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Can you rewear that red carpet garment?

Sunday September 2 2018

Actress Lupita Nyong'o at the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood.

Actress Lupita Nyong'o at the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood. PHOTO| AFP 

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It is the one rule high profile women have never been allowed to break. That distinct red carpet outfit must always be a one-hit wonder, no matter the cost. Which, naturally, makes sense in a world where celebrities get dressed by ateliers. Where dresses, stolen/not stolen one-of-a-kind pieces worth Sh14 million Calvin Klein gowns, are bespoke for that celebrity and that one moment.

Red carpet outfits have a complex life. They are collaborations between celebrities and/or their stylists and couture houses. Whatever the inspiration for a red carpet look, it is never random. Not even if the celebrity commits what is seen as the biggest faux pas of all, buying a gown. Gowns once worn are returned, or may be archived for a future museum showcase. Or the designer gifts it to the celebrity.

Jacky Vike, aka Awinja Nyamwalo, posted a throwback of her Yvonne Afrostreet gown, an architectural piece that put her on the map as a leading female contender on Kenya’s fledgling red carpet.


She asked her ‘Gram followers what they think she should do with previous red carpet gowns, throwing in options like selling and donating the money to charity or refurbishing them into more wearable pieces.

I say she should keep that particular gown. Why? Rita Moreno, an actress, stepped into the Oscars red carpet this year in a gown she last, or first, wore to the Oscars in 1962. A few things changed. Her hair was white in 2018, instead of black. She added accessories she had not worn 56 years past. Rita was also very pleased with herself for fitting into a dress over half a century later. She was 72 and entitled to make her own rules, she declared.

The phenomenon is more political than it is simple. Style icon and two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett wore the same Armani Prive gown two years apart from Cannes to the Golden Globes. Her reason: "From couture to T-shirts, landfill is full of garments that have been unnecessarily discarded. Particularly in today's climate, it seems wilful and ridiculous that such garments are not cherished and re-worn."

Her stylist then added, "We need to get the word out to get rid of this ridiculous notion that dresses cannot be worn twice! Beautiful clothes should last a lifetime.” Blanchett again recycled a 2015 couture gown just two months back.


The most celebrated culprits of recycling gowns are, of course, the two women whose influence has been legendary. Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton.

Not only do they recycle repeatedly, earning reputations as thrifty, financially smart women who can afford to buy new clothes any time they chose to, or pick from the stack of outfits designers send their way, they have a knack for picking the right social moments to recycle. Some celebrities recycle the ultimate gown: their wedding dress.

Singer Kambua is generously hiring out hers to young brides who cannot afford gowns of their own. An internationally acclaimed actress has worn her wedding dress several times with adjustments while staying true to its original design.

Others alternate between red carpets and after parties, again, years apart, while some have been handed across generations.

Comedian, author and actress Tiffany Haddish is the sweetest example of a repeat offender. Her white Tom Ford gown has had more than one life. First on TV where she declared she would recycle the heck off that Sh300,000 outfit because, come on, it was expensive. No way would she wear it once. She brought it out once more in 2018. While we are at it, let it be noted that the oracle of fashion, Anna Wintour, frequently repeats outfits.


So who came up with this rule? Clearly not Anna. Nominees wearing and discussing red carpet outfits during interviews have, till the past two years, made for great business.

The “who are you wearing?” history means when a celebrity is getting a custom made outfit or borrowing from the designer, the fashion house saves it for that very event and will not showcase it.

Fashion houses get very competitive about who to dress. If they think someone will look great, better than the celebrity approaching them that is, they will shuffle things around until their choice agrees.

When Lupita represents Prada, she is contractually obligated for the length of her contract, to wear Prada on red carpets. Big names have advantages. Designers will do absolutely anything to accommodate them.

Like paying stylists to get to the said celebrity who will be paid six figures to wear the said dress. Part of that negotiation might include keeping a dress, allowing recycling. But, this is a cachet that comes with status and power.

Celebrities who recycle already have a considerable amount of power that will not diminish. Transforming their behaviour is something empowering. The moral of the story: not all red carpet personalities are created equal.