While big-name designers are never out of style, savvy celebs score points for going off the beaten path

Call it the Joan Rivers and Steven Cojocaru effect. With sharp-tongued fashion critics (both real and self-anointed) multiplying exponentially on the red-carpet sidelines, it’s no wonder most actresses prefer to stick to known commodities such as flowing Valentinos and classic Armanis.

So how do celebs break from the pack to prove their fashion mettle at the Oscars, the world’s most visible runway? If recent awards shows are any indication, creations by lesser-known designers are becoming more common answers.

“It’s usually the savvy actresses who look for the less obvious designers,” says Jeanne Yang, a veteran wardrobe stylist who has worked for Reese Witherspoon and Kirsten Dunst. “It’s that element of discovery, showing people you’ve gone out of your way to research a designer who’s different and talented. It says that you really understand fashion and that you’ve got your own sense of style when you make an effort to go with something that’s not just the latest off some big-time designer’s runway.”

A poster girl for this type of effort could be Hilary Swank. At the 2005 Oscars, the “Million Dollar Baby” actress winner poured herself into a navy knockout with a down-to-there back by Guy Laroche, a Parisian house that’s flown under the radar since its namesake died in the late ’80s. And at this year’s Golden Globes, Swank donned a sleek black gown with crisscross straps in the back by Jean Yu, a New York-based designer perhaps best known for her exceptional lingerie.

Also at the recent Globes, two of the industry’s leading style savants, Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow, went with Rochas by Olivier Theyskens and Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquiere, respectively. Though fashion followers and editors swoon over these of-the-moment designers, they’re not marquee names on the level of Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld or Dior’s John Galliano.

That element of discovery may also help explain the increasing visibility of vintage jewels on the red carpet. Archive pieces that had long sat in the vaults of pre-eminent jewelers adorned several high-profile actresses at this year’s Globes. Charlize Theron went with a blinding 28-carat diamond bracelet from the Cartier Museum, and Renee Zellweger and Natalie Portman chose vintage brooches from Van Cleef & Arpels and Chanel, respectively.

“Because of the women who were wearing it at the Globes, (vintage) is definitely getting more attention,” notes Jeweler Martin Katz. “But we’ll always see it because you can achieve a look with vintage that you can’t with anything else. There’s something soft about the look of old jewels that would be gaudy if you tried to re-create it as a contemporary piece.”

Vintage or not, the overriding theme for jewelry this season is bare and clean. Flashy, jumbo-sized necklaces have become nearly extinct, with actresses such as Paltrow, Keira Knightley and Kate Beckinsale showing off nude necklines at the Globes, and Ziyi Zhang and Felicity Huffman continuing that trend at the SAG Awards.

“Queen Latifah had these long earrings on with a bold necklace (at the Globes), and it was just wrong, wrong, wrong,” Katz says. “Get rid of the necklace, or keep the beautiful necklace and shorten your earrings. I’m not looking to make a mannequin out of people, and she looked like a mannequin.”

Jewelry isn’t the only accessory in the limelight lately, thanks to an influx of shorter hemlines at recent kudofests. Shoes are now playing a bigger role in actresses’ overall ensembles, with cocktail-length dresses — like the ones seen on Portman, Witherspoon and Theron at the Globes, and Sandra Bullock, Sandra Oh and Swank at the SAG gala — putting more emphasis on footwear.

Accessory line Rickard Shah, beloved by fashion insiders for its feminine detailing and mile-high heels, had been fielding growing requests for very specific designs and colors. Consequently, designer Elizabeth Rickard and her business partner/husband, Binith Shaw, decided to launch a range of dyable evening shoes this year.

“We were just getting a lot of people who had a clear vision of exactly what they wanted,” explains Rickard, whose designs have been worn by Jessica Alba and Catherine Zeta-Jones. “But I think if nothing perfect jumps out at you, something that always works is a silver or gold shoe. You want a little sparkle. It is the red carpet, after all.”

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