Designers in the Red: The System's Wearing Thin

Wearable right off the runway . . . just not by celebs who insist on custom-made outfits; pictured, a design by Donna Karan.
Wearable right off the runway . . . just not by celebs who insist on custom-made outfits; pictured, a design by Donna Karan. (Photos By Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)
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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page M06

NEW YORK The economy needs a massive stimulus, and the fashion industry is hanging on by a thread. Celebrities should rally together and do the patriotic thing.

They should pay for their own clothes.

As nominees, presenters and high-profile seat fillers prepare for tonight's Oscar ceremony, perhaps in between having their hair blown out and their false eyelashes applied, they could put payment in the mail for whatever designer confection they have chosen to wear.

Going forward, perhaps they could actually buy gowns for the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the Video Music Awards and Cannes. When they sit front row at fashion shows like BCBG and Herve Leger, they could make a list of the items they'd like to buy rather than the looks they want their stylist to borrow.

They might even find a certain dignity in being able to respond to the ubiquitous red-carpet question -- Whose dress is that? -- with a simple, but profound, answer: Mine.

If stars can afford million-dollar homes, personal assistants, trainers, cooks, nannies, therapists, publicists and gurus, then they can afford to buy their own party clothes. And the diamonds to go with them.

And gentlemen: Buy a tuxedo. Wear it, dry-clean it, repeat.

To be fair, not all actors are millionaires. One might assume that Viola Davis, who co-starred in "Doubt," or Dev Patel from "Slumdog Millionaire" are just breaking into the big time and might need to be a bit cautious with their money.

In that case, go get a nice gown from J. Crew. It's all the rage. And would a rental tuxedo be that bad?

These days, it's the rare star who even wears her own shoes. Jimmy Choo and Stuart Weitzman take care of her feet. Armani hands out sunglasses. Tod's will provide an evening bag. Harry Winston lends her bracelets and earrings. Spanx keep her sucked in tight.

It's not as if most designers relish the process of dressing some actress they've never met. In today's celebrity economy, a designer is often on the hook for multiple airline tickets to and from Los Angeles, where staff members are dispatched to romance actresses, pin darts and placate stylists. Designers must create multiple custom-made gowns because most of the big stars want choices. And most of them have been trained by their stylists not to wear gowns directly off the runway because someone somewhere may have seen it before. Couture is preferable. Free is the standard.

Designers justify their largess by explaining how photos of actresses on the red carpet wearing a highly praised dress is the kind of publicity that can't be bought. But how much is that publicity actually worth? All those names blur into a mumble of Armani/Herrera/Oscar/Donna/Michael/Marchesa/Versace. No one who could actually afford the dress will want to buy it after it has been pictured in every tabloid and on every blog. Knock-off manufacturers can make a financial killing. But for most design houses, it would seem that having a $10,000 check in hand is better than a picture in People magazine a week from now. Heck, some of these design houses might not even be around in a week.

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