Lifetime @ NYFW

How Those Fab Dresses Get From the Runway to Red Carpet—and Then Your Closet

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows

Every winter our screens are taken over by gorgeous women in eye-catching clothes that we love, loath or link. January’s SAG Awards gave us Nicole Kidman’s peacock feathers, Taraji P. Henson’s sheer stunner and Thandie Newton’s show-stopping neckpiece. With Fashion Week upon us, this season should no doubt find many of the top looks on the backs of Hollywood’s biggest names in a matter of weeks.

But the path from runway to red carpet isn’t exactly a straight line. Stars don’t just show up at red carpets and pick what they like best. Often, they dispatch stylists like Elizabeth Stewart, who counts Jessica Chastain and Cate Blanchett among her well-heeled clients. And even then, anticipate some tweaks. According to red carpet expert Melissa Rivers, co-host and executive producer of E!’s “Fashion Police,” the clothes you see on the runway aren’t exactly what shows up on the red carpet. Once the dress is pulled off the runway for an actress to wear on the red carpet, it can be altered according to the star’s tastes—hemlines raised, sleeves shortened, accessories added. “On our show, we show the runway version and the red carpet version. Very often it will look better on the actress because it’s adjusted to fit the person, not just the model walking down the runway.”

That’s true for retail versions of designer dresses, too. By the time a designer frock hits your favorite department store or website, the hemline may be a little longer, it’s not as sheer. It’s basically been altered to go from fantasy to reality, explains Rivers. An item that looks right in the spotlight may not look right for your next black tie dinner. “In real life you have to be careful copying a runway look exactly and you need to remember that these are all show pieces. They might be showing a sheer shirt without anything underneath it. It might look gorgeous on a twenty-year-old,” says Rivers. “I don’t know about anybody else, but I don’t want to see my neighbor’s nipples.”

Do Red Carpet Dresses Actually Sell?

A dress widely photographed dress on the red carpet is likely both incredibly expensive and boasts a limited customer base. The real upside for a designer when a celebrity rocks his or her gown is, quite simply, exposure. “In an indirect manner it gives the brand a great amount of visibility. Though something on the red carpet may be thousands and thousands of dollars,” says designer Dennis Basso. “It gives more of a stamp of approval on the brand.”

At that point, regular shoppers find similar pieces inspired by the red carpet or runway looks. “Even for $50 or $100, the association comes across that this is an important and respected brand,” adds Basso.

Runway, and then red carpet, can also inspire wider trends. It’s incredible visibility when an item is shown on runway or on the red carpet. Says Sharon Lombardo, creative director at Anne Klein, who points out how companies are adept at producing something “at every price point and usually those things become available in one iteration or another. Most people watching what the celebrities are wearing are looking to buy into that look.” She notes some major trends in the marketplace right now such as plunging necklines and cold shoulder details were “probably started on the red carpet on a gown. It’s breathtaking how fast those looks can be translated to a global trend at every price point.”

Instagram is the New Red Carpet

The traditional path of buyers sitting in a fashion show and making store purchasing decisions based on runway looks is alive and well. You may not see them next to the celebrities or getting their pictures taken, but designers are very much paying attention to them. “They are the real VIPs,” says Rivers.

Today you don’t have to be invited to a show to see (and ogle) what’s dispatched down the catwalk, thanks to instant online and social media coverage. “You used to have to wait to see what the magazine put in. It could take months, now it’s seconds,” says Basso. “People are seeing it around the world in real time—it gives you great visibility.”

Stylist Cary Fetman, who in addition to having worked with Sarah Jessica Parker, Oprah and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is the longtime costumer for “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” says in the past few years Instagram and television have become huge influences. His Instagram posts featuring the contestants’ outfits are filled with commenter inquiries about where and when the items are available for purchase, with the designers jumping on to answer. “Now the designers are reaching out to me” requesting a heads up on which episode their clothes will appear so they can be prepared with stock, says Fetman. “They want to work together.”

Designer Deals

Designers are working closer than ever with celebrities. Some stars will wear a particular designer, fresh off the runway, because they have an existing endorsement deal. Those kinds of partnerships can be great for both parties, as the house gets to know the celebrity well and enjoys exclusive rights to outfit her for red carpet events; the brand, in turn, uses as a brand ambassador in ad campaigns and press events. For the actual customer, such relationships make high fashion houses more accessible. “Over the years the runway to red carpet has morphed into big business for designers. The celebrities are a walking advertisement for the brand because it makes the look attainable,” explains celebrity stylist Karen Kleber.

The downside: such endorsement deals mean fewer opportunities for designers, especially up-and-comers, to outfit stars and benefit from the exposure.

“The red carpet has been sold down to within an inch of its life,” says Fetman. It wasn’t always like that, he says, remembering the days when stylists had more latitude with their clients and celebrities could choose whatever they wanted. Says Kleber, “It was easier twenty years ago, before the deals. It is very hard now.”

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