Caitlyn Jenner’s much-anticipated black-tie debut took place Wednesday night when she accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs, and she knocked it out of the park in an elegant, streamlined custom Atelier Versace gown with glamorous waves and simple, sparkling accents. Until now, Jenner had been responsible for selecting her (feminine, ladylike) street style looks, but for a big moment like this, she called in a pro — and obviously there’s no one better for a major style statement than Jen Rade, a stylist who has worked with many Hollywood A-listers.
“We wanted to do something classic, chic and sophisticated,” Rade tells PEOPLE, adding that, as at Jenner’s Vanity Fair shoot, the two looked to Old Hollywood and Lauren Bacall for inspiration. “Cait is beautiful: She has great hair, gorgeous bone structure, legs for days. So I just wanted it to be about her and not let anything take away from that.”
The two met and started working together less than a month ago — which gave Rade very little time to pull together Jenner’s showstopping moment. “We instantly hit it off and began talking about ESPYs … I was like, ‘That’s three weeks away, you guys better get on the stick! I’m Jewish, I have anxiety for you right now!’ ” Rade jokes. “We started talking about what Cait would want, and we talked about doing something ivory. This is not the time to come out in a red dress. It’s not a photo shoot. This is the first time for Cait live, not as a model in a magazine or something.”
And though one might think of Versace for dramatic, editorial moments, it turns out they were the perfect partner for Caitlyn’s big moment. “Donatella [Versace] was over the moon — just so honored,” Rade says. “When I called them, they said, ‘You must have been reading our minds. We have been trying to figure out who to get in touch with to talk about making something for Cait.’”
Courtesy Jen Rade
Rade described the dress Jenner had in mind and sent reference photos, and Versace returned some sketches, a few of which Rade and Jenner combined to make the star’s dream dress. Next came the ivory swatches. “There are about 8,000 different colors of ivory, bone or cream — it’s really about what works best on your skin tone,” she says. “We [placed] different swatches across her shoulder, near her face so we could see which was a nice, warm tone. They custom-dyed two bolts in case they had to re-do something, and then got to work!” And there was never any doubt the dress would be a dream fit: “They have the resources and the manpower and the most skilled tailors in the world … Their tailors came to Los Angeles from Milan.”
The result? An immaculately fitted cream-hued silk-cady gown with ruching at the waist and train — which was completed by some just-right accessories, including Beladora emerald earrings, a diamond bracelet, and a Stuart Weitzman clutch and heels, the latter of which were also custom. As Rade explains, every detail was of equal importance.
“[The shoes] were critical. I went right to Stuart Weitzman. He’s such a master craftsman,” she says of the strappy sandals (seen above). “They have such a wide array of materials, like their leather tones, and we wanted the right metallic. It was called ‘Washed Napa Sun.’ We chose it and they had sent us some shapes and silhouettes. We chose the one we thought was best. They sent us, like, 15 cards of leathers, and we laid the ivory next to it and together Cait and I chose the leather. And off they went!”
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Courtesy Jen Rade
What did you love about her look? Are you amazed how quickly the gown came together? Share below!
— Alex Apatoff, reporting by Mary Green