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LOS ANGELES — Let the games begin.

Forget the Winter Olympics in Turin. The race for the gold kicked off at dawn Tuesday in Hollywood and reverberated through New York, Paris and Milan as the Oscar nominees were announced.

Which stars do designers most want to dress for the 78th annual Academy Awards on March 5? The list is sure to include Reese Witherspoon, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, Felicity Huffman, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams.

Newcomer Amy Adams, nominated for best supporting actress, was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the indie dramedy “Junebug” and designers won’t overlook her, either. No-nonsense-type talents such as Frances McDormand, Katherine Keener and Dame Judi Dench are dark horses in the fashion sweepstakes and none has stylists — at least, not at press time.

Stylists, fashion publicists and other behind-the-scenes players stepped it up as the nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. PST. Knightley’s stylist, Rachel Zoe, was getting off a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York when she saw her BlackBerry jammed with messages about her client, nominated for best actress for “Pride and Prejudice.” In Manhattan, stylist Anna Bingemann was just getting home from the airport when the phone began ringing with callers inquiring about her plans for Weisz, who earned a best supporting actress nomination for “The Constant Gardner.” In Los Angeles, fashion publicist Susan Ashbrook was rushing into the office at 7:30 a.m. to reach her clients, including Lanvin, Escada and Monique Lhuillier and Chopard. And in Milan, movie fan Donatella Versace was considering the possibilities.

“There are too many beautiful and talented women —and let’s not forget the men — to choose from,” Versace said. Indeed, this year’s nominated men are a hunky bunch, including George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Terrence Howard, Jake Gyllenhaal and Matt Dillon.

“I would love to dress everyone…but what all these actresses this year have in common is great style, lots of personality and that star quality that makes the red carpet come alive,” Versace said.

Versace will be back this year. “Certainly, from an organizational point of view, the Oscars will be easier to handle this year due to our show week falling earlier in February and the award ceremony moving back by a few days,” she said. “The Oscars is one of the most glamorous and creative moments for the industry and the quality of movies and talent being what it is this year, I will definitely try to be there.”

This story first appeared in the February 1, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Valentino, too, is a huge Oscar fan. But he had to shelve plans to attend this year when he realized it was the same day as his ready-to-wear presentation in Paris. The house is a staple of the red carpet — dressing no fewer than four stars for Golden Globes last month — and Valentino already has his sights on a couple of favorites.

“I would love to dress Keira Knightle y again, especially after the success she registered in Valentino at the Golden Globes,” he said. “She was considered one of the most elegant of the event. She is talented and I’m thrilled that she earned a nomination at such as young age. I also love Reese, especially since she wore a Valentino gown when presenting the Oscars seasons ago, and was dubbed a modern Grace Kelly.”

His people would do well to call Witherspoon’s new stylists, Nina and Clare Hallworth. The in-demand twins were enlisted after the Golden Globes, when Witherspoon wore a Chanel gown that had been shopped that weekend to actresses such as Anne Hathaway, and worn three years earlier to Globes parties by Kirsten Dunst.

The Hallworths are obsessive when it comes to the details. Nominated for best actress for “Walk the Line,” Witherspoon might, indeed, go with Valentino, who created the much-photgraphed and admired black beaded gown she wore to the Oscars in 2003.

And, Valentino noted, despite the conflict of dates with his show and the show here, “We can rely on the expertise of the seamstresses of our Couture atelier. They are busy with orders, but they know how to make space for the stars and for such a special event.”

Giorgio Armani ushered in Oscar’s fashion madness more than two decades ago, and he remains a favorite among Hollywood’s elite, partly because of his team here, led by Wanda McDaniel, a Tinseltown insider. A movie buff, Armani didn’t hold back on his opinions of the nominations. “I am naturally disappointed that Zhang Ziyi was not nominated given her compelling performance in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ Ziyi also always lights up the red carpet.” She topped best-dressed lists in her chartreuse Armani Privé at the Globes. Theron, too, chose Privé for last Sunday’s Screen Actor Guild Awards. “It would be a pleasure to design a couture dress for her for the Oscars,” Armani said.

But he may have to get in line.

Theron, who is up for best actress for “North Country,” has gone with Dior for several events, including the Oscars in 2005. With her contract with the French house about to end, it’s anyone’s guess how she may go. But it’s likely European, based on to hints dropped Tuesday by her stylist, Lisa Michelle Boyd. And, to her credit, the Beverly Hills-based Boyd has always insisted her star client wear couture. Theron wore Gucci when she won her best actress Oscar in 2004 for “Monster.”

The Italians along with the French — Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Givenchy — have increasingly dominated the most important red-carpet events.

Sure, the American trio of Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are always represented. But the Europeans have been winning more actresses, thanks partly to sheer aggressiveness.

The European issue hasn’t gone unnoticed among American designers.

Monique Lhuillier said she’s aware of the trend. But another challenge for a fledgling, independent company of Lhuillier’s size is the increasing number of actresses who are committing to designers — via contracts, ad campaigns or other financial ties — to wear gowns to select events. “It’s becoming harder to place your product,” said the Beverly Hills designer, who has dressed Witherspoon, Theron and Huffman for awards shows.

By the time awards season kicks off in January, she has already lobbied Oscar-worthy actresses about dressing them for the red carpet. Dealing with this “very time consuming” undertaking is a trick, since she, like many designers, is busy preparing for fall runway shows. In addition, Lhuillier also gave birth two weeks ago. “This year has been a little crazier for me than other years.”

For the Oscars, Lhuillier is vying to dress four nominees and presenters and has already provided multiple sketches. “We’ll see how many dresses I actually make,” she said.

For Weisz, who will be just over seven months pregnant on Oscar Sunday, a custom gown is essential.

Weisz’s stylist, fellow Brit Anna Bingemann, has already given a heads-up about her client’s changing shape to a few designers with whom she’s already engaged in discussions. “We only approach a very few because so much time goes into creating a dress from scratch, and in this case, it has to be completely custom-made.”

But echoing others, the hours after the announcements were a time to savor. “We’ll let today be about the elation of getting nominated,” Bingemann said. “We can talk about dresses tomorrow.”

That’s Susan Ashbrook’s modus operandi, too. Ashbrook, credited with pioneering the fashion publicist agency in Hollywood with her boutique firm Film Fashion, said it’s “important to let the celebrities enjoy the moment before we besiege them or the agents with calls.”

Going for newcomers, particularly when a brand is new to the Hollywood game, is something she recommends.

“For my clients, someone like a Charlize Theron would be a lot tougher to go after,” she said. “She already has her established designers. She’s worked with Lanvin and Monique in the past, but a new designer may not get their foot in the door with her. But that’s just the reality of the business.”

Film Fashion recently added relatively unknown designers such as Georges Chakra, who presents couture in Paris, and footwear and handbag brand Rickard Shah — both keen to make headway in Hollywood.

She’s hoping that sketches sent to Huffman by her client, Kevan Hall, long before the Globes may result in a red-carpet moment. Hall dressed Huffman for the Emmy Awards in September, when she took home the best actress trophy for “Desperate Housewives.” Huffman has since tried out as many dress styles as designers.

Among Huffman’s best moments was last month’s Globes, when she went with another fledgling brand, Marchesa. The London label has only been around for one Oscar season, but it has already managed to build a red-carpet following of sorts in Hollywood, including Penélope Cruz.

Given the caliber of actresses nominated, Keren Craig and co-designer Georgina Chapman said it’s tough to single out one actress they would love to dress. Huffman wore Marchesa to the premiere of “Transamerica,” the indie film for which she garnered the best actress nomination.”We adore dressing Felicity, and would love dressing her again, but the nominations have only just come out,” Craig said.

One of Los Angeles’ busiest fashion publicists, Marilyn Heston of MHA Media, advises her clients to focus their energies and resources. “I think at this point in the game we are dealing with making dresses specifically for someone.”

Heston was responsible for introducing to Hollywood Elie Saab via Halle Berry, and Roland Mouret on Scarlett Johansson. She hopes to strike again with London’s Jonathan Saunders, who she introduced to press and stylists here recently.

Heston did the same with British jeweler Stephen Webster last month. And with her jewelry clients, who include H. Stern, she takes a different tack. “We are talking to stylists now about their vision, in the hopes they might be inspired by a piece and choose a dress around that.”

Chopard USA spokeswoman Stephanie Labeille, said the Oscars is a great opportunity for the Swiss-based luxury jeweler. “Sometimes I think they [stylists and celebrities] play it safe rather than really express their imagination, but overall they are doing a good job.”

Stylist Kate Young, who will be dressing Williams, best supporting actress nominee for “Brokeback Mountain,” along with presenter Hilary Swank, may be among the few stylists who found herself with a bit of breathing room. “I want to see the New York shows and couture gowns when they come to New York. These days gowns get photographed so fast, and get worn so fast, that I’m already sick of what’s out there.”

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