For designers, Oscar turn boosts sales

Dressing a well-known celebrity for the Oscars is a great business boon, especially for new designers trying to build brand recognition.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- For fashion designers, donating a couture gown to a celebrity such as Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Lopez that makes it onto the red carpet at an event like this weekend's Academy Awards is more than good luck - it's a strategic business move.

In 2003, at age 19, Jenni Kayne launched her own label of sophisticated-but-wearable couture. Her first red-carpet moment came when Mandy Moore wore Kayne's orange chiffon gown with silver leather bands to the American Music Awards in 2004. The media attention attracted other celebrities to Kayne's line, and brand recognition and sales increased quickly.

"Dressing celebrities influences retail buyers and consumers," Kayne said. "The fashion market is competitive, with many designers launching new lines every season. Dressing a well-known actress makes it easier for your line to get recognized and bought."

EDressMe founder and CEO Joanne Stoner uses glitzfests like the Oscars to boost her New York City-based design business in a novel way: Within 48 hours of the Academy Awards' conclusion, Stoner has replicas of the show's most eye-catching dresses designed and in production for sale on her company's website.

Stoner picks dresses for "interpretation" with an eye toward the popularity of the star wearing them, their reflection of current seasonal trends, and their adaptability to the average consumer's needs. EDressMe's versions cost a few hundred dollars each - not the thousands a custom-couture original would run.

"The dresses are inspired by the Oscar red-carpet dresses, but there is a significant difference because of fabric and materials used," Stoner said.

Stoner, who launched her company in 2004, said she often finds herself drawn to the originality of new designers' creations. By making similar versions of their work more widely available, she sees eDressMe as helping to pave the way for mass-market demand for new styles.

But when it comes to making and breaking new careers, Kayne says celebrity stylists are the key players.

Donating a dress to a celebrity is no guarantee that the design will have its red-carpet moment. Designers often don't know if their gown will be chosen until the Academy Awards air on television; stars, sent gowns from many designers, have abundant choices.

It is celebrity stylists like Rachel Zoe, author of Style A to Zoe: The Art of Fashion, Beauty and Everything Glamour, and Cameron Silver, owner of Los Angeles boutique Decades and creative consultant for AZZARO Paris, that act as middleman between the designers and the celebrities.

"Stylists make the decisions with the stars: they bring the clothes to them, and dress them," Kayne said. "I'm lucky to be friends with stylists Rachel Zoe and Nicole Chaves. When they call for a celebrity, they get whatever they want."

With an increase in red-carpet coverage online and in weekly publications like In Touch and US Weekly, standing out in the deluge is harder than ever. But it also presents new opportunities for smart networkers: Silver encourages new designers to dress celebrities for lower-profile red carpet events, where there is less competition and overexposure. An innovative and creative design will stand on its on whether it is seen at the Oscars or at a movie premiere, he suggests.

"The power of the Oscars for newer designers isn't what it was a few years ago," Silver said. "Now every red carpet is profiled."

For Kayne, a major turning point in her career came at the Los Angeles premiere of Hairspray in July, where actress Michelle Pfeiffer wore a beige linen dress that Kayne designed.

"The pictures were seen all over the world. We're still getting requests even now from places like Turkey and Japan," she said.

On Sunday, dozens of new designers tuned into to the Oscars telecast to watch for their breakout moment.  To top of page

Spotted any breakout talents on the red carpet? Join the discussion.
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