It's the biggest night of the Hollywood year. But when i comes to the Oscars, American designers have learned that a bit of real Italian-type wooing might just win them the stars they want.
But this is the year the rest of the fashion establishment finally woke up and smelled the cappuccino: They just might get as much mileage out of the Academy Awards ceremony as any fashion show -- and possibly much, much more.
The top fashion journalists may not be present in force at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but it seems as if everyone else in the world press corps will.
"It's now turned into a battle royal and it's the only day of the year the fashion community turns its attention to Los Angeles," says Richard Tyler, a Hollywood designer. "It's not about frills anymore; it's about world-class fashion. And the Italian designers led the way to that."
"It is one of the most important moments in [the stars'] lives," says Valentino, the Italian designer who has provided Oscar dresses for stars such as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor (both of whom are said to be planning to wear Valentino ensembles again this year).
Certainly no event in the past few years has been watched by so many worldwide.
When a billion people saw Geena Davis accept her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Accidental Tourist" (1988) in a sea-foam satin pouf, it kicked off "the year of sea foam" in certain circles.
Somehow, the Italians have always known this.
Mr. Armani, Valentino and Gianni Versace don't play hard to get; they pursue with a passion -- although all of them deny it.
"We don't dress stars for publicity," Mr. Versace says. "But, of course, when famous stars do show themselves dressed in Versace, it's natural that we get good feedback in the press."
Donna Karan is well-aware of what an Oscar dress can do.
"Everyone remembers Liza Minnelli wearing the 'cold-shoulder dress' to the Oscars last year," the designer explains. "Well, what's amazing is that dress wasn't even in the line -- it was a reject Liza dug up in the showroom. And look what happened. Hillary Clinton wore it.
"This year my motto is 'a dollar for an idea.' When Liza came in this year I told her to go into the closet and pull out a reject."
What designer will get "the cold shoulder" this year?
Valentino had a clear triumph at the Hollywood Foreign Press' Golden Globe awards, often an award and fashion forerunner to the Oscars. He also dressed Mercedes Ruehl when she won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year -- and Ms. Ruehl has been a Valentino fan ever since.
"When I was nominated he sent me a beautiful evening purse," Ms. Ruehl says. She'll be wearing Valentino again this year when she hands out the award for Best Supporting Actor.
"Valentino goes after them hook, line and sinker," says Fred Hayman, an Oscar fashion consultant. "You have to admire that."
Mr. Armani can be equally aggressive.
"The people from Armani phoned us and asked if we would like to wear their tuxedos," says Stephen Woolley, the producer of the year's hottest little movie, "The Crying Game."
The day the nominations were announced, Calvin Klein reportedly sent three dozen white roses and a pair of his sunglasses -- and sketches -- to all the women.
And it worked.
Advance word is that Miranda Richardson, Best Supporting Actress nominee for "Damage," will wear Klein, as will Susan Sarandon, who is a Best Actress nominee for "Lorenzo's Oil." (Although Ms. Sarandon, a close friend of designer Todd Oldham, also might wear Oldham.)
But Oscar night is a night for most designer-dressed stars to stand by their men and women.
Yves Saint Laurent will be dressing Best Actress nominee (for "Indochine") and longtime fan Catherine Deneuve, just as he did for the recent French Cesar awards.
She will wear a long black chiffon dress trimmed in rose-colored ostrich feathers -- "a variation on a number from Yves' fall '91 couture," according to a Saint Laurent representative.
Geena Davis -- who has seized Cher's title as "most conspicuously dressed at the Oscars" for three years running now -- isn't saying what she'll wear, but word is that she'll probably collaborate with designer Bill Hargate once again.
"In all the years I've gone I've noticed this trend toward more andmore conservatism," Ms. Davis has said. "The first year I went was the year that Demi [Moore] wore that dress with biker shorts that everyone tore apart. It's a national obsession, slamming people for what they wore to the Oscars."
Juliette Lewis, who was roundly criticized for wearing cornrows to last year's ceremony, had this to say to those choosing a look: "You'd better like it, because they'll torture you about it for a year."
What stars will wear
Movie stars are likely to turn up in their favorite designer's outfits.
Star ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Oscar Designer
Geena Davis ... ... ... ... ... .. .. .. Bill Hargate (USA)
Robert Downey Jr .. ... ... ... .. .. .. Richard Tyler (USA)
Catherine Deneuve ... ... ... ... ... .. Yves Saint Laurent (France)
Jody Foster ... ... ... ... ... .. .. .. Giorgio Armani (Italy)
Anjelica Huston ... ... ... ... .. .. .. Richard Tyler (USA)
Sophia Loren ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Valentino (Italy)
Mary McDonnell ... ... ... ... ... .. .. Giorgio Armani (Italy)
Liza Minnelli ... ... ... ... ... ... .. Donna Karan (USA)
Jack Nicholson .. ... ... ... ... ... .. Giorgio Armani (Italy)
Al Pacino ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .. Giorgio Armani (Italy)
Michelle Pfeiffer ... ... ... ... ... .. Giorgio Armani (Italy)
Miranda Richardson .. ... ... ... ... .. Calvin Klein (USA)
Mercedes Ruehl ... ... ... ... ... .. .. Valentino (Italy)
Susan Sarandon ... ... ... ... ... .. .. Calvin Klein or Todd Oldham (USA)
Sharon Stone ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Vera Wang (USA)
Elizabeth Taylor ... ... ... ... ... ... Valentino (Italy)
Denzel Washington .. ... ... ... ... ... Giorgio Armani (Italy)