Arianne Phillips, the Oscar-nominated costume designer who became a public name thanks to her work with Madonna, hit her long dark night of the red carpet soul a few years ago.
“I was completely burned out on GoFundMe and tired of feeling like a resister solely on social media,” she said on the phone from Los Angeles, where she had just finished working on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the new Quentin Tarantino film. “I kept thinking: What does all this waste and excess amount to?”
This may sound, halfway through the gowns ’n’ glam marketing marathon that is the awards season, familiar. The Golden Globes, Critics’ Choices and SAGs are done; the Grammys, Baftas and Oscars still to come.
Perhaps you, too, are beginning to get jaded by the endless stream of best-dressed lists, the fawning adjectives dripping in brand names. Perhaps you have, like I have, wondered what happened to the momentum of last year’s #TimesUp black-gowned solidarity.
But chances are you did not do what Ms. Phillips and her friend Carineh Martin, a luxury brand consultant, did next: Ask the obvious question.
“Is it possible to take the fascination with celebrity culture and use it to inspire fans to do good?” Ms. Phillips said. To embrace our own most tabloid tendencies, acknowledge they aren’t going away anytime soon and exploit them, as Ms. Martin said, for a purpose.
Arianne Phillips (standing) and Carineh Martin, the founders of RAD (Red Carpet Advocacy).CreditMaggie Shannon for The New York Times
This season will determine whether they are Sancho Panza and Don Quixote tilting at windmills or Davids with an increasingly targeted slingshot.
That would be RAD (Red Carpet Advocacy), founded last July to “change the conversation on the red carpet” so that it’s not just about frocks, but frocks and philanthropy, the two so intertwined that you can’t talk about one without the other. In January, at the Globes, RAD began to put it into practice.
Our discomfort with the marketing machine that the red carpet, once the province of all-too-human fashion inspiration and mistakes, has become is nothing new. It was expressed in #AskHerMore, that movement to banish the mani-cam and acknowledge actors on their way into a ceremony as more than advertisements for whatever brands they were representing officially (as paid ambassadors) or unofficially (as the recipients of free clothes). Not to mention the brief Globes and Cannes all-black fashion rebellions of last year.
Yet, as much currency as those moments had, they have not succeeded in changing the game in any real sense. E! still asks: “What are you wearing?” Websites and apps (including The New York Times) still run slide shows of arrivals with brand names attached to dresses. Readers, whether they want to admit it, still click on them in the millions (and if you don’t ID the dress, they complain).
And celebrities — male and female — still need the paychecks that come with the endorsement gigs in order to finance their passion projects, indie films or stage forays.
You can’t put the genii back in the bottle. Ms. Phillips and Ms. Martin aren’t trying to, anyway. It’s their day job (or part of it), after all. They are just adding another element.
The pitch is simple: Stylist and celeb pick the dress or tux (and shoes and jewels and watch) said celeb wants to wear, whether because of a contract or because they love it or both. Then RAD goes to the brand and asks it to donate to the charity of the star’s choice. (The brand decides how much.)
And then, when clothes get mentioned, so does the donation — on the carpet during interviews, as well as in social media posts and news releases.
The relationship becomes less about shared profiteering and more about shared values. And it can be applied not just to the red carpet, but also to events (screenings, parties), retail partnerships and marketing campaigns.
“Arianne and Carineh are deal brokers,” said Karla Welch, a stylist who became RAD’s conduit to its first partner, Elisabeth Moss, when she dressed her for the Globes in Dior, Roger Vivier, Tamara Mellon and Neil Lane, all of which made donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. “But deal brokers for social change.” (Ms. Moss was not paid by Dior.)
So really, what’s not to like?
“At the beginning everyone said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe no one has done this,’” Ms. Martin said. It was all very positive. Then it would go quiet.
“The red carpet is a moneymaking venture,” Ms. Welch said. But as anyone who has tried to report on the murky economic relationship between stars and brands knows, no one wants to discuss that.
And the fear was that mentioning donations would suggest a connection to some other sort of financial relationship. Which would run the risk of reminding viewers that maybe the dress a celebrity was modeling was actually chosen because, well, the brand offered the most money. Yucky! No one wanted that.
Even though, as Ms. Martin pointed out, “with RAD, there’s no pay to play.” The donation piece of the agreement is not part of the bidding war for a celebrity; it happens after the fashion conversation has become a fait accompli. (RAD is not a nonprofit, and Ms. Phillips and Ms. Martin take a 15 percent administrators’ fee from the brands on top of the donations, 33 percent of which they in turn donate to charity. Despite the Tinseltown economics, the goal is to eventually turn RAD into a B-corp.)
For a brand and a celebrity, it’s more of an investment in the future relationship. Which may sound like a specious nuance or holier-than-thou posturing, but has become an increasingly important factor in endorsement deal making.
At The New York Times International luxury conference in Hong Kong last November, Steve Hasker, the chief executive of CAA Global, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world, told the story of a new client. A millennial actress, she had been offered a significant sum of money to be the face of a consumer brand. She turned it down.
The brand came back with another, multi-million-dollar offer. She turned it down again. Her agents said, “Are you sure?” She said she had researched the company and discovered that it had no women on its board, and that no sum of money would convince her to sign on since its values were not her values.
“Any time you try to change the status quo, it’s hard,” Ms. Welch said. “But I also don’t think it’s that hard to ask for a bit more.” Resistance is beginning to chip away.
After Ms. Moss’s appearance at the Globes, Gucci signed on to support Tracee Ellis Ross, sponsoring a charity screening she hosted of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” According to Gucci, it donated $25,000 to #MeToo and the Essie Justice Group through RAD.
David Yurman, the jeweler, is working with RAD on a social media campaign that will pair influencers and issues. Matchesfashion.com is going to host RAD-related events connected to Frieze Los Angeles and the Met Gala.
At the SAGs on Sunday, Mandy Moore wore Jason Wu, Niwaka jewelry and Jimmy Choo, and then worked with RAD so all of them contributed to Unicef. Patricia Arquette donned Christian Siriano, Stephen Webster and Roger Vivier, and it trickled down via RAD to Give Love, her clean water charity.
Ms. Phillips and Ms. Martin are learning as they go.
Ms. Moss’s dressing decision around the Globes was so last-minute, for example, that the European brand headquarters were closed for the weekend, so the Gucci and Roger Vivier RAD-related social media language couldn’t be approved until after the event had occurred, which lessened the impact. But the women are beginning to believe they have proof of concept.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” said Ms. Welch, whose client Camila Cabello will be a RAD representative at the Grammys, to benefit Save the Children. As the good ship Oscars approaches, she continued, “You can get on board or not.”