Can A Red-Carpet Dress Ever Really Be Sustainable?

BAFTA RIPPED UP the red-carpet rule book last week with its very 2020 dress code, requesting guests ‘make sustainable choices on the red carpet’. In other words, if possible, rewear an old dress. At the time of going to press, we don’t know how BAFTA’s goal of a carbon-neutral ceremony has worked out but, with the Oscars this Sunday, it has raised the question: can the red carpet ever really be sustainable?

While stars such as Cate Blanchett and Kirsten Dunst have reworn their Armani and Christian Lacroix gowns respectively, it is still a rarity and most of these ‘red-carpet moments’ will be just that – a moment.

So how much planning goes into a single red-carpet dress, and where do the gowns go once awards season is over?

Even before the nominations are in, designers and stylists have a sense of who is going to factor in awards season,’ says Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of Made For Each Other, Fashion And The Academy Awards. ‘From the Cannes Film Festival in May, discussions start about who will be on the awards carpets and what they will wear.’

This process has changed over the past decade. ‘It used to be kind of a scrum in Hollywood but, over the last 10 years, getting dressed has been thoroughly professionalised,’ says Bronwyn. ‘It starts with a conversation between an actor, their stylist, their publicist, and their agent. It’s like the dress is a curtain, behind which there is a huge business operation.’

Part of this operation is multiple fittings. Different design houses fit in different ways but technology has made the process smoother (with fewer air miles), Skype and FaceTime facilitating fittings from one side of the world to the other before the final dress is flown over to the star. ‘When I dressed an Oscar nominee last year we had three fittings – two in-person in Montreal and one when she arrived with the dress in LA for the awards via FaceTime,’ stylist Stacy Troke tells Grazia. ‘Even at the last minute, the dress still needed a little tweaking.’

Other designers prefer to do the final fit in person and decamp to an LA hotel for the awards season. Plus, if it’s a huge dress moment, the designer might want to be there. ‘Alessandro Michele was in LA for Brie Larson’s 2016 Oscars dress,’ Bronwyn explains. ‘It was a big moment – his first Oscars gown as head of Gucci.’

After these gowns have graced the red carpet, their wearers usually hand them back to the designers. ‘I have always given the dress back to the atelier,’ says Stacy Troke. ‘Rarely is the piece gifted. Designers may want to keep it for their archives.’

‘I saw Saoirse Ronan’s pink dress [from the 2018 Oscars] recently at the Calvin Klein archive,’ adds Bronwyn. ‘Also, the Academy is opening a museum, currently under construction, and they will begin to collect these great dresses because they are tied to a moment in history.’

If the dress has been gifted it may well end up at high-end LA-based store Decades. ‘We get lots of clothing from celebrities but many of them are sold anonymously,’ says Decades owner Cameron Silver. ‘For the past 23 years we have been the reliable re-seller of those really special red-carpet moments gowns, so the fact that I’ve been around a long time helps with the anonymity’.

But how does anonymity work if the dress is already famous from the red-carpet? ‘In the age of social media and Google image access, it’s not difficult to figure out the provenance of something”, admits Cameron. “We have to be very careful, especially with our online site. But it’s easier if the dress is in our actual store and it’s a private transaction.’

As Cameron points out, what he is doing is sustainable, albeit at the very highest level. ‘When I opened the store 23 years ago, sustainability wasn’t a factor. The one-of-a-kind rarity with a story was the attraction. Now, with the sensitivity to sustainability, it adds more gravitas to the garment. It’s chic to repeat.’

But what if the dress you’ve worn isn’t ‘worthy’ of being kept in a museum, but also doesn’t have a resale value for collectors or fans? ‘These looks will be sent back to the press agency they were borrowed from,’ says Stacy. ‘Depending on the designer, they will probably then get passed around for a few events,’ which, it could be argued, is pretty sustainable.

Alternatively, the dress could end up on, of all places, eBay. Last year, Lady Gaga’s custom Valentino Golden Globes gown, worn when she was nominated for A Star Is Born, had been left in her hotel room. A member of staff handed it in to lost property and, when it wasn’t claimed within a year, it defaulted to her. She put it on eBay, where it reached a bid of £14,500 (a fraction of the estimated £115,000 cost) – before being pulled at the last minute. Not quite the happy ending most red- carpet gowns would hope for.

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