Fashion’s fresh faces

Emerging young designers hit the red carpet

With award season nearing, can the search for the perfect red-carpet dress be far behind? While names such as Oscar, Valentino and Chanel are sure to continue their reign, this year there will also be a handful of new designers making a fashionable entrance.

“Now is the best time for emerging designers, because there is more support than ever within the industry,” says Rachel Zoe, stylist and author of “Style A to Zoe.”

Los Angeles-based designers Jenni Kayne and Rodarte are quickly becoming popular red-carpet names throughout the world. Kayne launched her line in spring 2003, and now has celebrities such as Mischa Barton, Mary-Kate Olsen and Rachel Bilson wearing her pieces.

“The ease of her styles makes her a red-carpet darling,” explains stylist Cameron Silver.

Rodarte is another line sure to sashay before of the cameras. Kate Mulleavy and her sister, Laura, are the force behind the sophisticated looks. The designers, both in their mid-20s, can already count Cate Blanchett and Keira Knightley among their fans.

“Rodarte is one of the biggest talents we’ve seen in terms of young, new designers,” Zoe says. “Their looks are very dramatic and very fashion forward.”

Over in Europe, people are buzzing about designers Christopher Kane and Jonathan Saunders. Kane made his first solo debut at London Fashion Week in September 2006 and now has the support of stylish stars such as Kylie Minogue and Victoria Beckham.

“A short dress goes a long way on the red carpet, and Kane’s become the go-to guy for the sexy and short numbers that long-legged stars crave,” Silver says.

Meanwhile, Saunders, who worked for Alexander McQueen and Pucci before launching his own line, received rave reviews for his latest collection with critics, who called it “vibrant” and “beautiful.” Besides critics, the designer has found fans in Madonna and actress Thandie Newton.

Young stars are also taking note of Toronto-based designer Jay Godfrey, who apprenticed for Oscar de la Renta and studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York before launching his own collection. Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love,” “Walk the Line”) recently wore his red one-shoulder bow dress to the HBO Emmy bash, while “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens wore the same dress in black to the “Hairspray” premiere.

“I love Jay Godfrey’s fabrics,” says “Sopranos” thesp Jamie-Lynn Sigler. “They are girly and dressy with interesting designs.”

But despite celebrity backing, designers face many challenges when it comes to breaking onto the red carpet, especially for the major awards shows.

“The major brands make it easy for a celebrity,” Silver says. “They have a press office in Los Angeles. Plus, there is reliability and selection; Valentino might have a hundred looks for an actress to choose from.”

Zoe agrees that volume is an obstacle for new designers.

“Being able to produce collections for fashion shows and simultaneously have red-carpet placement is a very difficult thing from a production standpoint. Some of these designers don’t have a huge team,” she says.

Young designers such as Kayne understand the challenges they face, but say it’s not a matter of competing with the major fashion houses.

“I don’t think you can compete with them. You just have to find an actress and a stylist who wants to support you and try something different and take a chance.”

For new designers, that chance is definitely worth taking; red carpet placement can trigger a huge jump in sales and recognition. “Michelle Pfeiffer wore one of my dresses to the L.A. premiere of ‘Hairspray’ and it was a great branding experience,” Kayne says. “That dress ended up being one of our bestsellers. People from around the country were calling to find out about it.”

In the end, whichever dress ends up being picked, stylists, designers and celebrities are well aware of the importance it can have on their careers.

“The right dress with the right actress with the right moment is a powerful combination,” Silver says.