Forget the beef. Where's the Chanel?

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Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron in Dior. Jessica Alba in Versace. Keira Knightley and Michelle Williams in Vera Wang. Amy Adams in Carolina Herrera. Nicole Kidman in Balenciaga. Naomi Watts in Givenchy.

Hey, wait a minute. Where's the Chanel?

Good question.

International fashion experts are buzzing about the fact that for the first time in almost a decade, there was not a single Chanel creation on the Oscars red carpet.

Was Hollywood slapping Chanel's liver-spotted hand for having handed "Walk the Line" Witherspoon a very previously worn vintage gown to wear to the Golden Globes back in January? She won only to find out that her dress had been sported by Kirsten Dunst to a Golden Globe Awards party in 2003?

Mon Dieu!

The resulting comparisons between Reese and Kirsten (who looked better?) wearing the same sparkly Chanel frock became an embarrassment for Witherspoon's camp and a horror for Chanel, who had no real explanation for why the mix-up had happened. Say what you will about how silly this big brouhaha was -- but for a designer to dress a Golden Globes winner in a recently worn dress -- not to mention one that was worn by another blonde twenty-something actress at the same awards just two years prior -- was deemed simply unforgivable.

Even though Witherspoon's publicist issued a public statement "forgiving" the luxury house, many remained skeptical. "We all knew there would be some kind of retribution," whispered a Los Angeles-based fashion rep.

Observers recall a major Chanel statement at the 69th Academy Awards with Celine Dion in a sparkly silver gown. And Chanel haute couture really made headlines with Julianne Moore's stunning black gown at the 72nd Oscars. Recently Kidman was almost a CC regular, wearing Chanel to the 74th and 76th awards.

"Since 2000, Chanel has always been present at the Oscars and the house has always been very select and discerning with their red carpet placements," says Oscar.com's longtime fashion expert Tom Julian. "It was quite obvious that the label was not present on Sunday night."

Why? Everyone has theories.

"Perhaps actresses -- or more importantly, their publicists -- were still reticent over the Reese Witherspoon debacle. Maye they did not want to generate press for Chanel since they might also come under close scrutiny for wearing a previously worn dress. But whatever the reason, it was obvious that many of the nominees have moved on this year."

Some style seers say the snub was unintentional. "Designers' presence on the Oscar carpets is always cyclical and the timing of Chanel's disappearance is merely a coincidence," says Mariiyn Heston, who represents Elie Saab, Thomas Wylde, Bebe and others.

Others say the deeper problem is a loss of fashion faith. "It all comes down to trust. If you can't trust a luxury fashion house to provide your client with a unique gown for an event as big as the Oscars, well, then there is no point in having a relationship with them," sniffed one top Hollywood personal publicist. Ouch.

What can Chanel and other fashion houses learn from this?

"It's a very important lesson," Julian says. "Never take this world too lightly and always have a strategy in place -- otherwise negative press and bad fashion buzz will get you. And always remember that the celebrity has to protect their fashion reputation and standing, not yours."

Some stylists note that it may be smarter for major designers to continue to work selectively and closely with actresses who are tied to their commercial campaigns.

One thing is certain. Chanel must slowly rebuild a relationship with Hollywood. And some insiders predict that major payola -- a pay-to-play routine -- will be a big factor in Chanel getting any gowns on the 2007 awards carpets.

Photo: Now this is a dress for the Hollywood history books. Reese Witherspoon is elegant, classic and feminine in a 1955 vintage Dior gown. Take that, Chanel!
(Kevork Djansezian / AP)

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