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The red carpet is a runway for unknown designers

Lesser-known designers see awards shows as a way to break out from the pack.

January 27, 2013|By Vincent Boucher

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.

Zuhair Murad

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.

Jenny Packham

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.

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