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

STAR POWER

May 24, 1998|By MARY COREY | MARY COREY,SUN STAFF

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."

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