By  on January 24, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS — Giorgio Armani is zeroing in on Cate Blanchett. Olivier Theyskens has already landed Reese Witherspoon for Nina Ricci. And Chanel is angling for one of the season's freshest faces, Rinko Kikuchi of "Babel."

Nominations for the 79th annual Academy Awards were announced here Tuesday and the red carpet rumble is on. This year's nominees — from Penélope Cruz to Kate Winslet to Jennifer Hudson and Blanchett — all have been praised for their performances and were considered shoo-ins. In addition, many are established players — Meryl Streep posted a record 14th nomination. Of course, Oscar dressing is nothing new for the veterans in the group and designers already have ideas on who will show them in their best light.

"As Cate Blanchett is also coming to my show [tonight], I would be delighted to dress such a modern woman, who I feel is also one of the most talented and inspirational actresses in Hollywood right now," Armani told WWD in Paris after seeing the list of nominees.

Later, at a cocktail party for his couture show, Armani added, "I think we are going to dress her."

He spoke as Blanchett was finishing scenes for her latest movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," in New Orleans, where Armani's private jet was waiting to take her to Paris. Her stylist, Elizabeth Stewart, was passing time eating beignets, New Orleans' French Market doughnuts, with an Armani VIP executive set to accompany Blanchett to Paris.

The dress frenzy reached a crucial point last year when best actress winner Witherspoon bucked convention and went with a vintage Dior couture gown that she found and bought with her stylist in Paris. That was partly a reaction to the Golden Globes, where her victory was shadowed by the brouhaha over her wearing a Chanel couture dress that had been worn by Kirsten Dunst three years prior.

Witherspoon has struck a deal with Nina Ricci to wear its Theyskens-designed frocks during the entire awards season, the house confirmed on Tuesday. Witherspoon wore Nina Ricci's first Theyskens-designed dress — a knee-length yellow sheath — on the Golden Globes red carpet.

"Reese and I were thinking about a short dress that would be sharp and quite special without being too complicated,'' Theyskens told WWD. "She fell in love with the color of the fabric that we developed especially for Nina Ricci."Witherspoon will wear her second Ricci creation at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, and Theyskens recently flew to Los Angeles to work with her. "She is a modern girl whose choices are really clear,'' he said. "I love her simplicity and her femininity. It is really a perfect match with Nina Ricci."

While a high-profile actress dealing directly with a designer is one strategy, stylists are key.

On Tuesday morning, Estee Stanley, who with partner Cristina Ehrlich dresses Cruz, was at Los Angeles International Airport to catch a flight to New York before going off to Paris for fashion ideas. "Cristina and I were both up late last night with Penélope doing fittings for the SAG awards, so we got up early this morning for the [Oscar] nominations,'' she said. "We were all very anxious."

Stanley noted that because Cruz was expected to earn a nomination, plans have been in motion since the start of the actress' international press campaign for her film "Volver" last spring.

"Luckily for us, she is so well respected in the film industry and so international and so beautiful that everyone wants to dress her,'' Stanley said.

Stanley said choosing each gown is a collaborative effort, and that she, Ehrlich and Cruz have talked extensively about the image Cruz wants to portray on Oscar night, Feb. 25, and the idea of the dress.

"She's not the kind of girl who always wears the same designers, so it could be anything," Stanley said. "But we meet with designers, we tell them our ideas, and they submit sketches. It's many steps.''

Tanya Gill, longtime stylist for best actress nominee Winslet, agreed. "It's an ongoing seasonal project,'' she said. "We start at the beginning with more subtle looks and leave room to build up for the big event. You have to plan."

Gill said she is already working with one designer, but saying no to the dozens more is difficult. "Diplomacy is a very important part of the job,'' she explained. "I tell people Kate has a long-term career and each relationship has an opportunity to grow. One always leaves everyone on an optimistic note."Though Gill was home in Los Angeles sick with a stomach flu Tuesday, she said she prefers to go to the Paris couture for inspiration. So does Stanley.

"It's still so great, even though you can't wear most of those gowns at the Oscars,'' Stanley said. "Most actresses who are really fashion-forward don't care. They do what they want. Like Nicole Kidman. The magazines sometimes rip her to shreds when I think her dress is a 10. Women like her and Penélope dress for the designers and the fashion people. They are not dressing for people who are writing at Us and Star."

Chanel zeroed in on best supporting actress nominee Kikuchi since the premiere of "Babel" at Cannes in May. The house has been dressing her almost exclusively. "We can only hope that she'll choose [Chanel] for the Oscars," said a Chanel spokeswoman.

Donatella Versace is one of the few designers who loves attending the Oscars, but given the timing of her runway show this year in Milan, she may not be able to make it.

Valentino, who dressed Cameron Diaz for the Golden Globes, said: "More and more I am convinced that it is not right to just send an array of clothes to Los Angeles and allocate them at the last minute. I also don't think that it is right to dress too many actresses. I now like to work with just one or two; talk to them, see their fittings and be sure that they are amazing.''

Speaking from her hotel room at the Ritz in Paris, where she is scoping out Oscar possibles at the couture, Diaz's stylist Rachel Zoe said: "The ideal situation is to see a dress on the couture runway, get inspired and have it on a client on the red carpet. It's like magic."

While they often work under the high-fashion radar, Los Angeles-based designers are as keen to see their gowns on the red carpet as their colleagues in Europe and New York — and many consider their year-round proximity to celebrities to be an advantage in forging relationships with Hollywood's elite.

Kevan Hall, who has dressed Felicity Huffman, Salma Hayek and Charlize Theron, among others, said working with celebrities has become an important part of his brand-building efforts. "Advertising in [magazines such as] Vogue and In Style is so expensive," he said, "so it is a way to have our dresses seen on beautiful actresses. And those [images] are seen around the world for a long, long time."Lobov Azria, co-designer and creative director of the BCBG Max Azria Group, which includes fledgling designer brand MaxAzria Atelier, said dressing the famous is "absolutely" important, and that the company conceptualized MaxAzria Atelier because "we saw some of the celebrities needed makeovers."

Designer Lloyd Klein, who dressed Toni Colette in a shimmering blue gown for the Globes, said, "We prefer to dress celebrities who are known as serious actors. It is important for us to know their work and make sure it will make sense to dress her."

David Meister, who has dressed Sharon Stone and Jennifer Hudson, among others, said, "There have been times when you put in time on a gown, and they don't wear it....But it's how it works. It's part of the process."

And the time is now. "This is it,'' Stanley said. "It's sink or swim."

With contributions from Katya Foreman, Emilie Marsh and Miles Socha, Paris, Alessandra Ilari, Milan, and Emili Vesilind, Los Angeles

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