By Vincent Boucher
January 27, 2013
When actresses step onto the Screen Actors Guild red carpet this Sunday, the world will be poring over every flounce, every sequin, every slit, strap, pump and peplum. "Who are you wearing?" has become the ubiquitous question on interviewers' lips.
The answers may be surprising. Every year brings a crop of relatively unknown designers yearning for the big breakthrough a red carpet triumph can bring with it.
They've seen it happen before. When Halle Berry accepted her groundbreaking lead actress Oscar in 2002 in a maroon gown with a daring sheer leaf-strewn beaded top, it was also a career-making victory for her till-then unknown designer, Elie Saab.
Out of seemingly nowhere, a designer most of the world had never heard of became a household word, recalled veteran Hollywood publicist Marilyn Heston, president of MHA Media, who handled Beirut-born Saab at the time. And it was a watershed — a billion "hits" around the world, including 400 million from only 27 websites in those nascent Internet days, with a total valued at the equivalent of $25 million worth of publicity, Heston said.
For Saab it brought full-fledged membership in the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the sanctioning body that regulates the Paris shows, alongside houses like Chanel and Dior. Then came the de rigueur fragrance and a ready-to-wear evening line sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus as well as namesake boutiques in Paris and Beirut, where his atelier still is located. More than a decade later, he remains a red-carpet staple, dressing the likes of Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and, most recently, Lea Michele at the Golden Globes.
Saab's story is the big dream peddled by Hollywood's fashion publicists, who search out little-known designers yearning for a breakthrough from around the Middle East, all over Europe and beyond, bringing back their wares to Los Angeles showrooms where the mostly one-of-a-kind sample gowns are within easy reach of local celebrity stylists, agents and managers looking to create a little red-carpet magic for their clients.
These are not the designers usually covered in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar but rather by People Style Watch, on TV rundowns like "Fashion Police" and in celebrity style blogs.
Few of their wares are carried in American stores, unlike the more familiar designer names — the global powerhouses like Armani, Dior and Gucci; the avant-garde fashion favorites like McQueen, Givenchy and Alexandre Vauthier; the New York big guns like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Michael Kors; and the stalwarts of evening glamour like Marchesa, Vera Wang, Badgley Mischka and Naeem Khan.
But the worldwide reach of the red carpet is a great equalizer and every year brings some of these lesser-known designers trying to break through in Saab's footsteps, as seen most recently at the Hollywood awards season's acknowledged kickoff, the Golden Globe Awards in early January.
If anyone is close to household-name status, it's this Beirut-born designer.
At the Golden Globes, his re-embroidered white lace over nude illusion gown for Jennifer Lopez stole the show, if not all the fashion accolades. "Movie Star! Movie Star!" Joan Rivers screamed on the "Fashion Police" wrap-up. But the Red Carpet Fashion Awards blog quibbled: "I was surprised that I didn't love it. In fact, I'm not sure if I even like (it) … mostly because it feels too nude."
Kaley Cuoco sparkled in his princess dress and both Lopez (after a quick change) and Miranda Kerr hit the after-parties in his sleek halter styles. This after a banner 2012, where Murad was practically Lopez's in-house designer for "American Idol," designing her music tour and as her red carpet go-to.
He designed the infamous sparkly teal Emmy's showstopper for Sofia Vergara, with its split-zipper, thong-baring wardrobe malfunction tweeted 'round the world. And year's end saw Kristen Stewart at her final "Twilight" premieres in barely-there Murads: first, a nude gown in L.A. with a much-debated sheer skirt, then a black-beaded jumpsuit in London with a see-through lace top.
He showed his couture on Wednesday in Paris as a guest of the Chambre Syndicale but his ready-to-wear collection is seen infrequently in U.S. stores, and a New York boutique he announced in 2011 has yet to materialize. Still, Murad is the latest in a line of Saab disciples who isn't afraid to lash on the glitter. It might make some fashion insiders cringe but it seems to suit the publicity-seeking needs of Hollywood stars.
As a designer, Brit Jenny Packham has a split personality.
On the one hand, she turns out restrained gowns with boudoir touches like the ivory Golden Globes choice worn by presenter Catherine Zeta-Jones and the classic turquoise chiffon with lace cap sleeves the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the Olympic concert in London last summer.
On the other hand, Packham has "never met a sequin, bead, or crystal she didn't like," said Style.com, reviewing her spring 2013 Vegas-themed collection. Hence the long-sleeved silver sequined column worn by Emily Mortimer to this year's Globes.
Though Packham's vacillating on the runway may make it difficult to find her niche with American retailers, she's found favor recently with younger celebs. Take the sequined black stunner with gold-embellished plunging neckline worn by Vanessa Hudgens to the Globe after-parties. As Fabulous & Opinionated bloggers Tom and Lorenzo said approvingly: "This is all a bit much, but we tend to think that was the point. She wanted something fierce and showy, and by God, she nailed it."
"He's a new name for me," Sofia Vergara told Ryan Seacrest on the Globes red carpet, as she showed off Michael Cinco's unstintingly bejeweled black strapless gown.
And he was a new name for most viewers at home, unless they caught the Dubai-based Filipino designer in a 2011 appearance on "America's Next Top Model." Los Angeles stylist-turned-public-relations-rep Antonio Esteban did, and after a Facebook friendship, signed Cinco as one of his first clients.
Vergara's stylists, known professionally as Rob and Mariel, had the dress amid the "racks and racks" they put together for the actress to consider. "It was one of the first things she pulled out," said the duo's Rob Zangardi.
Esteban must have a good database — about the same time, Lady Gaga wore a custom Cinco gown, developed with her stylist Nicola Formichetti, to a charity event. Rob and Mariel (Haenn) also style Jennifer Lopez, so who knows what the future holds?
"We don't like to get too stuck on names," Zangardi said. "If it's a good dress, it's a good dress."
Rami Al Ali
Also headquartered in Dubai, native Syrian Rami Al Ali was signed to PR powerhouse Film Fashion (which also represents Murad and Packham) just days before the Globes.
But there was Carla Gugino, looking radiant on the red carpet in his silvery halter gown with openwork. "Slinky sexy," said the "Today" show's The Look blog in their roundup of on-trend metallics.
"I saw that it was so beautifully made," said Gugino's stylist, Jessica Paster. "And when I saw it on Carla's body, it was so, so stunning." All in all, a promising Hollywood debut for the designer, who founded his Dubai couture house only in 2011, after schooling at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus and then apprenticing with other couturiers in the region. And he showed in Paris, for the first time, during the just-ended couture shows as well.
This awards season you can't ask for a better "get" than one of the "Girls" from HBO's hit show, and there was Zosia Mamet on the Globes red carpet in a severe black-leather paneled sheath by Italian-born designer Tony Ward (not to be confused with the actor and 1980s Madonna paramour).
It was quite a departure from the usual beaded couture confections he shows in Rome, such as the fanciful full-skirted style worn by Julianne Hough at the People's Choice Awards a few days before the Globes.
Maybe Mamet's gown harkened back to Ward's training with the late Italian maestro of geometry Gianfranco Ferre at Dior in the 1980s. But it also reflected the dark aesthetic of her notoriously secretive stylist Ryan Hastings, famed for dressing Rooney Mara in similar austere fashion.
But Mamet was anything but grim. The Go Fug Yourself blog's Heather raved, "I like that her gown is shot through with leather. And that she's smiling. It seriously makes a difference."
Maria Lucia Hohan
"Maria Lucia Hohan is the best designer you never really heard of," according to Red Carpet Fashion Awards, listing Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and J. Lo among the fans of this Romanian-born designer and her sparkle-free styles that combine delicately colored draped silk with naughty-but-nice nude illusion corsetry.
However, opinions were divided when Emma Roberts showed up in a vaguely '80s Hohan gauzy black party dress after the Globes that revealed a new side of this designer. Red Carpet Fashion Awards tsk-tsked "vampy and overwrought" while Stylebistro speculated that a recent break-up was the motive: "Nothing officially says 'I'm over you' like a sheer corset dress."
But Elle Leigh's Fashion Boudoir blog probably spoke for a lot of younger fans: "I love it. I want it. It rocks."
"The Newsroom's" young star Alison Pill "looked red hot in Gustavo Cadile's jersey gown featuring draped neckline and beaded waist," gushed Us Weekly's Golden Globes red-carpet online roundup.
It was a bit of a comeback for the designer, who also dressed Anjelica Huston for the event in a soft ivory metallic blouson and black evening skirt.
Born and reared in Argentina of Italian heritage, Cadile studied in Miami, bounced around various European design gigs and eventually founded a New York-based business in 2007. He subsequently was nominated as a Fashion Group Rising Star and attracted early red carpet devotees like Eva Longoria and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Now, after a break, he's re-launched his evening collection under his mother's name, "Memeka."
Vanity Fair UK recently heralded Greece's Celia Kritharioti as one of six couturiers to watch worldwide, and her new representation in Los Angeles yielded both "Extra" co-host Maria Menounos and "E! News" and "Fashion Police" mainstay Giuliana Rancic striding confidently down the Globes red carpet before they picked up their interviewing microphones.
Both were "looking gorgeous" said Just Jared, though Rancic had her detractors, including Fug's Heather: "I think hers is the least popular saloon in all of Deadwood."
Nonetheless, Kritharioti, a 20-year couture veteran, has more than enough experience as "Greek couturier to the stars" — and the legacy of an Athens couture house originally founded in 1906 — to adapt her lavish creations for the American market.
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