Fashions forward

The season's first major awards nominations won't be announced until mid-December, and the first big events don't take place for several weeks beyond that, but the world's top designers are already gearing up their gown-making machinery.

Why the early rush? The red carpets at awards shows now double as international fashion runways, which means there's serious money and status awaiting designers who dress the winners, nominees and even the presenters.

For the fashionistas, at least, it's not about the names inside the envelopes. It's the names behind those glam gowns, sparkling gems and sexy stilettos that really matter.

With that in mind, here's a preview of the fashion players to watch during this awards season, from veteran standard-bearers to rising stars — as well as a few in between who could pull off some big surprises.

The Dependables

Giorgio Armani: The reigning red carpet king is even stronger this year, thanks to his hot new Privé couture line. In the past, Armani has dressed many an Oscar lady, including Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Annette Bening, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Jodi Foster, Salma Hayek, Meryl Streep and Thora Birch. Gals go for Armani when they want to look safely chic, classy and elegant. The big A is a sure thing.

Chanel: Chanel is considered the belle of the ball gown for good reason: Karl Lagerfeld's designs. Who can forget his pink chiffon confection for Nicole Kidman at the 75th Academy Awards? Or her ice-crystal beaded couture gown at last year's show? (That little number reportedly took 400 hours to complete.) No wonder Chanel gets the big names. Julianne Moore wowed the 72nd Oscars crowd in a black off-the-shoulder Chanel gown. Uma Thurman has also worn Chanel on Oscar night.

Ralph Lauren: Conservative and classy, Lauren is an academy natural. He may not pack the glamour punch of the European houses, but his résumé is still impressive. Remember how his Spanish black lace gown made Penélope Cruz look spicy at the 73rd Academy Awards? And how about that pink taffeta prom dress Gwyneth Paltrow donned to pick up her "Shakespeare in Love" Oscar? OK, so the baggy bodice wasn't up to par. Picky, picky.

Carolina Herrera: This American designer is still in the race, but like an Oscar de la Renta or a Bill Blass, has cooled. Still, in the past two years Herrera has dressed the always awards-worthy Renée Zellweger more times than we can count, sticking by her through thick ("Bridget Jones") and thin ("Chicago"). With rampant rumors about stars demanding designers' exclusivity, that may mean that if she dresses Renée, she won't do anyone else. Which is too bad.

Christian Dior: If Armani looks over his shoulder, he'll see this fashion house gaining on him. Dior always grabs Grade-A Oscar talent, including Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank and Kirsten Dunst. Why? Because John Galliano, the enfante terrible of haute couture, is designing for the house. The new face of Christian Dior's fragrance is none other than Elvis' granddaughter, Riley Keough. She's even strutted the Paris runways for Dior. Can't get much younger and cooler than that. Just call his fashion fans Dior-lings!

Roberto Cavalli: This Italian designer's gowns will most likely be worn to every awards show this season, except the Oscars. He's way too over-the-top for the very formal Academy Awards, but his sexy, instant-wow creations are well-suited for the loosey-goosey Golden Globes or the racier, blinged-out Grammys. So who wears Cavalli? The question is, Who doesn't? Fans include Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Lopez.

Dolce & Gabbana: Call this duo the alternative Oscars dressers. Remember when Angelina Jolie flaunted red-carpet convention in a D & G white pantsuit at the 73rd show? Chloë Sevigny and Elizabeth Hurley attended the designer's recent 20th anniversary bash in Milan — always a sign of a gown-in-the-works. And Catherine Zeta-Jones wore their lace gown to the recent premiere of "The Legend of Zorro." So it's not exactly an Oscar-worthy film, but the Globes love sexy foreign stars.

Valentino: This European couturier is a fashion favorite, known for femininity, class and old-world elegance. He's designed gowns for Ashley Judd and Julia Roberts, not to mention Jennifer Garner, who wore his spectacular tangerine gown at last year's Academy Awards. Valentino is second only to Armani when it comes to courting and seducing stars with personal attention and long-lasting relationships.

Versace: The Italian design house is still favored by gals who want to make a strong and sexy statement. Naomi Watts wore Versace's gold gown as a nominee for her lead role in "21 Grams." Cameron Diaz wore a sheer black lace Versace gown to the 73rd awards, the same year Hilary Swank sported the designer's creation. Julianne Moore donned Versace at the 76th awards. Zeta-Jones has worn Versace's gowns to three Oscars ceremonies. Sheryl Crow and Hurley were flown in for Versace's London boutique opening. Seems Versace is putting the moves on these gals big time.

Louis Vuitton: Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder, Salma Hayek and Sharon Stone were spotted shopping from their front-row seats at Vuitton's recent Paris show. Why? Because Marc Jacobs now designs LV, and the popular young New York designer has given a youthful spirit to the stuffy old house (just like Tom Ford did with Gucci). Jacobs designed pal Sofia Coppola's purple silk Oscar gown for the 76th show. Can't get much more hip young Hollywood than Coppola.

Elie Saab: The Beirut-born designer burst onto the scene at the 74th Oscars, thanks to Halle Berry, who wore Saab's unforgettable wine-colored frock with a sheer floral embroidered top. He's become a red-carpet regular (Mena Suvari, Calista Flockhart, Toni Braxton) and most recently designed a stunning emerald Emmys gown for "Desperate Housewife" Marcia Cross. There's no question Saab will be a busy man this season.

Fresh FacesCollette Dinnigan: The young Australian designer often dresses Berry, and her intricately beaded gowns have been worn by Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett. Now that she's showing her collections in Paris, Collette's got that Euro-allure working in her favor.

Monique Lhuillier: The L.A.-based designer has done wedding gowns for scads of stars. She created Mary Steenburgen's red halter gown for the 75th ceremony, and put Jamie Lee Curtis in a sexy, strapless blue ombré silk chiffon number the following year. And remember Zhang Ziyi's black Chantilly lace gown with hand-tufted lace and tulle skirt at last year's Oscars? Yup, another Lhuillier design.

Vintage YSL: Retro-lovers Kidman and Sevigny were ahead of the curve when they wore St. Laurent's rethreads to the Oscars. With super-hot Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe, an admitted vintage YSL junkie, possibly styling stars for the upcoming awards season, get ready for more fashion flashbacks.

Roland Mouret: This up-and-comer dressed "Girl With a Pearl Earring" star and "Lost in Translation" nominee Scarlett Johansson for last year's Oscars. Famous fans of his sensual eveningwear include Cate Blanchett, Kate Moss and Halle Berry.

The Wild Cards

Alexander McQueen: This controversial British designer was the man behind poor Gwyneth Paltrow's recent red-carpet disaster, aka the Goth gown, but he also did Kate Winslet's acclaimed "Titanic" couture dress. His spring 2006 Paris show was deemed disappointing. Still, this guy can give good gown when it counts.

Jean Paul Gautier: Think French high fashion with a sense of humor. He was responsible for the striking black gown Nicole Kidman wore when she picked up the best actress Oscar for "The Hours." Juliette Binoche collaborated with him for a truly bizarre flapper gown at the 73rd show.

Prada: The Italian line works well on sexy, fashion-forward young actresses like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Uma Thurman and Cameron Diaz. Rita Wilson loves Prada, too. It wouldn't be an awards season without a few Prada dresses on the carpets and at the parties.

Christian Lacroix: The French designer who gave the world the pouf dress in the mid '80s is due for a comeback. He designed Kristin Scott Thomas' custom-made wrap gown for the 69th awards, but perhaps he's best known for the gold-accented, white-layered peasant gown Uma Thurman wore to the 76th awards.

Stella McCartney: She's Gwyneth Paltrow's close pal and fave designer of late. If Paltrow gets a nod for "Proof,' smart money's on a Stella creation. The ex-Chloe designer's other fans include Kate Moss and Madonna.

Bradley Bayou: No longer toiling for Halston, Bayou is back on the awards scene. His collection closed the Spring 2006 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles, but his fashion flock — Oprah, Barbra Streisand and a few "Desperate Housewives" — was conspicuously absent. Queen Latifah wore his gray satin gown as a best supporting actress nominee for "Chicago."

Escada: The house will try to make a red-carpet comeback this season. And they'd love a dream hit like they got at the 70th Academy Awards, when a shocked Kim Basinger won a best actress Oscar for her role in "L.A. Confidential" wearing a mint-green satin Escada gown. Hey, who wouldn't?

Faded Glories

Badgley Mischka: The relatively new design duo did Nia Vardalos' demure black gown for her big night as a nominee for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Marcia Gay Harden's bold blue maternity gown (which she wore as a nominee for "Mystic River") was also a Badgley Mischka creation. Nice gowns…lovely gowns…but probably not sharp enough to bag an A-lister.

Gucci: Rita Wilson and Susan Sarandon loved Tom Ford's overtly sexy styles and flattering fit. Charlize Theron picked up her "Monster" Oscar in Ford's nude beaded gown. But he's long gone from the house, so frankly all bets are off. Still, it wouldn't be awards season without a Gucci gown popping up somewhere.

Calvin Klein: Minimal. Classic. And a bit boring. Gwyneth Paltrow wore his elegant minimal gowns to two Academy Awards ceremonies. Last year, Hilary Swank almost wore Calvin, but switched at the last minute to a gown designed by Guy Laroche that looked like it was worn backward. Will Calvin fight hard to regain his rightful spot on the red carpet this year? You betcha. Will it pay off? Jury's out.

Donna Karan: Nothing says "middle-age movie star" like a Donna Karan gown. But that could change if she gets her hands on a young nominee. Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand have worn this New York designer's figure-flattering gowns on Oscars night.

Vera Wang: Her clingy, fitted gowns are favored by Holly Hunter and other actresses who like a dress that doesn't overpower or make a big statement. And frankly, that's not a large customer base. But Charlize Theron and Sarah Jessica Parker are big fans, so don't count her out.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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