STAR POWER Movie and TV celebrities have become a major force in the fashion world, as the clothes they wear make news -- and designers' reputations


It began the way many great relationships do - almost by accident. Jamie Lee Curtis spied a Pamela Dennis crystal-studded gown she liked on a store rack and wore it to the Cannes Film Festival several years ago. The rave fashion reviews attracted other stars. Ellen DeGeneres picked a Pamela Dennis tapestry pantsuit for the Emmys, and Kate Winslet squeezed into a black lace dress for the Golden Globes.

"I couldn't buy all the press they gave me," Dennis says. "People are in awe of Hollywood."

Movie and TV stars have become a major force in the fashion world, with savvy designers realizing that who's wearing clothes often garners more interest these days than who created them.

"Historically, fashion trends were set by famous designers," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "What we have now are celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Madonna, almost all of them coming from the world of entertainment. ... Those figures embody fashion."

Dressing Sharon Stone for an event, having Nicole Kidman in the front row during a runway show or featuring Ashley Judd in a fashion advertisement is destined to bring a designer new clients and cachet - as well as lots of press.

"Our society is obsessed with celebrities," says Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, which in recent years began featuring stars on the cover. "It's this desire for some kind of

larger-than-life inspiration, someone to idolize, someone to make seem as if we're living in a magical time."

From the days when the major studios dictated how a movie star dressed, Hollywood and fashion have been intertwined. Designers ruled through the 1950s, and actresses rarely turned up in public without being groomed by them. But by the '60s, that had changed. Stars began to have more freedom in their personal attire - and their style was sometimes mocked rather than admired.

In the '80s, designers became celebrities themselves, turning up at glitzy events and in gossip columns nearly as often as actors. But then supermodels stole the show, and now actresses are in the spotlight.

The modern-day arrangement is mutually beneficial: Celebrities need beautiful clothes for the steady stream of premieres, awards shows and galas they attend. Designers, particularly newcomers, need exposure.

"Herve Leger is a small house," says Susan Ashbrook, owner of Film Fashion, a Los Angeles-based company that acts as a liaison between the fashion and entertainment industries. "They advertise twice a year in Vogue and Women's Wear. I But having Mira Sorvino, Susan Sarandon and Gillian Anderson wear something by him gets his name out."

Stars know that what they are photographed wearing will show up in many places. These days, everything from the supermarket tabloids and TV Guide to the syndicated TV shows and cable channels devotes time or space to fashions of the rich and famous.

InStyle magazine, which made its debut four years ago, capitalizes on the interest in the celebrity lifestyle, taking readers into the homes, closets and even handbags of the stars. One of the most successful new magazines in recent years, it now has a circulation of more than one million people.

Ashbrook, who works with Shiseido cosmetics, recalls that when the magazine named the company's eyelash curler a favorite among celebrity makeup artists, the product immediately sold out. It took three months to catch up with demand.

But some industry observers believe the renewed fascination with the stars' looks is a reaction against haute couture.

"Over the past 10 years, we've seen the influence of fashion designers declining," says Richard Leonard, vice president of the Zandl Group, a youth marketing company in New York. "It's no longer aspirational, it's not even relevant what the fashion designers are showing. Designers have lost touch with the mainstream. . . . Consumers are more independent. They're still looking for inspiration and glamour. The entertainment world is providing it."

He believes that celebrities are more approachable - at least in the way they dress. "When you see photos of Julia Roberts in an airport, she tends to dress in jeans and T-shirts and little slip dresses. It does demonstrate the populist direction that fashion is taking," he says.

For designers, the Oscars have become, in the words of Vera Wang, "the fashion Olympics." Others in the industry echo that thought, saying that the awards show, sandwiched between the European and New York runway shows, is a must-see.

Competition to get a celebrity to wear a designer's dress is stiff, particularly when publicists, personal stylists and makeup artists are involved.

"They might have 300 dresses in Kate Winslet's dressing room," Dennis says. "It's a crap shoot. You throw it out and hope you win. You can't let your feelings get in the way. You're at their whim."

For designers, there can be pressure in working with such high-maintenance clients. Escada dressed Kim Basinger for the last Academy Awards, but a week before the show the nominee for best supporting actress still hadn't decided what color she was wearing.

The design house finally sent its top couture seamstress over to L.A., put her up in a hotel suite and rented a sewing machine. She ended up making the mint-green ball gown in three days.

Having Basinger wear it - and get high fashion marks from the press - had an immediate effect. Within days, A.B.S., a Los-Angeles based line, had a version in the New York markets for about $350, a fraction of what the designer version cost.

"There's no measuring cup for the power of celebrity," says Allen B. Schwartz, owner and design director of A.B.S. "That old Grace Kelly Hollywood glamour is definitely back."

Vera Wang, who has dressed Sharon Stone, Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg and many other celebrities, says that outfitting celebrities has benefits and potential drawbacks.

"If you dress someone well, it helps your image," she says. "If you don't dress them well, it can hurt you badly. People almost laugh at you."

Often, she says, a stylist, who acts as a star's personal dresser, adds accessories, a hairstyle and makeup that don't mesh with the designer's vision. Still, the clothes take the heat.

But even on their off days, stars and fashion make for great entertainment.

"Someone once said that the only thing left for celebrities to enjoy is other celebrities," Martin says. "Most movie stars love to meet fashion designers. It works both ways. Gwyneth Paltrow is thrilled to see Calvin Klein. Conversely, Donna Karan is excited to see Nicole Kidman."

Hollywood celebrities helping to set the fashion pace:

Sharon Stone - The consummate Hollywood glamour girl, she has sparkled in Vera Wang at Oscar events. It was her Academy Award appearance in a Gap sweater, though, that started a nationwide run on the top.

Nicole Kidman - Her hair, that statuesque figure and the way she looks in a Dior gown make her a designer's dream.

Madonna - The ultimate fashion chameleon, she's in her Gothic period now with a tendriled hairstyle that's already been copied.

Kim Basinger - At the Oscars, she made mint green look like a color we'd want to wear.

Jada Pinkett Smith - Dressing like your mate is usually a fashion mistake, but when she wed Will Smith in coordinating Badgley Mischka attire, she proved that she has style power.

Julia Roberts - She's made some fashion mistakes, but this self-confessed "late-blooming" clothes horse now looks right in Dolce & Gabbana and at Todd Oldham's shows.

Halle Berry - Revlon knows a good thing and grabbed this luminescent beauty for its ad campaigns.

Jennifer Aniston - With her girl-next-door style, she's someone whose closet we'd like to raid.

Claire Danes - Influential with the teen set, she's starting to show a grown-up preference for Miu Miu, Prada and Cynthia Rowley. The wearing of the green: Kim Basinger's Academy Award gown by Escada put mint green back on the fashion map.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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