23-Nov, 17:51

10:47, January 12 238 0

2017-01-12 10:47:18
Unbuttoned: How to Dress a Celebrity

As awards season officially gets underway post-Golden Globes and we prepare to be inundated by stars-in-gowns imagery galore, it is worth pausing to consider the interesting case of Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of Louis Vuitton. It’s possible that he has evolved into his generation’s Hubert de Givenchy, with a gaggle of Audrey Hepburns at his surround.

Together they recreate a primer on celebrity dressing and fashion that has been lost in the race to the cash register that red carpet dressing often seems to have become. It’s an unexpected evolution, to say the least, but possibly also an instructive one.

The latest Vuitton luminary is Ruth Negga, whose appearance at the Globes in a gold-and-silver sequined LV T-shirt gown with a scuba zip up the front and anatomical seaming at the torso landed her not only on every best-dressed list (yes, mine included), but also had Vogue crowning her as the breakout best-dressed star.

As it happened, she joined Michelle Williams on the red carpet, Ms. Williams having been attached to Vuitton since 2014. She sported a generally applauded strapless white lace column at the Globes, though her LV dress was somewhat overshadowed by her apparently controversial decision to wear a thin black velvet bow around her neck like a choker. And Ms. Negga followed last year’s breakout name, Alicia Vikander, who also happens to have been dressed by Vuitton during her debut awards season: a multigown marathon of modernized Cinderella tropes that culminated with an Oscar win in a strapless yellow waltzing dress with pixel-like beading. It was published pretty much everywhere and defined her as a movie star who straddled digital cool and silver screen grace.

The point was, neither woman resembled anyone else. They didn’t look as if they had copied a best dress from yesteryear, nor did they look like fashion aspirants who had just stepped off the runway. They looked like what viewers could only assume was themselves. Or at least the selves they wanted to introduce to the world. That kind of definition requires careful planning, coordination and some sort of personal connection between model and modeler. And it is this connection that often seems to be missing from so much of what we see these days, and why so many dresses just, well, miss. It has fallen victim, presumably, to falling film revenues, which in turn have made lucrative endorsement deals evermore important to a celebrity’s bank balance.

The result is what looks, at least from the outside, like stars and starlets auctioning themselves off to the highest bidding brand whether there seems to be any real shared sensibility between them. Or, to be fair, being auctioned off by managers and stylists — it’s hard to know who is behind the deals — and then switching allegiances as the contracts end. Sometimes a designer is involved in the decision, but sometimes not. Raf Simons was famously surprised when he was artistic director of Dior at the news that Rihanna was going to be a face of the brand.

It has all created a situation that undermines the twin goals this arrangement was supposed to achieve: casting a starry halo on a product so that consumers who relate to certain celebrities then start relating to the names they are wearing, while ensuring that said celebrities never embarrass themselves by revealing that they secretly take their dress cues from souvenir lamps.

Mr. Ghesquière has begun to stand out as a reminder of a different approach, one in which that promise is actually fulfilled.

It begins with the women themselves, who tend more to the arty, independent film mode rather than the blockbuster mode. It’s hard to imagine any market researchers worth their salt recommending them as a celeb most likely to move merch. Or, for that matter, any luxury executive jumping up and down in delight at, say, the news of Ms. Williams’s “Manchester by the Sea” role: a drab working-class woman who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy. Yet their spiky, silent personas and unexpected choices make a certain amount of sense with Mr. Ghesquière’s spiky, film-focused fashion — both are often categorized as “challenging” — and they are mutually complementary. The actresses give the luxury handbag behemoth a veneer of niche cool; the designer polishes his or her more outré edges.

And it has to do with an investment in time. After all, Mr. Ghesquière made his major red carpet debut in 2002 when he was creative director of Balenciaga, dressing Jennifer Connelly for the Oscars in a limply tiered strapless number that the BBC characterized as a shade of “pale dung.” Ms. Connelly won the award for best supporting actress, but the gown landed her on pretty much every worst-dressed list (including some “worst dressed of all time” lists). And the avant-garde Blade Runner-like Balenciaga creations that followed on, say, Charlotte Gainsbourg at the 2007 Met Gala did nothing to change Mr. Ghesquière’s reputation as not really a red carpet kind of guy. This would normally have most agents advising their clients to run far, far away in the direction of a bias-cut goddess gown (and who knows, maybe their agents did suggest it), yet both women stuck with him, suggesting a mutual appreciation that went beyond marketing.

Finally, there’s the requisite ability to sublimate the designer ego, a skill Mr. Ghesquière admits he had to learn. For years he wanted the red carpet simply to mimic the runway, when that kind of pure fashion in a Hollywood context often looks wrong: See Sophie Turner, roundly panned at the Globes for her dress, which happened to be the last look from the October Vuitton show. But with Ms. Vikander, Mr. Ghesquière was clearly charged with building a public image for her over the period of the awards season, and he finally understood (and accepted) that it was her image, not his and not that of Vuitton.

All of which could not have happened without actual personal communication but with some sort of meeting of the minds and trust.

Mr. Ghesquière is by no means the only designer who has worked closely with specific actresses. Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino and Emma Stone collaborated on her dress for the Globes; Joseph Altuzarra and Evan Rachel Wood did the same on her tuxedo. And there is no doubt that Mesdames Wiliams, Connelly and Vikander, all of whom have appeared in Vuitton ad campaigns and dutifully show up at the ready-to-wear collections, have been paid by the brand for their work and their appearances.

But you don’t feel they have been bought. That distinction matters.