Oscars 2011: Shoes from Brian Atwood to Christian Louboutin

Forget the gowns Natalie Portman and Nicole Kidman will wear at this Sunday’s Oscars. Covert campaigns are being waged over what will grace their feet.

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Will Natalie Portman wear a glittering Christian Dior gown to the Academy Awards on Sunday? Or a draped dress by Black Swan costume designer Rodarte? Maybe she’ll surprise the world with a red-carpet dark horse such as Viktor & Rolf. Until she steps out of the limo, it’s anybody’s guess.

Red-carpet dressing has long been a cutthroat game for stylists and publicists, who lobby for dresses with a fervor on par with a For Your Consideration campaign. But it’s no longer just about the dresses. There’s another battleground where the game is becoming just as competitive: shoes. They may seem like an afterthought—after all, the Oscars are about honoring talent and the power of cinema, right?—but as red-carpet sashaying becomes more scrutinized, so do its moving parts: Who wears which shoes matters more now than ever before.

Gallery: Red Carpet Shoes

These are the red-carpet shoe wars. They’re played out in the pristine designer showrooms of Beverly Hills, celebrity dressing rooms (often a suite at Chateau Marmont), and sometimes in the backseat of a limo on the way to the Kodak Theatre. For fashion publicists, the goal is clear. If you’re Brian Atwood, you want to pop up more feet than Jimmy Choo; if you’re Jimmy Choo, you’re aiming to oust Christian Louboutin. For stylists, it’s about finding the shoe that matches a dress, and keeping A-list clients happy (and comfortable). “What you’re calling a shoe war is what we’re calling options,” says stylist Jessica Paster, who this year is dressing Annette Bening and Emily Blunt. From Atwood, Louboutin, and Choo to Roger Vivier, Giuseppe Zanotti, and Sergio Rossi, there are now about 15 major shoe designers all jockeying for the perfect Oscar position. “Now, the more shoe companies there are, the less chance they have to be on the red carpet,” Paster says.

The games begin well before awards season, sometimes as early as late November. At that point, stylists begin contacting designers to secure sample shoes for their celebrity clients. Fashion publicists, meanwhile, are going after the big fish and trying to convince Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow to wear their designs. According to one fashion publicist, roughly 60 percent of the time she is solicited for shoes; while 40 percent of her time is spent pitching her client’s shoes out to big stars. And out of the number of people requesting shoes, she says she rejects around 15 percent. “The bigger the brand gets, the more yahoos want it,” she says. “But it also gets you the attention of the big stars.”

Rejecting a celebrity can be rough. If a designer determines that a star isn’t “on brand” enough, it falls to their publicist to break the news to that celebrity’s stylist. “You wouldn’t give a crazy shoe to Amy Adams,” says the publicist. “Because she’s elegant. Similarly, you wouldn’t give an elegant shoe to someone funky. Each brand has a perfect girl in mind that’s aligned with the spirit and the vision of their brand.”

In the case of Natalie Portman—whose entire wardrobe is the Holy Grail this year—finding the right shoe is a tough fit. Her stance on animal protection strikes out anything with leather. “No leather, no leather, no leather,” says her longtime stylist Kate Young. “I know how to read the import labels on the bottom of shoes to know whether they’re synthetic or animal fibers.” Christian Dior made vegan shoes for the star, and Portman has also worn vegan shoe line Beyond Skin, Charles David, and Aldo. “One of the things that’s been so nice is that Dior made all of the shoes for me with no animals and no leather or anything,” Portman has said. “They remade all of my shoes so I can wear Dior shoes without taking lives.” Says the publicist about the placing of shoes on stars: “You have to know who’s a vegan and who’s not. You have to know which stars can do a narrow toe—and which have a wide foot or a low arch.”

After stars have been approved by designers, the lending begins. “I have a library in my head of what [every designer showroom] has, so I know ‘I want these three shoes from Jimmy Choo,’” says Karla Welch, of the styling firm Kemal + Karla, who this year is working with 14-year-old nominee Hailee Steinfeld. Brad Goreski, a well-known stylist, explains that when he goes to “pull” shoes for an awards event, he chooses “at least” 20 pairs. The same goes for most stylists, who are depleting the coffers of showrooms around Hollywood. At one popular designer showroom, there are estimated to be 100 pairs of shoes on loan across town. The result is what many are calling a “shoe famine” in Los Angeles during awards season. “There’s definitely a shortage right now,” says Goreski. “Everybody is stretched so thin for sizes. I wish I had hoarded some 38s when I could!”

After the hoarding of options, fittings begin, and the winning shoe is ultimately paired with the winning dress. Ultimately, Paster explains, “it’s always going to be last minute jewels and shoes.” For this reason, she sends her clients to the Oscars with Dr. Scholl’s Fast Flats in their evening bags, which can be slipped on during the show. But as any good stylist will tell you, you’d never dream of sending a star to an awards show with only one pair of heels. Every actress who swans on the red carpet in six-inch Louboutins or platform Brian Atwoods has two just-as-pretty runners up waiting in the car in case of an emergency.

After months of frantic emails, samples messengered across Los Angeles, and more than a few blisters, when Oscar Sunday rolls around, designers will be waiting nervously for their shoes to appear on the red carpet. But when Anne Hathaway or Nicole Kidman steps out of the limo, designers are bound for disappointment. Not because they’re being snubbed—but because after all of that drama, the shoes are in for a sad denouement. Dresses are often so long they cover up the perfect pair—stars could be wearing wellies or bedroom slippers underneath their gowns and no one would notice.

But, as the publicist explains, “Designers always want a shoe to be seen, but if not, it’s still a big deal just to be worn to the Oscars.” And ultimately, when it comes to shoes, it’s not about wearing the right designer, or any political maneuvering the way there is with a major dress. “You’re not going to favor one designer over the other when it comes to shoes,” Goreski says. “The best shoe always wins.”

Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.