On the Red Carpet, Emerging Designers Get Shot at Fame

How to Break Through Red Carpet
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

When the red carpet made its Academy Awards debut in 1961, it served merely as a means of guiding nominees Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh to the event’s new venue, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. However, with the advent of E!’s “Live From the Red Carpet,” hosted by the late Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa, which debuted at the 1995 Oscars, the scarlet-rugged pre-show — and its parade of designer-clad celebrities — has proved so popular, it’s all but usurped the main event.

And in today’s social-media age, the power of the red carpet is  all the more potent.

“It can help achieve what advertising used to: getting a brand’s name out to the masses,” says Elizabeth Saltzman, stylist to Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow. And no one can benefit more than an unknown name.

“Being worn on the red carpet gives emerging designers tremendous exposure and opens them up to capturing a whole new audience,” says designer Katie Ermilio, who was plucked from obscurity when Kate Young, stylist to Golden Globe winner Michelle Williams, spotted her dresses on the sales floor at Barneys last year. “Kate reached out, and we sent some styles for Michelle to try. We were so excited when we found out she wore one of the looks to the Tiffany Blue Book Ball. Red carpet images allow designers be published in magazines beyond fashion publications — your work can end up in People, on E!, and be seen by millions (online).”

Toronto-born designer Tanya Taylor, too, has enjoyed the lightning-fast impact that red carpet exposure can have on the bottom line. “We’ve seen a direct correlation to sales,” says up-and-comer Taylor, who was worn by Liv Tyler at the Cannes Film Festival last year, her first in business. “For Bergdorf’s or Saks to say, ‘We’re going to invest money and support your brand,’ it helps a lot when a sales associate can walk up to someone, hold up a pencil skirt and say, ‘Beyonce wore this last week.’ At least you get them to the changing room, and there’s a greater likelihood they’ll become a customer. When you’re small, you’ve got no press, no support. When a celebrity wears your clothes, they’re validating that they think you’re worth watching.”

Of course, that moment in the spotlight is coveted by many, and achieved by few.

“There’s a lot of new talent out there — designers from Turkey, China, India, Berlin!” Saltzman says. “The challenge emerging designers face is getting in front of stylists, magazine editors and bloggers, and getting their social media up and running so we can find them.”

Another challenge? Competing with the big brands boasting deep pockets and longstanding relationships with celebrities. “We don’t have the financing to be able to create tons of samples and gift (clothes),” Taylor says. “We don’t have the ability to reach out to as many people as we’d like to. We can’t function and react as quickly. We have a small team — we’re five people in the office.”

How can a young brand hope to compete with the behemoths? “They can have great clothes,” Saltzman says. “They don’t need money or resources. Here’s the great thing about celebrity talent today,” says Saltzman. “They understand this person is talented, and there’s a time and place with everyone.”

Taylor agrees. “There’s a lot of amazing celebrities who know how hard it is to break through. They know they have a platform that can really help. We’ve been really fortunate that some great women have given us presence. We found out about Michelle Obama wearing our dress through our Instagram account!” she says of the fashionable first lady, who wore “four dresses over the summer and a couple this fall. Reese Witherspoon posted two pictures in the last two weeks. Taylor Swift has worn something three times in the past week. Beyonce, a couple times in the last month. . “Their followers become followers of our brand. If a celebrity is super-excited about you, they can convince their stylist about you, and vice versa.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their stylists. And as Taylor puts it, “You kinda have to win both. You’re not going to have a red carpet moment if they don’t both agree you’re exciting.”

But it happens, Saltzman says. “Sometimes my talent brings me names. They’ll have been on a photo shoot with a magazine, and they’ll tell me, ‘Oh, I wore this great blah blah dress,’ and I’m like, ‘Thank you!’ ” says Saltzman, who adds that stylists, too, are always on the lookout for fresh talent. She likens the task of dressing stars to a Sudoku puzzle. “I always think about the client: is she young and therefore needs the bigger brands to ‘big’ her up? Is she young and wants to be seen to be supporting the young designers? Or is she established and it’s a great moment to put her in something fresh? You have to weigh each time.”

So how does one gain access to the stylists, entrees to the celebrity world? By being resourceful, says Saltzman. “There’s a library in every town. Look at mastheads, look at stylists. Everyone has an email address; it’s easily found nowadays. I look at every look book that’s sent to me. If I can’t, someone else on my team will. Don’t give up. Everything you want won’t get dropped on your lap, you have to work at it.”

The reward — being immortalized in the annals of fashion — is definitely worth it. “That moment when an actress who embodies everything you stand for comes out on the red carpet in a look that truly reflects the best of what you do, that’s the most important thing a red carpet can do for any designer,” says Ermilio. “The image lives forever in the celebrity style archive.”

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