For indie designers, awards-show exposure is an introdution to the major leagues.

Despite all the hoopla over the way the big houses such as Versace, Gucci and Dior have been dominating award show fashion in recent years, the red carpet remains an invaluable business opportunity for independent designers lucky enough to squeeze in on the action.

Overnight, a relatively obscure, yet established fashion house can hit the public radar — as in the case of Elie Saab who, after nine years of quietly servicing couture clients, made headlines worldwide thanks to the chocolate gown in which Halle Berry accepted her Oscar in 2002. Just under a year later, the image, typically captioned with the designer’s name, has almost become iconic.

"For any new house or existing designer who’s not brand famous, that exposure is like winning the lottery," said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue. "It’s the kind of advertising that can’t be bought, and it’s a magical moment when that happens."

As for the Beirut- and Paris-based Saab, who would not replicate the couture dress made exclusively for Berry, the requests haven’t subsided. But fans have been more creative in trying to convince him. "There was a huge demand to recreate the gown," he said Friday, "but as a wedding gown in pale colors like ivory."

For independent designers who typically lack the marketing budgets that can educate consumers of their very existence, today’s challenges are heady: the world of red carpet dressing is rife with whispers of exclusivity deals between designers and celebrities, even payments to stylists or their bold-faced clients in what amounts to a kind of product-placement deal for promoting a brand.

"We’re not part of LVMH, not part of Gucci," said New Zealand designer Collette Dinnigan. "We don’t have their marketing resources. So when a celebrity wears your design, it endorses the brand further."

What’s more, say the indies, the timing couldn’t be trickier. "Award shows, especially the Golden Globes, come at a hard time of the year because right now we’re preparing for fashion week," noted Amanda Brooks, creative director for Tuleh. "If we stop to make a dress for a star right now, it’s one less dress for fashion week. We have been in the situation when a stylist asks us to whip out a dress, knowing [the actress] has five other options under consideration. Still, it’s a miracle we get asked at all, when you have Ralph Lauren flying out staff to do fittings."Indeed, the designers, who are celebrities themselves in many cases, have been increasingly descending on Hollywood to personally stake their claim. As Brooks suggested, it doesn’t come cheap. For two years running, Donatella Versace has swooped into town with a small legion of seamstresses to dress her A-list friends, turning a couple of Beverly Hills Hotel suites into one of the most festive and coveted showrooms in town that week.

New Yorker Erik Gaskins went to great lengths to suit one Oscar-bound client, even keeping a Paris fabric mill open "at three times the cost" and his team on overtime to do fittings. He even located the shoes and jewelry at her request.

But Gaskins insisted he’s not complaining. Bergdorf Goodman and Holt Renfrew rung him up after the 2002 Golden Globes to order the tangerine look worn by "Sex and the City" vamp Kim Cattrall. "I was getting cold calls for four weeks straight asking where to get the dress," he said. "They were just finding me in the phone book." He doubled his expected orders for the matte jersey style, selling 30 at $2,000 retail.

Another plus was getting noticed by Vogue’s André Leon Talley, he added. The magazine ran a story on the designer, and Talley interviewed him on New York’s Metro Television. "It really made me a player among magazines and stylists. They figure if you’re dressing celebrities that important, you must have something to say as a designer."

All too aware of this reality, many independent designers — and even some retailers — acknowledge that is why playing the red carpet game is a necessary evil.

"If you’re going to spend $3,500 on a suit, you want to be impressed by the name," said Tuleh’s Brooks, adding that among the fall season goals the company set last week was upping its Hollywood outreach. "And it’s the international press [attracted by the shows] that really supports sales in Chicago and London and Japan."

Although it’s tough to say how consumers will respond to the fetish-flavored ballerina look David Cardona created for "The Practice’s" Lara Flynn Boyle at the Globes Sunday, the Los Angeles designer has opened accounts and increased orders in the past following red-carpet appearances by the actress and his other Hollywood clientele.The elegant black leather look Sela Ward wore when she won an Emmy in 2000 was never meant for production. But because of retailer demand, Cardona had a hit with the structured top and billowing skirt, each priced at about $2,000. "Price didn’t seem to be an issue," recalled Cardona. "They had to have the ‘Sela outfit.’"

Dinnigan recalled selling 50 of the butterfly tops like the one Claudia Schiffer wore to an awards show, even though customers had to wait three months for the hand-beaded style, which retailed at $1,000 a pop. "Every time the photo runs, I still get requests," she said.

Angeleno Monique Lhuillier sold an additional 25 units of a $2,300 silk crepe halter gown after Janet Jackson was photographed in it. But for Lhuillier it’s "not so much about a particular dress. It’s about building the name and reaching the viewers and readers we would never have. The world is so small now, that even for designers like myself, a brand can be built by word of mouth."

Based on just that kind of promotion, Angelina Jolie is among those who dropped into Lhuillier’s boutique off Rodeo Drive (she found her Golden Globes look there last year). The designer’s famous clients have also invariably helped the eveningwear business, introduced in 2001 after five years of success in bridal. Evening now accounts for 45 percent of sales," Lhuillier said, whose collections are in 65 doors nationwide, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

It’s not just the designers who benefit from the awards-show action. The January telecasts, which include the Golden Globes, the American Music Awards and even the People’s Choice Awards, can act as a preview of sorts for many buyers who observe consumer reaction for cues in emerging trends.

"Those shows have become so in sync with what’s going on in fashion that retailers around the world are watching to see who they should buy," said Cardona.

Sara Albrecht, owner of Ultimo in Chicago, agreed. She brought Cardona and others into the store as a result of their celebrity exposure. "We got great response for Bradley Bayou after Oprah wore his dress [at last year’s Emmys]. The awards shows are required viewing, and In Style and People are required reading for our sales associates. Our customers want to know who these designers are and we need to be able to tell them."Acknowledging the "resourcefulness of consumers," Robert Burke, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, noted that "any responsible retailer would be watching and taking notice. Our best, most recent example is Maggie Norris. She was already in place in the store when Sissy Spacek and Nicole Kidman wore her, and that made a difference toour customers."

Saks’ Lividini isn’t so sure whether it’s a major influence on her buyers. "There’s so many factors that go into a decision: it has to fit on the floor, it has to be right for the customer. In the case of Monique Lhuillier, we already carry her, so it does make a difference when a customer comes in asking about her. I suppose the red carpet definitely influences the customer."

That influence can ultimately affect the bottom line, retailers say, although in the case of department stores it may happen less in terms of demand for a designer than a trend which caught the public’s imagination — think the craze for pink following Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1999 Oscar look by Ralph Lauren.

For specialty stores, however, the impact is undeniable. "It’s very important to sales. You can’t even measure the importance or success of that kind of exposure," said Fran Stamper, vice president of the Hours in Denver. "These young ladies in Colorado have important black-tie events here and they travel all over to attend other functions, so they’re very conscious of what’s on the red carpet."

The 10,000-square-foot boutique, which sells couture, ready-to-wear and high-end bridal, is expecting a shipment from Zac Posen, who Stamper discovered when Salma Hayek was photographed in one of his looks. "It looked salable, so we called him." Ditto Los Angeles-based Kevan Hall, who, after one season, is "offering a lot of bang for the buck," said Stamper. "That’s the benefit of a specialty store like ours — we can just pick up the phone and have it here right away. We’re not tied into a vendor structure. And we’d rather find a resource before Saks and Neiman’s."

Added designer Hall: "Sometimes what is on the carpet is not always the easiest thing for other women to wear. But it does draw buyers and the public to see the line and it creates a wonderful buzz."

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