LOS ANGELES — Designer Eletra Casadei’s decision not to participate in the traditional knock-off wars following the Oscars quickly changed as the show unfolded Sunday evening.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“When I saw what Renée [Zellweger] and the stars were wearing, I called my design team and said, ‘Turn on your TV sets, the dresses are looking good,’” said Casadei, who in two years has turned her awards re-creations into a $1 million business.

In line with the nation’s subdued mood amid the Iraqi crisis, Casadei originally planned to pass on making her more accessible versions of the dresses this time round. She canceled shoots with six television shows, including “The View” on ABC, who were to film the 48-hour design rush come Monday and Tuesday, believing retailers wouldn’t purchase her impulse creations nor would the celebrities wear replica-worthy attire.

But Casadei, like other fashion pundits, was as wrong as a Jimmy Choo stiletto on a tennis court, and she now has a complete collection on its way to market.

True, there was the abbreviated red carpet that made glimpsing and photographing the couture gowns a tougher proposition. There also was the concern of who would attend the Oscars as a handful of A-listers bowed out of the event. And much of the pre-buzz focused on many celebrities rethinking their showy looks in favor of quiet elegance.

All in all, though, observers say the looks weren’t disappointing.

“I was surprised — I thought it was going to be a downer,” said Allen Schwartz, president of Los Angeles-based A.B.S., who shipped out samples to his New York showroom on Tuesday with plans to hit retail stores in four to eight weeks. The dresses will retail from $250 to $300.

Schwartz chose five designs for his adaptations, including the Jean Jourban Paris vintage gown worn by Julia Roberts and the Versace ice-blue beaded frock on Jennifer Garner.

He gave a thumbs down to the Valentino confection donned by Jennifer Lopez and Elie Saab’s glittering one-shoulder gown hugging Halle Berry’s frame.

“No one under 50 is going to wear J. Lo’s dress — it had no attitude…and Halle Berry’s wasn’t stylish or contemporary enough,” said Schwartz, noting that the gowns on Zellweger and Kidman translate well for the prom customer.

For her part, Casadei chose six looks: Ones worn by Kate Hudson (Versace), Susan Sarandon (Donna Karan), Nicole Kidman (Jean Paul Gaultier), Julianne Moore (Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche), Garner (Versace) and Zellweger (Carolina Herrera), but tinkered with the styles to make them more salable. She shortened the bust ruffle on Moore’s strapless YSL green dress to slenderize the waist and combined jersey and Lycra spandex to stiffen the three shoulder straps on Kidman’s Gaultier black gown.

Different color interpretations — for both fiscal and wearable reasons — were also part of the selling strategy.

“For Moore’s dress, we choose black and red — in the final analysis, when there’s war and a tough economy, that’s what people will buy,” she said.

Casadei’s samples ship today for the Dallas Fashion Market and will be ready for July 30 and Aug. 30 deliveries, she said, mirroring last year’s schedule. Retail price points range from $400 to $800.

Not all designers chose to participate in this year’s knock-off race. New York-based designer Victor Costa, whose re-creations fetch about $500 to $800 at stores, opted out of the rush, with plans to produce later in the year.

“My two top accounts — Neiman Marcus and Saks — weren’t in a hurry to have these copies this year,” Costa said. “The frivolity of doing it just didn’t seem to be the proper focus.”

With the limited television coverage, Costa said, it was harder to discern the details of the gowns, but he said his initial picks were the styles worn by Kidman and Lopez.

“Nicole’s dress was beautiful, but you didn’t get to see the nuance of the draping — the only thing you really saw were the straps that were choking her,” he said.

Other designers said they prefer to wait out the post-Oscar production dash. WWW Collections in Los Angeles will ship designs to such stores as Nordstrom and Lillie Rubin for holiday when they can earn better returns, according to national sales manager David Bershad.

“During the warm, summer months people aren’t wearing these glamorous looks —they’re more seasonal,” he said.

WWW’s niche is reinterpreting the designs into separates. To date, one of his biggest hits was taking Valentino’s chocolate brown and lace gown worn by Halle Berry at last year’s Golden Globe Awards and translating it into a ruched black top with beaded lace. He sees another top coming out of the black-and-white Carolina Herrera gown worn by Selma Hayek.

“It’s the type of look that can be worn with jeans and heels and looks great for our sportswear oriented customer,” he said.

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