All eyes on the Oscar red carpet as Middle Eastern designers get their chance to shine
Many of the stars attending this year’s Academy Awards ceremony will have been mulling over their outfits since late last year.
Preparations for Hollywood’s biggest night of film and fashion takes months of careful planning, with designers, major fashion houses, jewellers, stylists and personal trainers all getting in on the act.
Chaps have it slightly easier than their female counterparts, with tuxedos, velvet smoking jackets and sharp suits the order of the night for the star-studded event.
For actresses, however – especially those nominated for a gong – the red carpet demands the perfect dress. So-called “poor choices” can trigger stinging criticism from the media that is hard to shake off, often overshadowing whether or not they win the award.
Few will forget Cher’s frock horror in 1988 when she picked up her Oscar for Best Actress in Moonstruck wearing a sheer and sequinned showgirl creation by Bob Mackie.
Bjork raised eyebrows when she strode into the famous theatre wearing a swan-inspired dress, complete with long neck and beak, in 2001. And Diane Keaton made just as many headlines when she opted for a formal morning suit – including top hat, tails and spats – by Ralph Lauren in 2014.
In a bid to simplify the business of getting dressed and to avoid any fashion faux pas, agents and stylists deal directly with brands to kit out most actresses. The pieces chosen are almost always couture and, on rare occasions, from the maison’s hallowed archive.
Celebrities plumping for gowns by Middle East designers have grabbed headlines in recent decades, most memorably when Halle Berry wore Elie Saab couture in 2002. The Lebanese designer created a russet red, taffeta-skirted gown with an embroidered sheer top for the actress, who collected an Oscar for Best Actress in Monster’s Ball.
Another firm favourite from the region with Hollywood A-listers is the modest master couturier Zuhair Murad, also from Lebanon, who has worked closely with Jennifer Lopez at the Oscars.
Flying the UAE flag is Dubai couturier Michael Cinco whose creations were worn by British television presenter Kelly Brook to Elton John’s Aids Foundation Oscar party in 2015.
“Britney Spears also wore my dress to an Oscar after-party,” says Cinco. “It was in 2013 and very memorable because it was the first time she had appeared in public after her tumultuous career break. She was originally supposed to wear Versace and when the press asked who she was wearing, she said, “Versace” – but her stylist quickly corrected her. The press picked it up, enjoying the gossip.”
Famous faces who have pulled off Cinco’s couture with aplomb include Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue and Mila Kunis. While the Filipino-born designer has no problem dressing ladies for ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, the Oscars is a much trickier prospect.
“The red carpet is all about politics,” says Cinco. “Ahead of the Oscars, some of the big brands invite stylists and the PRs to Paris Couture Week. The trip is all-expenses-paid, flights, hotel and gifts – as long as the celebrity only wears their clothes on the red carpet. That is tough competition.”
Actresses can command huge fees as brand ambassadors, and so binding contracts often tie them exclusively to one house for one to four years. Lacklustre consumer spending in the ready-to-wear and couture markets in the United States is making things even tougher for European and regional designers.
“My opinion is that celebrities are being urged to wear American designers right now because the industry is struggling over there,” says Cinco. “They want to promote American fashion – even at the Golden Globes, there were fewer celebrities wearing Chanel, Dior and Valentino. Even Elie Saab wasn’t seen as much. I really hope it’s different at the Oscars and we’ll see more Middle Eastern designers.”
Cinco’s approach to dressing celebrities is professional and straightforward, with no obsequious gifts or tokens of affection. He simply brings every new couture collection to Los Angeles and displays it before the PR professionals, agents and stylists of his famous clients.
“I sent at least six dresses to the Oscars this year and I really hope someone wears them,” he says. “But if they don’t, I’ll just shrug my shoulders. I know it’s not all about the stylist’s recommendations because at the last minute the celebrity decides. It can depend what mood they’re in, even if they’ve specifically asked me to make something for them.
“And when famous people do wear my pieces, my team and I are often the last to know.”
With his unique, hand-finished gowns typically costing hundreds of thousands of dirhams, Cinco’s atelier is not in the business of giving dresses away for free.
“All my dresses are returned – it’s part of the contract” he says, “Most are on loan but some are bought. I also get a lot of diehard fans in the Middle East who see celebrities wearing my outfits on Instagram and want to have them. It’s very difficult when I don’t want to sell them but keep them for my archive.”
Dresses that sent his clients into a buying frenzy in the past year include a sapphire, Cinderella-like gown for outgoing Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, plus the red halter-neck Lady Gaga wore at her New Year’s Eve show in Las Vegas.
“With any of my dresses made for Jennifer Lopez, clients want exactly the same,” says Cinco. “The ombré gown she wore to the American Music Awards in 2015 was my most saleable dress of hers. So many people came to see me to buy it. A Saudi princess who travelled here was in a hurry and insisted on having it. So, I gave it to her and made a new one for the archive.”
Tonight, Cinco – much like Murad and Saab – will no doubt be glued to the live television coverage of the Oscars.
“I always get up early to watch it but I’m more a fan of the red carpet than the ceremony itself,” says the designer to the stars. “I also dream of dressing Cate Blanchett one day. I’ve sent her so many dresses and she’s not worn them yet. For me, she’s the epitome of an elegant woman who has her own style.”
Updated: February 25, 2017 04:00 AM