The Red Carpet Is Its Own Economy

Jennifer Lawrence wearing a white Dior Haute Couture gown at the 2013 Academy Awards.

Update: see our Golden Globes red carpet coverage here.

“For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” the actress Eva Longoria told The New York Times earlier this week, explaining the movement among attendees to wear all-black to the Golden Globes this weekend. And she was absolutely right, to a certain extent. But the awards shows were not all that the gowns and the colors and the faces and the glamour of the women on the red carpet were selling.

They were also selling their own images, manufactured in collusion with the brands they represented, as well as the millions of magazines and websites (including, yes, our own) that recorded those images, and they were profiting — often handsomely — from it.

To ignore that history and their own role in creating it is both hypocritical and ultimately undermines the perhaps meaningful shift in that equation, which may be taking place this weekend as the women involved finally use their clothes to do more than just boost a variety of bank accounts.

Which is, let’s be honest, part of what they have been doing for more than two decades. To understand why this change is a big deal, you need to understand the background against which it is playing out.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the red carpet became an economy unto itself — somewhere back in the late 20th century — but it has been a carefully cultivated marketing tool for generations now, built on an illusion into which we all buy: the largely fabricated pretense that actresses (and actors) are choosing their own gowns, and that what we see is a pure expression of their personal style.

Fact is, what we are seeing is often a look that has been bought, and created, by a global brand, or group of brands, from clothes to shoes, bags, jewels, watches and hairstyles. And the individuals involved have been more than willing to secure their financial future by selling it: swirling in it, name-checking it and otherwise promoting it.

For any major awards show (and the Globes certainly qualifies) many boldface nominees will have contractual relationships with fashion brands — negotiated by managers and agents — that require them to wear a gown or a tuxedo by that brand to that event. They may have input into the final product. They may even, with the help of a stylist (who is also often paid by both actor and brand) have chosen it themselves. But the idea that they chose it from all the gowns on option? The idea they — gasp! — shopped for it? Utter hooey. They chose it under very specific guidelines from a very specific selection.

It began, as most sell-your-soul initiatives do, innocently enough. As the advent of the fashion police and the worst-dressed lists began to shine a light on the occasionally terrible taste of Hollywood (remember the Demi Moore bicycle shorts ball gown?), designers seemed to provide a safe harbor of expert advice. Giorgio Armani was, famously, the first to realize the potential benefits, and became the founding father of the fashion/Hollywood axis. Soon, however, most of his peers followed. It was, largely, a mutually beneficial relationship of like-minded individuals where everyone benefited: A celebrity got a great dress, and a brand got a great-looking famous person in their dress, and we all got to ogle them.

As movie receipts fell, however, fashion exploded, and money entered the picture. Soon talent (and their managers) realized that income lost in choosing, say, a small indie film to bolster acting cred, could be offset by agreeing to become an “ambassador” for a runway brand, a job that could range from a single appearance to ad campaigns, show and party attendance, and sometimes even product collaborations. Sometimes the payments went straight to a charity. Sometimes they went to support artistic choices. And thus the slippery slope was oiled by the best intentions, and down everyone slid.

It’s a measure of how uncomfortable they all are with it that not a single part of the ecosystem is willing to admit on the record how much money changes hands. They barely want to discuss it at all. In 2015, at the Vulture festival, the stylist Jessica Paster went so far as to reveal that she got “anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000,” while actresses could receive “something between $100,000 and $250,000,” but she didn’t name names.

The year before, Page Six announced Jennifer Lawrence was reportedly going to receive $15-20 million for her current three-year contract to represent Dior — a brand with one of the largest celeb stables in fashion (it includes Rihanna and Natalie Portman) — though the brand itself wasn’t talking. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Miu Miu are also among the most starry-eyed of the runway names.

Make no mistake: This is not changing, necessarily, because of the actresses’ decision to wear black. The same brands that would have dressed a celebrity in, say, a gold-tinged princess gown or a sequined aqua mermaid style will still dress them this year, albeit in a different shade.

But it could change for a related reason. That is, whether the women and men in black will name-check the brands behind the clothes during their entrance interviews as they have in the past, and whether those brands will then send out the usual news releases claiming their celebrities and milking their investments. Because if those things don’t happen — and there’s a good chance they won’t, if the individuals and the companies that support them are really committed to their political messaging — then it could substantially alter the calculus.

Selling anything more than an idea might not be a significant part of it at all.

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