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02.20.09

Battle of the Oscar Stylists

The battle to dress an A-list actress for the Oscars makes the contest for a gold statuette look positively bloodless.

If producers, directors, and Hollywood celebs are only as big as their last big hit, celebrity stylists are only as big as the last tiny dress their biggest A-list client squeezed into. This year's top Oscar stylists—Cristina Ehrlich, Jen Rade, Rachel Zoe, and Estee Stanley— have all paid their dues and beyond. Yes, each has the so-called "eye," but they also have smarts, loyalty to their clients, and some even know when to keep their mouths shut and shun the limelight. More importantly, they have access to the best dresses in the world—and can get them, pronto.

But these days, celebrity stylists are replaced more frequently than cabinet secretaries. The job "celebrity stylist" was only invented in the mid-‘90s, and seniority is far from security in this high-stress, high-earning sect. If you dress Cate Blanchett and she's not nominated you can sit out a whole awards season to the tune of fifty grand or more. Luckily, Blanchett’s stylist, Elizabeth Stewart, scored Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis ( Doubt) this season while Blanchett sat on the bleachers.

The so-called "names" who invented the job—Philip Bloch, who dressed Halle Berry, and Jessica Paster, who styled Minnie Driver, Kim Basinger and Blanchett—have a better chance of landing on a reality show these days than landing a big name. (Bloch is actually on VH1's Glam Gods.) You can credit Paster and Bloch with starting the Great Stylist Wars of the 1990s. Each would call in the best of Dior, Valentino, Versace, and Oscar de la Renta just to make sure the other stylists couldn't get their greedy hands on them. Then they would casually bestow them on C-listers who paid them more than their A-listers did, while the A-listers got paid real money to wear a different designer. Or got flown to Paris for Couture with their whole family. Or both. Designers wised up, and contracts are required now.

Why is barely anybody wearing vintage? Dead designers don't pay.

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Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

This year, four new names have claimed their place at the top of the stylist hierarchy. One, Cristina Ehrlich, is a no-nonsense, jeans-wearing workaholic who lives for her clients. She's got a soft spot for high-fashion drama from Paris, and travels there often to find obscure looks from Gianbastitta Valli and Alaia for her girls. You'll never see her clients in a predictable look—she loves a spectrum. For the Oscars, she’s dressing Amy Adams, Penelope Cruz, and Melissa Leo. She also dresses Jessica Biel, and co-created the line Miss Davenporte.

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Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Then there’s the eclectic Jen Rade, famed for dressing Angelina Jolie. She’s a costumer and stylist who’s done hip hop (Dr. Dre), metal videos (Marilyn Manson), and horror flicks. She also dresses Pink, Kim Kardashian, and various rappers. But she’s no label snob. Sure, she loves a couture dress, but she embraces the two-dollar vintage no-name just as warmly. A low-key goth-girl rocker who is impressed by nothing, she knows a good "Angie" look when she sees one. She also keeps herself out of the spotlight, which is why Angie loves her and won't work with anyone else.

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Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

The third new star this year is Estee Stanley, who both dresses the Olsen Twins and designs their home interiors. She created the Miss Davenporte line with Ehrlich, and also did a line of lingerie for Frederick's of Hollywood. Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake came to her wedding. Stanley's looks for Marisa Tomei have been all over the map this awards season, from high-society to sexy—that's what makes her interesting. Her choices range from Oscar de la Renta to Elie Saab to vintage.

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Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Nearly outshining them all, however, is Rachel Zoe. “I will take over Jessica Paster’s rule” Zoe announced when she moved to Los Angeles around 2000 – and then proceeded to essentially do just that. A gown-wearing toothpick with a mop-top, she has a habit of dressing her clients like herself. Twinning out Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan may have put her on the tan-blonde-celebrity map, but stars like Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway and Keira Knightley have kept her there. Lucky for her, there's no way Oscar-nom Anne Hathaway can look like Zoe—she's paler, taller, and a lot more demure. Former assistants of Zoe's, like stylist Tara Swennen (Miley Cyrus, Angie Harmon) have built entire on the foundation of working with her.

But why are these new stylist stars not dressing their clients in Valentino, Vera Wang, Gucci, or even Isaac Mizrahi? For the same reason they are dressing them in Elie Saab and Reem Acra: reciprocation in the form of highly paid Prs, sending seamstresses to L.A., frequent trips – and, no doubt, gifts.

Because Hollywood fashion is big business disguised as a bitch-fest. After all, Giorgio Armani has a lot of perfumes to promote. (And a makeup line. And a jeans line.) One - or five – dresses, or even tuxes, at the Oscars seen by hundreds of millions can curry up a lot of cash at the world cash register. But exactly whose hands does the cash cross? The actresses'? The stylists’? A publicist or manager? Perhaps all. We know actresses have received up to $500,000 to wear a dress—not to mention diamond jewelry—and we've watched stylists get flown to Paris and Milan first-class. The year Scarlett Johansson was nominated for Girl With a Pearl Earring is the year celebs started getting full ad-campaign offers, and hiring agents to negotiate ever-pushier fashion and beauty deals. According to sources, Scarlett's mother negotiated that both she and Scarlett get to keep their clothes and jewelry.

And Renee Zellweger loves to wear Carolina's creations, but all the time? What about Reese Witherspoon and Nina Ricci? Ricci and Herrera are both run by Puig's Mario Grauso. And Witherspoon and Zellweger both have BWR's Nanci Ryder as their longtime PR woman. Is it worth it for these companies to keep stars and their keepers on retainer? Can you say "household name"? When did Nina Ricci become a household name? It's a small, exclusive French brand that was once only the denizen of select fashionistas.

A shorter list would be fashion houses that don’t pay. Chanel has never paid a star to wear a dress. Harry Winston, who made history as the "jewelers of the Oscars," never paid a star to wear a diamond either, and consequently, do you ever hear of Harry Winston on a red carpet anymore? Why is barely anybody wearing vintage? (Dead designers don't pay.) More often, you hear "Neil Lane," an L.A.-based Kaballah-going jeweler, or Chopard, or Cartier. Which stars refuse payment? Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman are the names that have always been associated with, "No thanks, I'll wear what I want. And I can afford it. Here's a check." On the other hand, didn't we hear Giorgio Armani financed Cate Blanchett's favorite Sydney theater the year she wore Armani Prive to the Oscars? It's simply too much money for too little work to be sneezed at. If your kid could go to college on a dress, are you going to opt for a prettier dress? How much prettier could it be? College educations are very pretty. And in this economy, "money" is the new "pretty."

Merle Ginsberg has written for W, WWD, Rolling Stone, People, the London Times, Elle UK, Harper's Bazaar, and is currently the Editor in Chief of FashionRules.com, a Hollywood Fashion website.