended by not wearing their tux?" Tom Hanks asked a global television audience last year. Eight were delivered to him.

There are predictable but persistent rumours that designers offer stars huge incentives - Concorde flights, trips to the Paris Ritz, clothes at a 40 per cent discount for life - to wear their clothes; but every designer says that it is the others who use such tactics. "No contracts, no financial deals whatsoever," says Carlos Souza, company spokesman of Valentino in Rome. "We do things like send nominees sunglasses," says Lynn Tesoro, spokeswoman for Calvin Klein in New York. And Giorgio Armani himself faxes from Milan: "It is a relationship based on discretion, respect, with no strings attached... What I really don't like is the `hunt' for stars, designers chasing after blood-pacts." (Armani's full-time LA operative, Wanda McDaniel, rumoured to have a large clothing budget to woo the right people into Armani clothes, is not allowed to talk to me.)

"The whole world is beating at the doors of Hollywood now. For Cerruti it evolved naturally. Harrison and Clint and Jack [Nicholson] have been dressed by us for their movies," says Cerruti's LA operative Mary Hall Ross, who has manoeuvred Cerruti's label into 42 movies and on to the backs of countless male movie stars in their private lives. How does she do it? "I do send them outrageously handmade things I know will be to their taste; an unusual white dinner jacket for Harrison, something light for Michael Douglas to wear at his holiday home in Majorca, something in a wonderful shade of cashmere for Jack. We think of them as family. We don't run around and exploit people." And what of John Travolta, back from the wilderness and a best actor nominee? "I feel confident that he will wear Cerruti," says Hall Ross, who has sent him the choice of a traditional Forties-style tux and a more modern alternative.

What is admitted to, by most of the big league, is that the clothes worn are gifts. The exception is Chanel, whose frocks are loaned. Chanel bagged Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei two years ago. Elsewhere, though, loans are unusual. As one LA operative puts it, off the record: "Do stars pay for clothes? Do they give them back? Are you out of your mind?"

The stars are referred to as "friends", who often thank the designers in their acceptance speeches. But some "friends" stray. Sharon Stone will wear Valentino, insists Carlos Souza, but others say she won't. "She's bored with all those bourgeois frills. She's switching to Thierry Mugler," is one of the less likely claims from an insider in LA. What is certain is that Stone's people have contacted John Galliano's people and they have been in contact with Christian Lacroix's people. Dolce e Gabbana's people contacted Sharon Stone. Heidi Schaeffer, Stone's terse publicist, says: "Sharon Stone will be wearing Valentino. But that could change."

What is more definite, however, is that Stone won't be wearing something from jeweller Harry Winston. Last year, Harry Winston Jnr himself dropped off a $400,000 necklace chez Stone - and it never went back. Winston's people said it was only a loan, like the sparklers which were loaned to Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell and Laura Dern. When Stone heard she had to return hers last year she slapped a $10m lawsuit on the company. The case is still in court.

The stars use designers to make them feel glamorous - and, more likely, to make them safe. "Some have a fear... that their bad taste will be broadcast all over the world," says Janet Charlton, gossip columnist for Star Magazine. And, in turn, the designers use the stars. Now the Italian label Prada has joined the list of international labels and has operatives in LA. Uma Thurman, the gorgeous best actress nominee, may wear Prada. "But she might not," says one insider. "Uma does not like to feel controlled. She would change her mind until the last second, except that she has big boobs and feet, which restricts things somewhat."

But if the stars are guilty of being indecisive, then designers are also guilty of confusing them even further. Last year, Winona Ryder opted for a vintage gown, "but Armani's people were sending her outfits until the last minute, just in case," says Rita Watnick, owner of the vintage couture emporium Lily, and the supplier of the dress that Ryder has earmarked for tomorrow: a floaty cream chiffon and diamant gown which she will be expected to pay for. "I never give," continues Watnick. "Monetary exchange keeps people's integrity. The actresses' intentions are pure and so are mine."

Watnick describes her vintage clothes as the alternative for stars who will not be "bought by designers who take the credit for who you are." Demi Moore is a Lily aficionado. And a representative of Jodie Foster, who has twice won while wearing Armani, has contacted Lily this year, "to escape the Armani stranglehold and to look like her own woman," says Watnick. Off the record, an Armani operative insists that Foster, plus Oscar anchor David Letterman and best director nominee Quentin Tarantino, will wear Armani.

What really exasperates designers is those actors who won't accept their offers, let alone those of their competition. Hugh Grant's Golden Globe boast that he was wearing his granddad's jacket and a schoolchum's trousers has baffled Hollywood. And then there is Sir Anthony Hopkins, reportedly thrilled to receive a much-needed dinner jacket when he was nominated for Silence of the Lambs but mystified by a similar approach for the following year - his last one was still in pristine condition.

Although John Galliano has spent not one cent on Oscar wooing, Rita Wilson, aka Mrs Tom Hanks, may yet wear one of his creations (she has six designers' gowns to choose between). But not everyone attending the Oscars is courted. This weekend is the last chance that the agents, the producers, the wives, the girlfriends and the not-so-hot Oscar nominees (up for "Best Sound", or "Best Animated Short") have to go shopping. While Galliano's business is too small to handle special Oscar orders, his off-the-peg slip dresses are available all over LA. Competitive stores Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Fred Hayman, Maxfield and Les Habitudes all stock Galliano - "and it is a problem," says Michel Perez, owner of Les Habitudes. "Some of my customers bought early, then heard other women were planning to wear the same thing, and we had to accept the dresses back."

But only the "lesser people" risk meeting someone in the same frock. Fred Hayman, an extrovert Beverly Hills retailer, is employed (at no fee) by the Academy to ensure that no stars dress the same. To offer them plenty of choice, he puts on an annual pre-Oscar show, three weeks before the event, to show a range of propositions (including, this year, visible big knickers under sheer shifts). His tip for those at the top? "Colour, colour, colour, so it is not all black."

Over the hills in Universal City, we find perhaps the busiest man on pre-Oscar day. Quietly celebrated in movieland for his ability to slim the waist and accentuate the bust, John Hayles is the head of the women's wardrobe workroom at Universal Studios. Mary Ellen Zemeckis, wife of Bob Zemeckis, the Oscar-nominated director of Forrest Gump, commissioned a copper satin gown from Hayles, and the creation, complete with underwired bodice and a cunning foundation garment incorporating a "crotch strap" to facilitate going to the loo, has been ready for a couple of weeks.

But Hayles is also sought out on pre-Oscar day to give Hollywood oomph to other designers' offerings. It is not a well-kept secret that he tweaks gowns by Calvin Klein - because styles that suit skinny catwalk models do not necessarily work on clients with bosoms of Los Angeleno proportions. He gets calls begging him to "do something with this" - even at the point when the limos that transport stars to the awards are drawing up outside their homes.

Richard Tyler, one designer who does not need Hayles's help, because he is a dab hand with a needle himself, has cut things even finer in his time. This year Tyler, who is making the costumes for Cindy Crawford's first movie, has Oscar outfits ready for Susan Sarandon, her partner Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg and Sigourney Weaver. Some of these will incorporate "secret zips" so they don't have to strip to go to the loo. But the first Oscar dress he ever made, for Penelope Milford, nominated for Coming Home in 1978, was touch and go. "I was sewing her into it on the way there. Then the limo stopped just around the corner and I sneaked out and caught the bus home."

British nominee Miranda Richardson considered using Richard Tyler this year - his manager visited her at the Peninsula Hotel - but it looks likely that she will settle for either Versace or Valentino. What she won't wear is a British dress, not because of the "Curse of Emma" (Emma Thompson looked ghastly collecting her Oscar in a slime green ensemble by Caroline Charles), but because, says her agent, no British designer approached her.

Dapper Nigel Hawthorne, nominated for best actor for The Madness of King George, has accepted an offer. Waking up this morning in his suite in the Chteau Marmont, Hawthorne will, one hopes, be happy with his Oscar- going garb. For it will be too late to organise what he really should have worn - a bespoke dinner jacket from Savile Row. Instead, and this is the most surprising sartorial revelation of the lot, he has accepted a tux from the designer who clothes Sly Stallone. Nigel Hawthorne, professional Englishman, will wear Versace. !