Every year, the well-publicized Academy Awards ceremony draws nationwide attention. People watch and read about the show not just to keep tabs on their favorites films, but to admire and critique the glamorous celebrity fashions. Clothing, cosmetics, hair styles, and (of course) jewelry worn to star-studded events like the Oscars can influence fashion trends for months or years to come.
It's not surprising that fashion designers are willing to make significant sacrifices to get their designs onto the bodies of celebrities who attend big events like the Oscars, Emmys, and the various music awards shows. In the fashion-marketing business, they call this a method of "product placement."
For years, the big fashion design houses have allowed celebrities to borrow their designs, free of charge, to wear to high-profile events. This allows stars to choose among various designs based on their own tastes (or the recommendations of their stylists). But this practice is becoming more rare with increased competition among designers - and huge design house budgets.
Today, popular celebrities are paid large sums of money by designers to wear certain designs to public events. So your favorite actress might not even like the high-priced necklace and earring set you see her wearing. She could be working a paid advertisement for a design house, even though she appears to be on her own free time.
Consider the luxurious little Chopard diamond earrings worn by Best Actress winner Hilary Swank at the 2005 Oscars. According to TimesOnline (London), Swank originally borrowed jewelry from jewelry Harry Winston for the event, but returned it after accepting an offer from Chopard to pay her an estimated $90,000 to wear its design instead.
(Or did this switch-a-roo happen at the earlier Golden Globes? The L.A. Times reports that both Swank and actress Charlize Theron returned their loaned Harry Winston jewels within 24 hours before they planned to wear them to the Golden Globes, reportedly receiving "6 figure checks" from Chopard to wear its designs to the event.)
Swank wasn't the only celebrity wearing Chopard on Oscar night, although its unclear whether other stars received similar compensation from the company. The list of Chopard wearers reportedly included Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Nicolette Sheridan, Penelope Cruz, Star Jones Reynolds, and even Al Roker.
Lorraine Schwartz is another designer whose jewelry was worn by many celebrities at the 2005 Oscars. Her jewelry became a hot commodity after the 2002 Golden Globes, where it was worn by the popular Halle Berry. Schwartz's company, Lorraine E. Schwartz, Inc., now describes its client list as including "celebrities, fashionistas, and the social elite." (From a 2003 Lorraine E. Schwartz, Inc., press release.)
According to Schwartz in a recent interview, her "big break" came when celebrities chose to wear her designs; she did not pay them to do so. Schwartz now expresses concern that lesser-known designers will not have the opportunity to expose their designs to the stars, because they cannot compete financially with the wealthy design houses.
Writer Beth Moore of the L.A. Times shows similar concern in her beautifully-written summary of the new celebrity pay-to-wear practice. She calls it "the latest artifice of rigged pop culture [that] risks squeezing smaller designers out of the promotional game and could signal the end of seeing any real personal style in Tinsletown."
But smaller designers are not completely uninvolved in the glamour of Oscar night. A select few have their designs placed in some of the hundreds of gift bags (otherwise known as "Oscar baskets" or "hospitality bags") given to stars who attend the event.
These designers hope celebrities will choose to wear their jewelry some time after the awards show - and preferably be photographed wearing it. Even if celebrities give away their gifted jewelry and decide not to wear it, the publicity of having a design included in an Oscar bag provides a lot of publicity in itself.
Of course, there's always a catch. Designers are required to donate large amounts of jewelry for the bags, and typically each jewelry piece must have a substantial minimum value. For example, one company requires a donation of at least 250 pieces of jewelry, and that each piece be valued at a minimum of $500. Not many lesser-known designers can afford that kind of financial commitment and risk. But those who can often believe the opportunity for fame is well-worth the price.