Lupita Nyong'o wore Prada to the 2014 Academy Awards, but the designer was eclipsed by the star. (Chris Pizzello/Invision via AP)
Fashion critic

The red carpet — that staple of award shows — is bad for fashion. This wasn’t always so, but now it is.

The benefits celebrities reap from the season of step-and-repeat, which begins in earnest with Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, are significant, whether it is a boost to a level of acclaim that their résumé does not support or a steady stream of attention while they await their next role. What do designers get? The opportunity to create a pretty — but safe — formal gown that briefly amuses the eye but does little to move the fashion needle.

Actors such as Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong’o and Eddie Redmayne have all used fashion as a way of propelling themselves forward — faster than their admirable acting chops alone would have done. They glow in the pop culture galaxy, swooned over in Vogue and GQ — their aesthetic acumen conflated with their acting skills.

It is hard to blame them for their efforts. Hollywood no longer is producing the kind of matinee idols of yore, the ones whose very presence on the big screen could send consumers running to the box office. We still have stars to transport us, the beleaguered, to fantasyland, but they are not built by Hollywood alone. Designers have become part of the myth-making machine — as important as the lighting director, the makeup artist and the hairstylist. And almost as invisible.

The morning after a splendid showing on the red carpet, after everyone has discussed who looked marvelous and who should try harder, few people are rhapsodizing over the skill of a bias cut or the brilliant use of beading. The designer names go virtually unmentioned. It’s all about Lupita’s (Ralph Lauren) cape, Pharrell’s (Vivienne Westwood) hat and Rihanna’s (Tom Ford) pasties.

In the fashion salons of New York, Milan and Paris, workers may be keeping score: Did more women wear Versace than Valentino? Designers and manufacturers may be sussing out a trend or two from the kleig-lit promenade. Perfect for prom! But in the broader world, where all the hard work of an atelier is supposed to get noticed, in our consideration of the red carpet, the designer is no longer essential.

During award show season, the clothes flow by like bonbons on a conveyor belt. We consume the delights so quickly that we can’t fully appreciate them. The umpteenth Versace gown no longer feels special — even if it happens to be an especially nice one. And the more times stars are asked “Who made your dress?,” the faster we forget the answer.

Moving beyond celebrity

In the beginning, which is to say back in 1988 when Giorgio Armani opened his Beverly Hills boutique and proceeded to dress actress Michelle Pfeiffer elegantly and uniquely in a navy cocktail suit for the Academy Awards, the wardrobing of an actor for the red carpet was one of the few ways for designers to rocket their name into the pop culture vernacular.

Back then, the inner loop of the fashion industry consisted of designers, models and editors. A celebrity sighting at a fashion show was something worth bragging about. And to dress an Oscar nominee was a coup. Award shows were rare and the light shone so brightly on the stars who were well-dressed — because not all of them were; in fact, most of them weren’t — that everyone in their orbit was gloriously illuminated, including the designers. Who made your dress? The answer — Armani, Prada, Badgley Mischka, Vera Wang — could transform a lucky designer’s business.

That was more than 25 years ago.

Today, designers, whether they believe it or not, no longer need the wattage of celebrities to bring them buzz, make them legit or otherwise bless them with cultural relevance. They have social media. Designers can star in their own television shows. They can live-stream their runway productions. Celebrities are no longer a boon; they are a crutch.

It is always flattering to have someone of the stature of Julianne Moore knock on a designer’s door in search of a fancy dress. It must be personally gratifying to make a young starlet feel like Cinderella for an evening. But celebrities need fashion — benefit from fashion — a lot more than designers now benefit from stars. Indeed, one of the most sought-after handbag brands of the last season, the upstart Mansur Gavriel, has no celebrity endorsers. And one of Hollywood’s long-favored brands, Gucci, is sorting through financial woes.

For celebrities, however, fashion is more necessary than ever. They are constantly Instagramming their own self-consciously styled lives — Solange goes glamping at Joshua Tree! — and paparazzi hunt stars even when they’re just walking out of the gym. But nothing beats an awards show red carpet. An appearance there in just the right look has the potential to turn starlets into style icons and make a convincing argument that a class clown can play a leading man.

Few actors have managed to remain — seemingly — disengaged from fashion while staying atop the heap. Only the great Meryl Streep immediately comes to mind. Some, such as Johnny Depp, have cast themselves as fashion eccentrics. Others such as Jodie Foster and, now, Angelina Jolie, have eschewed glamour for studied intellectualism. But all of them, in some way, use fashion.

Jolie is actively using it to announce her transition from actress to director. After her right leg inspired its own meme at the 2012 Oscars, she is now dressing discreetly. The white Ralph & Russo dress with its matching capelet that she wore to the British premiere of her film “Unbroken” would have been equally at home at Sunday church service.

Ralph & Russo, founded in 2007, is the first British label to become part of the official Paris haute couture schedule in a century. Jolie has been relying on it for clothes that are elegant and highbrow — and befitting a serious filmmaker. What does Ralph & Russo get from this association? Well, now you’ve heard of Ralph & Russo.

There used to be more surprises on the red carpet. Not strange Cher tomfoolery, but moments when a barely known designer got a shot at the big formal gown and it captured the imagination. When Uma Thurman wore a lilac Prada gown to the Oscars in 1995, the Italian label was still relatively obscure. Now, the red carpet is controlled by major labels that strike exclusive deals with actresses or have the prestige to woo them into acquiescence. Few celebrities are willing to stray from the familiar litany: Armani, Valentino, Dior, Chanel, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Prada and Tom Ford. Names repeated so often we’ve gone deaf to them.

Small design houses barely stand a chance. And at its worst, the red carpet sucks young designers into creating one-of-a-kind gowns that they cannot afford to make in the hopes that lightning will strike and theirs will become the dress that everyone talks about the next morning. But even when that happens, it wasn’t Peter Som’s beautiful floral dress or Prabal Gurung’s grand red gown. It was Julie Bowen’s adventurous spirit and January Jones’s regal stance. Such a Catch-22: When designers are at their best, as these were, the applause should be for the woman and not the frock.

Setting the standard

Last year, Nyong’o made masterful use of fashion on the red carpet. She embraced an aesthetic that defined her as a new classic. Nyong’o won the Oscar, but perhaps even more important, People magazine declared her the “most beautiful” woman in the world; Lancôme signed her to an endorsement deal; and Vogue ran a cover story that described her as a “deity.”

Rihanna’s star has risen steadily higher — and it’s not due to her modest vocal range. Seventh Avenue declared the Grammy winner a fashion icon; she is a muse to French designer Olivier Rousteing and was the star of his Balmain advertising campaign. Last year, she was named creative director for Puma. Even Michael Jordan didn’t get to be creative director of Nike, and he was an actual athlete.

The fashion industry is so good at what it does. Its designers, stylists and photographers transform actors into gods and goddesses with an efficiency that Hollywood cannot match. They make us ogle celebrities. They help write the script for how we assess beauty, glamour and sex appeal.

But on the red carpet, the designer is just part of a village of tradesmen and crafts people. That’s the way Hollywood works. The sun only shines on the star.