What's Red Carpet Fashion Worth?

At the recent MTV Video Music Awards singer Gwen Stefani carried a wine-colored satin clutch by Dior. Now, less than three weeks later, the $720 bag is totally sold out.

Earlier this year at the Academy Awards ceremony, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry wore an orange "pumpkin diamond" ring by Harry Winston reportedly worth $3 million.

The ring was so striking that People magazine used it in the lead to its Oscar round-up story, referring to Berry as Cinderella, whose "fairy godfather" — Harry Winston — provided her with her own pumpkin.

With the 54th annual Emmy awards coming up this Sunday, many viewers will be watching the show not only to see who wins — but what they will be wearing. Pre-show red carpet interviews — not to mention the now-famous running fashion commentary by comedienne Joan Rivers — have become almost as widely watched as the shows themselves in recent years.

"For so many Americans who don't go to the fashion shows, this is their fashion show; this is their runway," says Charla Krupp, contributing editor for InStyle magazine, who has been covering entertainment and style since the 1980s.

Luxury for the Masses

Of course, most Americans can't afford haute couture or Harry Winston jewels. So why do designers still spend thousands of dollars making one-of-a-kind gowns or custom-made jewels for starlets to wear on the red carpet?

It's because dressing a big-name star can not only mean months — if not years — of free media coverage, but it can also spawn a horde of new customers looking to get anything made by the designer their favorite star wears.

"Although you may not be able to buy a Dior gown, you can probably buy a Dior handbag," says James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and the University of Florida in Gainesville, and author of the recent book Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury. "These objects come to us in little bits and pieces called accessories."

Twitchell notes that many shoppers who go into a high-end designer store often come out with a more moderately priced $400 or $500 handbag rather than a $5,000 dress.

"More of us are now able to get to objects that have hitherto been off limits," he says.

Jeweler to the Stars

Harry Winston, which has been providing jewelry to Hollywood since the 1940s, is fully aware that most consumers can't shell out $2 million for a pair of earrings. But seeing those earrings on a star like Jennifer Lopez will draw customers into the store, and maybe even stir them to buy a lower-priced item.

"We have a wide variety of product offerings. And who helped us get that message out there? The celebrities," says Carolyn Brodie Gelles, Harry Winston's global director of communications.

Winston recently presented U.S. Open champion Serena Williams with a $29,000 bracelet that she wore both on and off the court during the matches. Her "Twelve to Twilight" bracelet, which contains 242 colorless diamonds and totals 12 carats, has spurred a 50 percent increase in traffic to the jeweler's stores, says Gelles.

"Are we going to sell 100 of them? No — We don't sell 100 of everything at Harry Winston," she says. "Are we going to sell 15 to 25? Probably."

Gelles says Harry Winston will likely provide a handful of actresses with jewelry for the Emmys, but says the company is more focused on the next Academy Awards, which celebrates its 75th — or "diamond" — anniversary next year.

Trends That Trickle Down

Perhaps most important for designers is the exposure they'll get after the awards shows. With countless celebrity and style magazines reprinting fashion dos and don'ts from the award shows, a designer who dresses a high-profile actress will get invaluable publicity for a long time after.

"You can't pay for that amount of exposure," says InStyle's Krupp. "Those pictures are used 25 years later."

Indeed, Harry Winston's Gelles estimates that Oscar photos will carry the company's marketing message for a good six months after the event is over.

"It can be costly," to outfit stars, she says, "But of course the cost is miniscule compared to the publicity."

And that endless media coverage inevitably leads to trends that trickle down into the racks of mass-market retailers.

Los Angeles-based clothing company A.B.S. has been making replicas of the hottest styles seen on the red carpet since the mid-'90s, selling them at retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's for anywhere from $250 to $300. Some of the company's all-time best sellers include a dress influenced by the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy's wedding dress, of which the company sold 60,000.

A.B.S. founder and design director Allen Schwartz says he and his team will be watching the Emmys Sunday night to see what outfits stand out — and they'll meet at 6 a.m. the next morning, working furiously to get them to the sales floors. Schwartz estimates that he'll ship any new designs within eight weeks of the awards show's broadcast.

And who will he be watching for at the Emmys?

"I'll always look at a Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Connelly — anyone of the moment," says Schwartz, who says that picking the right dress to copy is an "art."

"If that person of the moment is dressed terribly, I lay off of it," he says.