Suddenly SWANK

Golden girl: The race is on to dress actress Hilary Swank for the Academy Awards.

March 12, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

In 1994, when she starred in "The Next Karate Kid," no designers were clamoring to flatter Hilary Swank's five-star figure. But since her gender-bending turn in "Boys Don't Cry," which has earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress, she's reached a kind of quirky fashion-plate status.

The willowy actress with the punk pixie haircut has become both edgy ingenue and the darling of designers eager to outfit her for the Academy Awards.

"She's an attractive proposition because she's a contender and she's a cute young thing and she pulled off a difficult role, says William Calvert, a New York women's luxury clothing designer. "If you dress her, you automatically get exposure."

It's also always challenging to dress a funky face new to Oscar (Meryl Streep has been nominated, what, 346 times?), especially one nominated for a part so antithetical to the glam of the big night.

"She played such an androgynous role," says New York designer Rebecca Taylor, who adds that it would be exciting to be the one to point out: "Look, she's not really a boy!"

It's a good bet that Swank won't be wearing the jeans and flannel of her "Boys" character Brandon Teena, a woman who lives her life as a man, as she sashays down the red carpet runway on March 26.

But just what she will be wearing as she emerges from her limo is as much a secret as who will win.

We asked designers to explain what makes Swank the material girl of the moment and how they would make her shine on the night of a thousand stars.

Calvert says it's tempting to play against the boyish style of her role. He'd opt for "something kind of girly, because she has very sharp features." It might be long and red. It definitely would show skin.

Taylor thinks overly frilly and super-sweet would be a mistake.

"No ballgown skirts or twinsets," Taylor says. Maybe not even a dress. Taylor could see Swank in funky leather pants.

If Pamela Dennis, a designer who dresses Jamie Lee Curtis and many other screen sirens, were in charge, the design "would be simple, because her body and presence stand on their own," she says. "But I'd give it some twist."

She would fashion something similar to the dark, slinky, beaded Versace dress that Swank wowed onlookers with at the Golden Globes. Maybe she'd do it in suede, with glittery straps.

Swank "just has an air of confidence that comes from within," Dennis says. "It's an air of confidence with grace, not an obnoxious air of confidence."

Sexy and clingy is something they all agree on. Why waste that bod?

New York men's and women's wear designer John Scher would show it off in a bare, backless dress. "She looks like a young Raquel Welch. She's very sexy with those dark eyes, large mouth."

But she's no big-screen Barbie Doll.

There's something about a risk-taking actress that gets a designer's creativity churning, Scher says.

Los Angeles jewelry designer Cynthia Bach, who designed Swank's accessories for last month's Golden Globe Awards, agrees. She's more inspired "if I really get into a movie and really get into a role. With Hilary, I was really impressed."

Bach may very well be responsible for Swank's Oscar jewelry as well, but doesn't have the actress pinned down yet. Suiting Swank has turned out to be somewhat of a challenge.

The fight to deck out the actress for the Golden Globes was as tight as her dress.

She was originally slated to sport a flesh-toned Randolph Duke. But when she discovered fellow femme fatale Charlize Theron was planning to slink into a shockingly similar sheath, she cast the dress off and went with Versace.

No starlet wants that kind of competition.

Just because she donned Versace at the Globes doesn't mean she'll do an Oscar encore.

"We would love to dress her, but that is up to her," says Versace spokeswoman Hannah Kime. "She's gorgeous and she's very of the moment."

Even Taylor agrees that a Versace double take would serve Swank well.

"Versace is probably a nice way to go because it's very sexy, but it has a tough edge," she says.

Often, screen goddesses find designers that fit best and stick with them through the years of awards show appearances. Michelle Pfeiffer goes Armani, Cher goes Bob Mackie.

For a designer, outfitting a sought-after starlet for the Academy Awards means priceless exposure. For the right dress, 30 seconds at the podium can translate into months of post-Oscar fashion buzz -- as well as knockoffs galore.

Best actress Gwyneth Paltrow's prommy pink frock from last year scored for Ralph Lauren, and Cate Blanchett's hummingbird-embroidered gown earned raves for John Galliano. In 1998, Kim Basinger approached the podium in an exquisite pistachio number that gave Escada attention, and the year before, Minnie Driver's risque red va-va-voom dress was a winner for Halston.

Right now, Swank has designers circling her like haute-seeking missiles. But that doesn't necessarily insure career longevity.

Think Marisa Tomei, who won best supporting actress for "My Cousin Vinnie" in 1992.

"I'm sure everyone was clamoring to dress her," Calvert says.

They're all dressed up with someplace to go

Hilary Swank may be this year's hot ticket for Oscar-dressing. But only one lucky designer gets to dress her.

Designers, don't despair! This is a winning year for fresh Oscar faces poised to make the right dress part of Academy Awards Fashion History. Consider these stunning nominees:

Angelina Jolie: Best supporting actress, "Girl, Interrupted"

Chloe Sevigny: Best supporting actress, "Boys Don't Cry"

Toni Collette: Best supporting actress, "The Sixth Sense"

Catherine Keener: Best supporting actress, "Being John Malkovich"

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