NEW YORK – It sounds like the setup to a bad joke: How many people does it take to put together an Oscar outfit?
About a half-dozen, or more.
But that's not a punch line — it's a Hollywood reality.
Take a best-actress nominee, who has a manager, publicist and stylist, all of whom have an idea about what "the dress" should look like. It's the stylist's job to contact a designer's publicist, or several designers' publicists, to get the designer on board.
The biggest stars are pursued by designers; the biggest designers are pursued by B-list stars who are hoping they'll be photographed at the parties afterward.
"I call it the Oscar sweepstakes," says designer Vera Wang. "If I'm interested in dressing someone, I will contact her. But she has to match my look."
Once the dress is selected, the stylist also coordinates the rest of the ensemble, sometimes down to the star's undergarments.
The stylists will meet with the shoe, purse, jewelry, hair and makeup people who have taken a suite at a hotel hoping they'll be the ones to help dress the Nicole Kidmans and Halle Berrys of the world.
The frenzy in the days leading up to the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood March 24 is part of a calculated marketing effort that most fashion and luxury companies buy into and feed off of, says Tom Julian, fashion commentator for Oscar.com, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Web site.
The companies often woo stylists, wining and dining them and treating them like celebrities. That, the companies hope, will lead to product placement.
"In recent years it has become common knowledge that stylists may be shopping or promoting other entities beyond finding a designer dress," says Julian, a trend analyst at Fallon Worldwide ad agency.
The stylists might even be spokesmen for products — and their celebrity clients might not even know it. (Among the products linked to stylists last year were fur coats and teeth-whitening strips.)
Some of this year's nominees, however, have well-documented style preferences which will make it harder for an outside company to infiltrate their fashion camps.
"Nicole Kidman will do the drop-dead glamour thing," predicts Julian.
She's known to be a stylemaker and favors European designers who offer cutting-edge designs.
Renee Zellweger, considered a fashion winner at last year's Oscars in a vintage yellow gown, might look to a British designer in a nod to her alter ego in Bridget Jones's Diary.
Valentino gowns have been good to Berry, and she's likely to stick with him for a beautiful dress that is somehow both sophisticated and girlie.
Jennifer Connelly might be the "get" for a designer this year because she's without a known allegiance to a designer or even a particular style. She's also a chic minimalist New Yorker who wants to be known more as an actress than the best-dressed belle of the ball.
"The majority of our Hollywood relationships start outside of the awards shows," says Robert Triefus, head of communications for the Armani Group. "These people are friends of the house. Sometimes they are a personal friend of Mr. Armani."
When Armani begins designing his Oscar collection in the fall, he keeps some of his favorite celebrity clients in mind. He considers an actress' input about the "spirit" of her Oscar dress, but the actual design is left to him.
Also, Oscar dresses are created in November, the same time as the designs for the following fall, so the gowns are somewhat influenced by the latest runway trends, according to Triefus.
Wang, whose specialty is sleek and simple styles, says she believes in matching the dress to the image a woman wants to project. For instance, when Holly Hunter won an Oscar for The Piano, she wanted a very modern dress to contrast the period costumes from the movie, while Charlize Theron wanted a dress that represented 1930s glamour while working on The Legend of Bagger Vance.
The clock to find "the dress" really starts ticking in mid-February, when the nominations are announced, Triefus says.
Fittings happen in mid-March mostly in Los Angeles but stars will be fitted wherever they happen to be on location, too.
"We can even do a fitting the morning of (the Oscars) at the Los Angeles store," Triefus adds.
Footwear designer Stuart Weitzman will keep his Rodeo Drive store in Beverly Hills open 24 hours a day the week before the Oscars as well as taking a suite at Raffles L'Ermitage Hotel.
Weitzman was forced to scramble the day before the Oscars last year to make new shoes — hich had to match an elaborately beaded Escada dress — for Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) because her mother said the sandals Weitzman spent days designing were too sexy.
This time around, Weitzman teamed with jewelry designer Kwiat and Platinum Guild International to make a pair of $1 million stiletto sandals.
The star who wears the shoes will get $30,000 for the charity of her choice from Weitzman and Kwiat. A celebrity is confirmed to wear them and they've been fitted to her size, but he won't say who it is until the last minute.
Why go through all this trouble for a few minutes on the red carpet?
"A great picture at a great event can make a great career or break a career," says Weitzman. "This is serious business. It is not frivolous."