Writers' strike is cutting fashion industry's red-carpet exposure

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They saw it coming.

As the two-month Hollywood writers' strike stretched into 2008, America's fashion industry knew it was only a matter of time before the impasse began to directly affect them.

It's awards season for the acting industry, a time when the red carpets are rolled out and celebrities stroll them in designer duds and dazzling jewels. Visibility for designers who dress the stars is at its peak as millions of Americans -- typically more than 60 million for the Oscars and Golden Globes alone -- tune in to gawk at the rich, famous and beautiful.

Designers worth their shears would love to see a star swathed in one of their creations because the resulting publicity could mean moving from obscurity to fame. Elie Saab can vouch for this. An emerging Lebanese designer in 2002, he became an overnight sensation in the United States when Halle Berry wore his gown while accepting her historic Oscar that year.

But this year, many designers will look back on this season as one they'd like to forget. There was no red carpet for the Golden Globes presentation last night, the People's Choice Awards last Tuesday was scaled back to a pre-taped program, and the most prestigious red carpet of all may remain in storage for the Academy Awards Feb. 24 if the Writers Guild of America protest hasn't ended by then.

In many cases, related parties that provided a slew of images for newspapers, magazines and TV shows have been canceled.

All of which have left the favorite designers of A-list entertainers searching for alternate ways to get their looks on their celeb clients and in front of the public.

Some designers have set their sights on less-prominent awards ceremonies, film festivals, exclusive sponsorship of parties. Cartier, for example, was the presenting sponsor of the Jan. 5 awards gala at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which ends today.

Others brands are looking into sponsorship of movie premieres, such as New York designer Carmen Marc Valvo, a celebrity favorite who has dressed the likes of Kate Winslet, Vanessa L. Williams, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden and Oprah Winfrey.

"There are so many red-carpet opportunities throughout the year now that are covered in many media outlets," said Frank Pulice, Valvo's director of communications. "We always have requests and will continue to work with as many of our friends as possible through these other opportunities."

Incidentally, Valvo recently created 400 dresses for a scene in the movie "What Just Happened?," which stars Robert DeNiro and will be released later this year.

Several awards shows are sanctioned by the WGA, which eliminates picket lines that many entertainers would refuse to cross. Two such shows -- the Screen Actors Guild Awards (Jan. 27) and the relaxed-elegance, daytime Spirit Awards (Feb. 23) -- by default will be more relevant and important this year for fashion, said Tom Julian, director of trends for McCann-Erickson and fashion expert for www.oscar.com.

"SAG may be the most formal, glam night of the award show season at this point," he said.

Mr. Julian said that some designers have begun taking advantage of other platforms, from the Palm Springs Film Festival to the Sundance Film Festival that opens Thursday.

"There has also been talk that Cannes in May will allow for more designer visibility," he said, referring to the prestigious annual film festival in France.

Uncharacteristic chic ruled earlier this month at the Critics' Choice Awards, another WGA-sanctioned event. Katie Holmes stepped out in a one-shoulder, Grecian-style Lanvin dress, Kyra Sedgwick showed up in a lovely red-and-black Oscar de la Renta frock, and Daniel Day-Lewis turned heads in a tailored double-breasted pinstripe suit with a polka-dot tie and French cuffs.

Most of the season's awards shows and film festivals are on the West Coast. Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera are among a handful of New York's most prominent designers with retail stores in California, which positions them better to get their new styles in the media spotlight.

The strike's fashion fallout extends beyond big-name designers. It limits opportunities for new and emerging designers to vault themselves in a single day from obscurity or a cult following to household name and national fame.

Red-carpet exposure was the ticket to instant recognition for such big names as Randolph Duke, Vera Wang, Narciso Rodriguez, Monique Lhuillier, as well as Mr. Saab, the Lebanese designer.

"A small and newer designer does have to work harder and think harder about how to cut through," said Mr. Julian. He alluded to 20-something Los Angeles designer Jenni Kayne, who debuts her collections at New York Fashion Week and in October opened a 3,000-square-foot shop in West Hollywood.

Beyond the fashion industry, the strike has style implications for the public.

Colorful photo spreads and large special sections after an event? Diminished.

Availability of affordable knock-offs of fabulous gowns? Jeopardized.

In 2004, fashion maven Rebecca Whitlinger bought a sexy pink Pamella Roland gown just like the one Kim Cattrall wore to the Emmys that year. The Wilkinsburg resident isn't thrilled about this season's absence of live red-carpet shows and next-day commentaries.

"That's one of the very unfortunate outcomes of the strike," she said. "It's punishing everybody. Hopefully, they can sit down and get it together."

In the meantime, America's biggest names in fashion are gearing up to show their fall collections Feb. 1-8 at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.

"We have no plans to deviate from our format for Fashion Week," said Mr. Pulice at Carmen Marc Valvo. "But we are hoping more of our friends will be in town to come to the show due to the strike, if it continues."

That would delight designers, who understand the power of celebrities to attract free media attention. And the benefits could extend abroad.

"Maybe we will see more star wattage in the front rows of the shows in New York City, Paris, Milan, especially if the actors are not working," said Mr. Julian.

As Peter Som wrapped up design work on the Bill Blass collection and on his own line for Fashion Week, he hoped for a quick and amicable end to the strike.

"Definitely, the fashion industry has been affected by it," he said.

Post-Gazette fashion editor LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1469.


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