Glued to their television sets in the early hours of Tuesday morning were two Oscar "virgins", the British design duo Pearce Fionda, desperate for a glimpse of their first Oscar dress. For the past few weeks they have been meeting up with Francesca Annis, partner of The English Patient's star, Ralph Fiennes, for fittings in their north London studio. Unlike many others invited to the ceremony, Annis chose to ignore the endless stream of dresses that have been winging their way to her over the past month. Even the dress sent courtesy of Givenchy was given short shrift. Annis had made her choice, and stuck with it.
She had torn the picture of her pounds 1,500 dream dress out of a newspaper catwalk report last October. She did not know who Pearce Fionda were, but got in touch to see if they could make the dress to fit for the occasion. "When it was finished, she adored it," says Fionda. "She asked our advice on everything, from shoes to hair. The shoes were made for her in America using fabric from the dress. Her bag was made by the London-based bag designer Anya Hindmarch. The competition to dress the stars for the Oscars is so fierce. We don't have the money to wine and dine and fly actresses over on Concorde. It's a really great compliment that she wore our dress."
Pearce Fionda's eveningwear is sold at the LA branch of Neiman Marcus, where buyers are always on the look-out for an Oscar dress. The duo already dress a handful of celebrities, including Angelica Houston and the model Amber Valletta. Iman stopped off at their studio last year, stripped off, and tried on four dresses which she promptly bought. When the designers have more money, they may consider actively courting a few stars. "We'd have dressed Brenda Blethyn," says Fionda. "We're not proud. That would have been a challenge." The Secrets and Lies best actress nominee wore Armani.
Breaking The Waves star Emily Watson also chose her dress, by the British designer Amanda Wakeley, and refused to be swayed, despite all other offers. The dress was an adaptation of one in the collection and the designer and actress worked on it together, deciding on steel-grey chiffon because it is softer than black, and worked well with her eyes.
"Emily has a great figure and beautiful colouring," says Wakeley, who finds it far more rewarding to dress "real" people with real bodies, than to work for stick-thin models. Despite the fact that the world's wealthiest and most powerful designers would have scratched out eyes to dress Watson, Amanda Wakeley is nonchalant about her coup: "I think it's very flattering and exciting for a dress of mine to be worn to the Oscars, but one Oscar dress doesn't a designer make".