"Who are you wearing?" and "How long did it take you to get ready?" are two questions that are as indelible to the awards season as "Who will win?" The red carpet, the pre-show procession in which the stars peacock in one-off creations, has become as newsworthy as the ceremony itself. Some who triumph on the red carpet are better remembered than those who win prizes inside the venue.

And it's not just at the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the Grammys; red-carpet events all over the world have become an industry unto themselves - so much so that stars often go into autopilot, spitting out designers' names to any journalist in earshot. This reporter recalls a moment at the amfAR gala, in Hong Kong last year, when a succession of celebrities, including Wendi Deng (who was, for the record, wearing Calvin Klein), deigned to utter no more than a brand name to him under the misguided impression that he was reporting just on their outfits.

It's easy to recall the successes - think Jennifer Lopez in a green chiffon silk Versace creation at the 2000 Grammy Awards. With a neckline that plunged to her navel, the dress so captivated the paparazzi and critics that a duplicate is now on display at the Grammy Museum, in Los Angeles. Similarly, the pink Dior haute couture dress Jennifer Lawrence wore at the 2013 Oscars has gone down in legend for its stunning simplicity - as well as her tumble on the way to pick up the best actress award.

We also remember the disasters and the plain outrageous. Cher and Kim Kardashian West are serial offenders, dividing opinion with their revealing and outré attention-seeking outfits. Bjork memorably skewered the pomposity of the Oscars by wearing a swan dress in 2001 and Lady Gaga has a long history of eccentric outfits.

For major female stars, and increasingly the men, the red carpet has become an important arena in which to project success. For the world's leading designers, it has become a mini-runway and unparalleled platform from which to reach the masses.

"Stars wearing certain designers helps create a sense of brand awareness, especially with social media," says red-carpet watcher Stephanie Chan, associate digital editor at The Hollywood Reporter and its fashion section, Pret-a-Reporter. Chan says the process is much more complex, political and convoluted than simply a star picking out a dress.

Chan sees many upsides for an actress who, in effect, becomes a walking advert. Being dressed by a major designer provides that star with "access to even more opportunities, whether it's getting people to notice who you are and your work" or "the possibility of landing some type of fashion or beauty contract".

We've become used to the red carpet being part of the glitz of the entertainment business, but that wasn't always the case. Stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood did work with leading designers on their red-carpet looks - Audrey Hepburn, for example, wore a Hubert de Givenchy creation when she picked up the best actress prize at the 1954 Oscars, for the film Roman Holiday - but such relationships were informal, often driven by friendships, and were the exception rather than the rule.

Before the 90s, red-carpet fashions were often low key, casual even - remember Julia Roberts at the 1990 Golden Globes in an oversized man's suit? Before the turn of the millennium, it tended to be the stars who approached designers.

Many experts pinpoint the switch in 2000, when Halle Berry attended the Golden Globes in a stunning white Valentino gown, widely regarded as a "game-changer". That was when high fashion and Hollywood began to merge formally and pervasively. For the brands, it was a damascene moment, the point at which commercial and branding opportunities became clearly apparent.

Two years later, Berry would win the best actress Oscar for Monster's Ball while wearing an impressive Elie Saab gown.

Veteran designer Grace Chen runs an eponymous couture label in Shanghai and works with many established celebrities in China. Years ago, however, she was living in Los Angeles, working as design director for eveningwear specialists Tadashi Shoji. Her first red-carpet dress was one of her graduation pieces from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. The gown caused something of a coup when, in 1996, she sent it to Sharon Stone, who liked it so much she wore an unknown student's creation to an awards ceremony.

"The red-carpet process in Hollywood varies," says Chen, after a show at the Chinese embassy during Paris Fashion Week. "The celebrities usually have agents, there're always PR companies who handle these kind of requests for big events."

Whether celebrities are paid to wear outfits depends on the situation, explains Chen. When it's a major celebrity attending a huge event, such as the Oscars, there'll be plenty of brands lining up to offer generous compensation for the huge exposure.

Jewellery brands are open about paying stars to wear their creations. Chopard, in particular, has been keen to maintain its edge as the jeweller of choice for the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, and is willing to pay tens of thousands of US dollars for the privilege. Fashion houses are more opaque but the practice of pay to wear is widely accepted.

Guessing the designer is easier if the film star already has a contract with a brand, a notable example being Charlize Theron, who is an official - meaning, "paid" - spokesperson for Dior fragrances. No surprises, then, that Theron almost exclusively wears Dior dresses on the red carpet. Lawrence has a similar deal.

"If they have a close relationship then maybe the actress will wear it for free to support that designer," says Chen. "It depends on how many brands approach the star and, of course, the kind of dresses they are submitting. The star will probably narrow it down to four or five choices, designs or brands and then they might consider who is paying what. It's a difficult and unpredictable process and most of the decisions are made last minute - and it could be made by the star themselves, sometimes their agents and even, on occasion, by the movie producer, because of some deal or relationship for a big film.

"Sarah Jessica Parker was one of the stars I really liked. She has very high standards and really good taste so it was a real pleasure working with her," adds Chen. "But, honestly, you generally don't spend a lot of time with the American stars."

American designers of a certain generation, such as Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, tended to have personal history with the actresses they dressed, so it was a more organic process. A pre-existing relationship that can be built upon is still important; several of the stars Chen dressed in Los Angeles, such as talk show host Oprah, were already wearing Tadashi Shoji designs in their daily life before they wore them on the red carpet.

Designers now actively court celebrities and up-and-coming stars. For young, independent designers it can be a make-or-break career move.

"[It's] incredibly competitive," says Juan Carlos Obando, a runner-up for the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize in 2013. The Los Angeles-based designer has made his name on the red carpet as much as he has on the runway by dressing up to 30 stars for the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party, a highlight of the awards season.

Obando counts the likes of Amy Adams, Olivia Munn and Ivanka Trump among those who've worn his creations and, he says, the process of getting a star into a dress can take several weeks. "The relationship with the stylist is crucial," he says.

"In the weeks leading up to a major event, such as awards season or the premiere of a movie, the stylist reaches out with ideas or a certain look that may fit the overall direction for the actress," says Obando. Then follow sketches, samples, fittings, alterations, more samples, more fittings and there'll still be no guarantee the star and their stylist will accept the dress. "In many cases, simply the timing may not be right for a placement and they move on to a different idea altogether."

Obando admits that luck plays a big part in the process but that "it is important to be in context and, above everything, to be on the right red carpet at the right time with the right person, and that's something only time and dedication can obtain".

In Asia, one of the most keenly sought after stars is Hong Kong screen veteran Carina Lau Ka-ling. With her credible film career, global profile, classic beauty and equally famous movie star husband - Tony Leung Chiu-wai - Lau is a magnet for photographers. Her personal style on the red carpet, however, comes down to "what I will look best in", she says. She counts couture houses Ralph & Russo, Valentino and Dior among her red-carpet favourites, but says that both parties approach each other. The From Vegas to Macau III star also says the timing depends on the dresses, and it "can take from a few weeks to a few days" to perfect an outfit.

Chen explains that "in the US, there is a very mature system, with so many people around the stars handling everything for them. In China, we have more direct contact."

Chen's clients include Liu Tao, Qin Hailu and other women who, despite having been famous for decades, can still receive a career boost from a striking red-carpet moment.

"We are not dressing the younger ones like Angelababy but more established actresses such as Liu Xiaoqing, who has become a very good friend. She comes to our studio often, and it's interesting working with her," says Chen. "When she wore one of our signature red dresses for an awards show, it completely changed the public's perception of her style and is still regarded as one of her most memorable fashion moments."

Nevertheless, China's red carpet is also maturing, and there are now agencies springing up that bridge the relationship between designer and celebrity.

For a star such as Lau, who has a keen interest in fashion and is sufficiently prominent to make style decisions herself, there's plenty of independence when it comes to who she wears. But for many others, particularly the young celebrities, "it tends to be the stylists and designers who work closely together on finalising everything", says Chan, of The Hollywood Reporter. Furthermore, "it's unlikely that we will see any major fashion fumbles now that so many stars have stylists making sure they look red-carpet ready all the time".

Much like a film production, the success of a red-carpet dress these days depends on dozens of people behind the scenes. Undoubtedly, though, the processes and commercial aspects of red-carpet fashion have killed off any spontaneity.

The most refreshing answers to "Who are you wearing?" are now left to the likes of Bjork and Lady Gaga.




Celebrities see red over "Who are you wearing?" question on red carpet

The obsession with red-carpet fashion has, in recent years, fostered a backlash against the gender bias in interest in what stars are wearing. The #OscarSoWhite controversy dominated the Academy Awards this year, but the previous two awards seasons were coloured by social-media campaigns lambasting the press for asking female stars nothing more weighty or relevant than the clichéd "Who are you wearing?"

The Twitter campaign #AskHerMore caused a stir at the 2015 Oscars, with stars such as Cate Blanchett, Amy Poehler and Reese Witherspoon taking red-carpet reporters to task for asking inane questions.

"[The campaign] is meant to inspire reporters to ask creative questions on the red carpet. I love the Oscars AND fashion like many of you - & am excited to share #WhoAMIWearing later tonight. But I'd also love to answer some of these questions," Witherspoon posted on her Instagram account on the day of the ceremony.

At the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards, E! interviewer Giuliana Rancic stuck to the script when she interviewed Blanchett. "Givenchy," said the Australian actress, before quickly adding, "I'm just wondering, do you do that to the guys?"

Probably not. But that might be changing, with men becoming increasingly more daring with their red-carpet style.

At last month's Oscars ceremony, American rapper Common wore an immaculate, eye-catching white Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo. Classically handsome stars such as Henry Cavill gravitated towards traditional brands such as Dunhill and nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay, the breakout star from the film Room, looked dapper in head-to-toe Giorgio Armani. But the evening, when it came to the men, belonged to Jared Leto, who wore a black Gucci suit with red piping, embroidered shoes and a silk red carnation for neckwear.

Leto's guest for the Oscars was none other than his personal stylist for the night and one of the world's most talked about designers, Gucci's Alessandro Michele.

Additional reporting by Jing Zhang