04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
GIVE LIZZY GARDINER CREDIT. American Express did, and look what happened. The 28-year-old Australian designer's phone has hardly stopped ringing with congratulations—and job offers—since she appeared at the Academy Awards sheathed in a gown made of 254 Amex gold cards. Gardiner's gilded getup transformed a minor moment—the Oscar for Best Costume Design, which she and her partner, Tim Chappel, won for the drag-queen comedy Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—into the show's most visual charge. "Jennifer Tilly and Sharon Stone told me it was a great dress," says Gardiner, who was looking for an American symbol to wear.
Such attention is a novelty to Gardiner, who recently swapped her apartment in Sydney for a modest Hollywood rental. "I'm brought down to earth every time I put my hands in my pocket and see I've only got $135," she says.
Growing up in Dubbo (mom runs a motel there; dad is a property developer in Sri Lanka), Gardiner always had style. Among her favorite childhood outfits was a black plastic snakeskin ensemble. "I loved it," she admits. "It was hideous." After a stint at design school in Italy, Gardiner returned to Australia in 1987 and designed for TV and film. A pal, director Stephan Elliott, hired her for Priscilla in 1993, and with a $12,000 budget she and Chappel turned out a host of other outlandish creations.
Next month, Gardiner starts work on the Dino DeLaurentiis thriller Bound, starring Jennifer Tilly. She's also negotiating with American Express, which gave her the gold cards—all invalid—for the Oscars and now wants to buy the dress for an undisclosed amount. She's amenable, especially since American Express wants to keep the gleaming garment on display. "It would be horrible," she says, "if it disappeared into a vault."