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LOS ANGELES — First-time Oscar nominees Melissa Leo, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis are getting a dizzying initiation into the rites of the red carpet.

There’s nothing quite like it.

This story first appeared in the February 4, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I’ll let you know how it is in a couple of weeks, when I catch my breath,” Leo, nominated for best actress for “Frozen River,” said at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the newcomers were still getting used to the flurry of flashbulbs and shouts of “Who are you wearing?”

The three nominees have spent years in front of the camera, honing their craft in relative obscurity, and the two-month-long fashion marathon that is awards season is a shock to the system.

“Pray for me; hopefully I’ll choose something fabulous,” said Davis, a best supporting actress nominee for “Doubt.”

Davis and her fellow actresses have stylists to help them navigate the waters, but that doesn’t minimize the pressure, and each stylist has her own game plan.

Elizabeth Stewart, who is working with Davis, has been down the Oscar road with clients such as Cate Blanchett and Julia Roberts, and she sees no reason to change her strategy.

“My general approach is zeroing in on one designer and customizing a gown, and I think I will stick to that approach with Viola,” she said. “She is a strong, natural beauty. I am going to take all my cues from her.”

So far, Davis has worn body-conscious frocks by Giorgio Armani, Hervé Léger by Max Azria and David Meister.

Cristina Ehrlich, who started working with Leo this week and is also styling longtime clients and best supporting actress nominees Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Amy Adams (“Doubt”), casts a wide net.

“For the Oscars, my approach is to serve as a collaborator, enabling designers to present their ideas to my clients while maintaining a unique perspective for each one,” she said. “What we’re trying to accomplish at this time is a look that’s both feminine and modern.”

While Leo has been an unknown fashion entity, she scored high marks for the custom emerald green taffeta gown from Simin Couture that she wore to the SAG Awards (pre-Ehrlich).

“I don’t follow fashion,” Leo said. “I have this picture in my head, like a little girl, of what I want my [Oscar] dress to look like.”

Although the Oscars are just 18 days away, many a designer has whipped up a dress in less time.

The number of eyes glued to the red carpet means that actresses can also use the spotlight as an opportunity to present themselves in fresh ways. That’s particularly true for Leo, Henson and Davis, whose nominated roles were gritty and required either no makeup or aging makeup.

Davis said she purposely chose a bright yellow satin column by David Meister for the SAG Awards “to make a bold statement. People who see me on-screen usually think I am 65 years old and 200 pounds.”

Ditto for Henson, who aged 40 years in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and is a best supporting actress contender.

“I think a lot of people have been surprised by Taraji,” who has worn J.Mendel, Kaufman Franco, Hervé Leroux and Michael Kors, said her stylist Sherri Hoke. “Both that she’s a serious actress and that’s she so beautiful and has such an amazing figure. She’s just now getting on the radar.”

Historically, U.S. designers have been more open to dressing Stateside newcomers, while European designers tend to focus on American actresses who are well-known worldwide. While Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang will surely play into the mix come Oscar Sunday, names like David Meister, Marc Bouwer and Max Azria have also been getting love. But it’s a two-way street, and design houses usually look to dress celebrities who are in line with their own image or aesthetic.

“Designers only have so many gowns, and their goal is to get press, but it doesn’t mean anything if the person isn’t going to make the clothes look good,” Hoke said.

Stewart pointed out that while she has ties with many fashion houses, a first-time award client can open new doors. “The relationships are great, but the fashion world always embraces the new — including Oscar nominees.”


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