It's hard to explain to anyone who doesn't live in Los Angeles how big a deal the Oscars are. It's not just a glamorous awards ceremony that is transmitted globally but an event that makes one of America's biggest cities grind to a halt: whole streets shut down, shops close early, people sleep on the pavement. It's like a Royal wedding, without the flags or souvenir mugs.
For several weeks leading up to the extravaganza, there is a shift in Hollywood. Power is no longer the sole domain of the movie moguls, it becomes the dominion of a handful of unknown names whose authority can not only make or break the stars, but also fashion houses. Frequently bribed, and always highly paid, the celebrity stylists are the most powerful people in Hollywood this week.
"Never mind calling the family when the Oscar nominations are announced - the first call is always to book the stylist," explains stylist Jessica Pastor, who is set to dress Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron for the awards. "Stylists get booked up immediately. And right up to Oscar night itself, Hollywood turns into a designer feeding frenzy."
Some would even call it a battlefield. "Talk about gladiators. This is an arena where people go for the jugular," reveals Fati Parsia, who dresses Catherine Zeta Jones. "It's insane. It can get nasty, and it frequently does," says Rachel Zoe, arguably Hollywood's most sought-after stylist at the moment, whose client list includes Kate Hudson, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Jennifer Garner and Salma Hayek. "Celebrities are fickle and sometimes they want to try a new stylist. I have never lost a client, but I have been called in to do a celebrity client who was somebody else's. That can get kind of tough, particularly when there are accusations of stealing clients. But the stars are not obligated to use one person for their entire lives."
The other stylists who are keenly sought-after include Phillip Bloch who once famously dressed 10 celebrities on Oscar night including Halle Berry; Ricci De Martino who dresses Lara Flynn Boyle; Arianne Phillips who is responsible for Madonna and Courtney Love's makeovers; and Vivian Turner, who dresses Sharon Stone. From the moment a stylist is booked by a celebrity, they enter a race that has no rules or cordial codes of conduct. It's a dog-eat-dog competition in which designers fight it out to have a star wear one of their designs and, more crucially, stylists go to battle to make sure their client gets the greatest gown.
"It gets nasty because the stakes run so high," explains a representative for a famous Italian design house, who prefers not to be named. "Stylists are offered cash, jewels, cars, trips, all kinds of bribes by design houses just to persuade them to have their star client wear their clothes. For a designer, to have a celebrity wear one of their gowns to the Oscars is worth millions of dollars in terms of free publicity. So it can get very cut-throat out there."
At last year's Academy Awards, Valentino made a deal, unprecedented in the company's history: he promised Cate Blanchett that if she wore Valentino to the show, he wouldn't allow anyone else to. She agreed and wore the yellow silk taffeta dress with a burgundy sash that generated global press for the brand. Carolina Herrera and Renée Zellweger have also had an exclusivity pact for the past two years. But unless there's a firm deal, anything can destroy the plans of the designer at the last minute.
At the 2000 Academy Awards Hilary Swank caused an uproar at Christian Dior by swapping gowns the night before the Oscars. Instead of wearing Dior, as she had told the French couture house she would, she opted for one of Randolph Duke's gowns following a back-room deal between Duke and one of her stylists, that involved a gift to the stylist of a $1,200 Spanish wood bed. Less than 24 hours before the 2005 Golden Globes Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank made a last-minute switch. Both abandoned the Harry Winston jewels they had already picked out when Chopard offered each actress a six-figure cheque to wear their jewellery.
"The minute I find out that a client of mine is going to the Oscars, I am on the phone with the designer's offices," explains Parsia. "I like the designers to make one-of-a-kind dresses for my clients, so they send me sketches and fabric swatches. But I am honest. I tell the designers they might be one of five I am talking to. Not all stylists do that. They'll tell them, 'You're it'. But the designers put in a lot of time and money. They probably spend at least $50,000 on a dress and they'll fly out a team of tailors and press from Europe. Then to find out their dress hasn't been chosen on the night, is hard."
Not all stylists commission new designs. Many prefer to procure dresses that have been seen on the catwalks of the couture shows. And woe-betide those who commit the greatest sin of all: hoarding. "Some stylists will call in 20or 30 runway dresses from the designers and simply hang onto them, so no-one else can even look at them," explains Parsia. "This is when the mud really starts to fly. They won't use them themselves, but they won't let anyone else use them. There are two stylists that have huge spats every year and always accuse each other of hoarding all the clothes."
Once the dresses have been called in, the stylist focuses on helping an actress make her choice. But it is not always easy. "Actresses have deep insecurities and it really shows when it comes down to choosing which dress," says Parsia. "It's difficult for a stylist because actresses will listen to anyone's opinion. You get the agent, the publicist, the maid, the maid's daughter, the dog, the 300lb nanny, and they've all got an opinion and if you're the 300lb nanny and all you've ever worn is Lycra leggings and a big T-shirt... Well, it's very infuriating. They hire you as a professional, you work for months getting the perfect dress, and all of a sudden, the nanny's opinion is more important."
There is rarely the risk of two actresses wearing the same gown, because these all tend to be one-of-a-kind dresses. But occasionally there are mistakes. Actress Jennifer Tilly was horrified at the 1995 Oscars when she wore a blue-black Isaac Mizrahi dress, only to see the supermodel Vendela wearing the same dress in red. Needless to say, she spent the entire night avoiding the model.
Once a dress has been chosen, the race is on to have it fitted and to accessorise it. But Rachel Zoe says it is a rare thing to find an actress who doesn't change her mind at the last minute. "So many times, the choice of dress changes on the day. And then you've got to change the bag, the shoes... everything. Most of the design houses take suites at the big hotels during Oscar week and I can't tell you how many times I've been to the Jimmy Choo suite at 2am the night before the Oscars changing the colour of the shoes, or I've had to call the jewellers in the middle of the night and say 'I need emeralds instead of diamonds' or 'yellow gold instead of white gold'."
The final week is also the time when plenty of back-room deals are being cut. A former Bulgari employee, Kelly Cutrone, recalls trying to persuade Winona Ryder to wear a pair of their diamond earrings to the 1999 awards. Then she was given a budget of more than $100,000 to ease things along. A deal was quickly worked out.
There is no stylist who does not have a horror story of last minute glitches. Stylist Vivian Turner tells a story of having to sew seven butter knives into the hem of Geena Davis's dress. "With only ten minutes before the limo was due to take Geena to the Oscars, we could see her dress still wasn't hanging properly. The best thing I could come up with was to weigh the hem down with butter knives."
Ricci De Martino recounts how Lisa Kudrow's dress arrived back from the tailor's only hours before the ceremony with no hem. "At that stage you find yourself begging seamstresses," he says. "You simply beg."
In order to be on the red carpet by 5pm, Oscar-goers have to be in their limousines by 3.30pm. That means the stylists are usually with their clients from early that morning. One year, Phillip Bloch dressed ten celebrities for the Oscars, apparently breaking all records. "I was like Santa Claus trying to get round everyone," he recalls. "Not everyone always wants you in their home for the actual moment when it comes to putting on the clothes. Especially some of the male actors like a little quiet time before a big do, so they will get themselves dressed.
Most stylist will not take on so many clients. "I would never do ten clients in one night," says Parsia. "I don't see how you could do your job properly. I don't just do the gown. I have a say in the hair, the make-up, and a lot of times the gowns are complicated. You can't just schlep it on like a t-shirt."
As the final countdown approaches, Parsia says her tactic is to introduce alcohol to the scene. "At the last minute, you've got the family there, the publicist, the hair and make-up people, the manicurist, myself... the nanny. It gets pretty nerve-wracking. Out on the roads it's a nightmare too. Just about every limo from all over America is shipped into LA and they are all trying to descend on the Kodak Theatre at the same time. It's frantic. You need a glass of wine."
By the time Parsia has waved off her clients, Parsia says she, herself, usually looks emaciated. "I don't eat for days in the run up to the Oscars. It's too stressful," she says. "But once my client has gone, I usually go to dinner, have some fun, and then retreat to the front of the TV set to watch the Oscars and criticise the hell out of it."
RACHEL ZOE, 34
Most of her clients look just like her: wispy thin, golden tressed, bronzed and sexy. She is the new "It" girl, whose clients are some of the world's most visible teen idols, like Mischa Barton, Kate Hudson and Lindsay Lohan. She likes to dress her clients in drapey gowns clinging to skinny hips, mixing vintage with modern romantic pieces.
JESSICA PASTOR, 36
Pastor's big break came at the 1997 Oscars when she dressed Kim Basinger in last-minute Escada, Minnie Driver in red Halston and Linda Hamilton in Pamela Dennis. The phone's been ringing ever since. Star clients include Hilary Swank, Kate Beckinsale, Kate Bosworth and Cate Blanchett
PHILLIP BLOCH, 39
His client list reads like a Hollywood Who's Who, (Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz) but Bloch does less and less styling these days. Instead he appears on TV and hosts fashion shows on MTV and VH1. He's also launched a jewellery line, written books and been in movies himself.
RICCI DE MARTINO, 38
Straight out after fashion school, DeMartino's first job was dressing Gladys Knight for a photoshoot, and he admits he was star struck. Since then, after working for everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow, to Britney Spears, Lara Flynn Boyle and Lisa Kudrow, he's a little less star struck.
FATI PARSIA, 40
Her first big client was Catherine Zeta Jones in the year she made Entrapment and was asked to present at the Oscars. Parsia dressed her in a red Versace gown and hasn't stopped to draw breath since. "If you get a celebrity client, others ask for you. It works that way. Its kind of sad." she says. "I think of myself as an artist. I always want to know that they hire me based on my work, not the other people I'm doing."