A new wave of labels are mixing things up on the step-and-repeat.
The way we talk about the red carpet has changed. Even in the past few years, the questions we ask, the people who grab our attention and, certainly, the designers we see represented are quite different than what they might have once been.
You can point to a multitude of reasons why: the rise of social media, the increased presence (and power) of stylists, the wider understanding of how brand sponsorships come into play, the broadening of what constitutes a red-carpet opportunity (from premieres and award shows to press junkets and other promotional appearances). And though you can still expect to see a handful of the same big designer names that have been dressing Hollywood for decades — the Armanis, the Diors, the Versaces — on the step-and-repeat, this phenomenon has afforded a new kind of visibility to young, up-and-coming names that are changing what “red-carpet fashion” looks like. (Think less strapless princess gowns, more celestial-inspired embroidery, big volume and slinky satin dresses.)
We talked to some of these celebrity-beloved labels about the story behind their pieces, their biggest A-list moments and what about their aesthetic lends itself to the red carpet.
Markarian — the ethereal, practically-made-for-Instagram occasion wear label started by Alexandra O’Neill in 2017 — has been a fashion-editor favorite pretty much since launch. Its pieces are meant for dressing up (gowns with embellishments, beaded party dresses, embroidered separates). But when O’Neill conceptualized the line, she wanted luxury evening wear that felt modern and compelling, with a lower entry point than comparable options on the market. So she set out to create the dreamy, youthful, expensive (but not you-have-to-ask expensive) fancy-dress garments she’s known for today. It took virtually no time at all for the celebrities to find them — and that was not by chance.
Emma Roberts was the first person to wear the brand, within weeks of its launch. “I think it’s kind of a natural progression when you have a line that’s focused on evening wear and event dressing to then go into VIP,” O’Neill says, crediting Markarian’s PR rep, Savannah Engel of Savannah Engel PR, as introducing that route from the get-go. “Savannah came on from the beginning and she really focused on VIP dressing, sending it out to all of the stylists that she knew at the time — and that I know now, thanks to her.”
Engel says she sought out to position Markarian differently than she might have another brand because she felt it “could actually get even more press by being a celebrity brand.” And, essentially, that’s how its story began.
The specific dress Roberts wore was also emblematic of what Markarian was — and is — trying to achieve, according to O’Neill: “I named Markarian after a group of galaxies. That dress she wore has… little moons and a little Saturn, all hand-embroidered and beaded on a really beautiful, lush satin. That set the tone in general and really spoke to the style of the line.”
Two-plus years later, Markarian has become a frequent favorite among celebrities doing press appearances, performances and, yes, the traditional red carpet. She sees a lot of repeat clients, too: In addition to Roberts, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Lea Michele have worn — and been photographed in — Markarian on multiple occasions.
Now, celebrity plays a pretty important role in Markarian.
“I keep VIP dressing in mind when I’m designing because it is a big part of our business and also a fun part of our business,” says O’Neill. “It’s always exciting to see somebody wear something on the red carpet, obviously. But we do a lot of custom work for private clients and that’s a big part of our business, too — and I think a lot of that comes from the recognition of our pieces out there in the world.
As far as who you might see wearing Markarian on a step-and-repeat, O’Neill says of the brand’s customer: “We’re always drawn to women who have a strong fashion point of view and who are willing to take chances and support a new designer, but also that don’t take themselves too seriously — that are looking for something that’s kind of luxurious and different.”
Galvan‘s mission hasn’t changed from what it was back in 2014, when the brand made its debut. “We were personally frustrated with the evening wear that was out there. I think there were certain things that we saw as just problematic that we want to solve — namely that evening wear tended to be and still often tends to be very formal, very embellished,” says co-founder Katherine Holmgren. “People think that if they’re dressing for a black-tie party they have to dress in this quite stiff, formal way, which isn’t necessarily always modern or fresh or actually comfortable to wear.”
Holmgren and her three business partners concluded they could make evening wear that was better, cleaner and at a more comfortable price point than what you could find browsing the “occasionwear” section at your neighborhood department store. That message resonated with a broad clientele from the get-go, both in terms of retail partners and of who was seen wearing its designs.
The designers introduced their first collection at Paris Fashion Week and caught the eye of a handful of stylists. That’s how one of its jumpsuits ended up on Gwyneth Paltrow, as styled by Elizabeth Saltzman, before the delivery arrived at Galvan’s stockists. Shortly after, Sienna Miller wore another one of its pieces to the London premiere of “Foxcatcher.”
What was much more impactful and “interesting” to Holmgren, though, is that “at the same moment that celebrities started to wear us on the red carpet, they were also wearing us in a much more casual way.” Miller was in one of Galvan’s slip dresses on the red carpet while Rihanna was in one of its jumpsuits being photographed out and about town, she notes as an example. “Sometimes, it was the same type of style, being worn for both occasions — but how they were being accessorized completely changed,” she adds. That felt aligned to Galvan’s core values of versatility, ease and wanting to wear your clothes over and over again.
This early support opened doors for the brand not just in terms of global recognition, but also in making their case to potential buyers, according to Holmgren. “Granted, we launched with a lot of wholesale partners across the world, but still, being able to have a celebrity like Rihanna all over the press wearing our jumpsuit meant that we were able to grow our brand awareness so much more quickly with the customers,” she says. “With stores, when you’re a young brand, you’re pitching [yourself so they] pick you up — they’re looking at the product, of course, but they’re also looking at the general PR and buzz and whether they think it’s going to be a hot brand. So if you can go to [them] with your collection and also show them a little press talk of all these amazing celebrities wearing your clothes, it makes a huge difference in getting in.”
Sara Larson, Galvan’s PR director, says part of the appeal of the designs for the red carpet has to do with how they fit: “They just transport you the minute you put them on — they’re effortless.” Plus, the brand’s broad range of celebrities it has dressed, both in terms of what they’re known for and how they’ve worn it, is also a plus. Case in point: how Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan both wore Galvan dresses on the same day of “Little Women” press, but brought their own distinct style sensibilities to the looks.
The return on investment Galvan gets when a celebrity is seen one of its pieces can really vary — the sell-through they see when Martha Hunt or Karlie Kloss wears its slip dresses in street style, for instance, will be different than when Waller-Bridge wears a custom Galvan design to the Golden Globes. “Those moments are so important for the brand just for people to be thinking about us and talking about us,” says Larson. “You do see a general lift in traffic to our site and that obviously translates.” A lot of the times, though, when they see a big spike in sales thanks to a celebrity, it’s because they wore something that’s a little more relatable or that they can see themselves in.
Looking back, “what we’ve loved is actually just the range of women recently — being able to address a lot of diverse range of women in terms of what they do and where they live has been the most exciting,” says Holmgren. “It’s about a meaningful relationship and personality. Someone that we would want to know, that we admire… I do think it’s wonderful when you can support other women that are really powerful and strong and making a difference.”
Azeeza has always done things a little differently. Designer Azeeza Khan founded the label in 2012 in Chicago, where it’s still based. It did direct-to-consumer first; a retail partner came a few years down the line. It didn’t actively chase celebrity credits — some of the placements it got early on, Kahn says, were organic, from A-listers finding and shopping the pieces at places like Barneys New York.
Over the past year, though, the brand has been going through a bit of a refresh, reintroducing itself through a cleared-out Instagram and some big red-carpet moments, including a model takeover at the CFDAs.
“In the past, we’ve never aggressively ever [pursued] celebrity or anything like that, based on many factors, including distribution,” Khan explains. “[It] was not really relevant to me — it was just more of a business decision than a cool factor, if that makes sense. I never really wanted to use a celebrity to prove myself in the early days. Between networks, relationships you make from being out in the industry and fashion week, there’s an opportunity and access to these names. It’s just really being rational and not chasing the hype.”
The aesthetic of the brand has evolved over the years, but a few pieces have stood the test of time and still appear in its collections. Azeeza’s distinguishing factor, the designer says, has always been its unexpected, not-fitted silhouettes. And that’s still core to the Azeeza you see today: It’s bold, colorful and sculptural — the result of years of experimentation, play and growth.
“I just really learned and understood what consumers were reacting to and where my personal taste was evolving to,” she says. “I think, as a young designer, it’s really important to play and experiment and try things. Some may work and [some won’t.] I really chased what worked. And I built upon that, brick by brick.”
Azeeza “is about bold colors, volume and silhouettes. We have this dramatic impact but, at the same time, you have this core minimalist philosophy,” Khan continues.
As part of her effort to reintroduce Azeeza’s vision, Khan attended the 2019 CFDA Awards with Riley Montana, Jacquelyn Jablonski and Maria Borges, each wearing a distinct gown from the label. “It was something that I hadn’t really done before, and I thought to have these beautiful girls in dresses [would be a] cool, very visible opportunity that we have to make work,” she says. “It wasn’t just going on the red carpet, but it was also identifying the muses. They were a reflection of who my girls are. They each had their own unique styles that they brought, and I think that was a reflection of the brand, as well.”
The CFDAs were a big moment for the label, but Azeeza’s biggest celebrity moment of 2019 — and overall “brand highlight,” per Khan — came when Barbra Streisand commissioned the designer to create looks for her summer tour. “I left straight from the CFDAs to Malibu to go to a fitting at Barbra’s house,” she remembers. “Then that weekend [there was a gala] in Chicago. Monday, I was back in New York for market. That was the longest week of my life. But it was great.”
The Streisand stamp of approval got Azeeza a lot more eyeballs and a feature in Vogue. And though she’s always taken a customer-first approach, Khan recognizes the impact having a celebrity angle can have on your brand. “We’ve been in business since 2012. We’ve never been in Vogue unless somebody was wearing it,” she says. “This is the first year that I had a Vogue feature — not only that, but I’ve been [mentioned] in Vogue five times.”
There’s more to come from the brand in the near future — there’s a new website, for one, plus more glimpses at how the Azeeza aesthetic will continue to evolve with more resources. And, yes, that might mean you see a familiar face or two wearing its dresses.
Vietnamese designer Nguyen Cong Tri is a veteran of the fashion industry. He’s been designing since 2000, presenting his collections in Paris, London, Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City, where he’s based, among other cities around the globe. (He recently celebrated almost two decades in fashion with an exhibit.) But it was a few years ago that he gained a new audience — one of the Hollwood A-list variety — with Cong Tri, which he established as a new luxury label in 2016.
“Nguyen Cong Tri and Cong Tri are two different brands — while Nguyen Cong Tri focuses on conceptual designs and pursues haute couture, Cong Tri is more commercial,” the designer says. “These two brands so far exist in tandem.”
Cong Tri’s focus on eveningwear, the designer explains, stems from his desire “to help women shine in their significant and special moments,” from celebrities on the red carpet to everyday customers.
VIP dressing isn’t a new facet of his business — the designer has been doing it for as long as he’s been working, he says: “The opportunities of working with them come naturally, as the way I often tell my friends, ‘I’m a bit lucky.”
Still, Cong Tri has boosted the designer’s profile on a global scale: Within a few years, he’s outfitted Katy Perry, Rihanna, Rita Ora, Gabrielle Union, Kate Bosworth and Beyoncé (for the London premiere of “Lion King,” in a custom Nala-inspired gown, no less.)
“Rihanna was the first international star to represent my design, thus that moment was the unforgettable starting point of my new chapter,” he says. “In the case of Beyoncé, she has led the global entertainment industry and has a huge fan base in Vietnam for many years. That’s why the fact that they chose my designs has created a considerable media wave in Vietnam.”
Cong Tri has also worked with celebrity stylist Kate Young (clients include Selena Gomez, Nina Dobrev and Margot Robbie) on his New York Fashion Week shows, which he did for the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 seasons. “I have designed costumes for celebrities in Vietnam for many years, so I understand what the job is like, but working with Kate in an international environment has given me many new experiences. Everything must be professional, the workload is expanded and the requirement and standards are more diversified.”
Cong Tri is sitting out fashion week for the Fall 2020 shows. That’s not to say you won’t be seeing some new gowns from the designer over the next few weeks — it is awards season, after all.
“I think women are works of art. The way they move, laugh, talk, and express themselves makes me fascinated,” the designer says. “That’s why dressing for celebrities is not merely doing my work — it’s a combination of the two forms of art.”
Jason Rembert is best known for his celebrity styling work; over the years, he’s dressed Issa Rae, Michael B. Jordan, Lizzo, Solange Knowles and Ben Platt. But last year, he added “designer” to his résumé with Aliétte, his contemporary womenswear label. It made sense that he announced the news on the red carpet, on Rae, one of his longtime clients.
“Red carpet is one of the big things in my life,” Rembert says. “I really enjoyed when I would see women in these gowns — the fitting with my client, it being altered, seeing them actually come alive with the clients, the client actually hitting the red carpet. So I knew, with making a clothing line, I wanted something that could live in that space.”
Rae walked the red carpet at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Award wearing the first Aliétte design: a black gown with an embellished bustier. He debuted the first full collection, for Fall 2019, at New York Fashion Week almost a month later. Since then, Aliétte has been worn by Cardi B, Kelly Rowland, Ciara and a host of other A-listers.
“Hollywood has played a major role [in Aliétte],” Rembert explains, noting that it goes beyond simply being photographed in the brand — many of these celebrities have then posted about and tagged it for their combined millions of followers. “It really helped the brand get to the mainstream. People can know about the brand.”
Of all these placements, one stands out to Rembert: “When we dressed Kelly Rowland, it was a moment where people took a second look and wanted to really know more about this brand. Her stylist Kollin [Carter, who also dresses Cardi B] took the collection and made it her own, which I think is important.”
His background as a stylist has been helpful not only in building a collection that’s meant to be mixed and matched, but also in designing pieces thoughtfully and with intention. “How my dress looks inside and how my dress is built is extremely important to me, because I know how important underpinnings are for certain dresses,” he explains. “I always want to [know] if they’re secure. I always want a client to feel that the look is flattering. I pay a lot of attention to make sure that the inside of the dress is as good as the outside.”
Aliétte spans occasions, with daytime pieces, like jackets and skirts, shown alongside red-carpet-ready evening wear. But they’re all connected through a handful of aesthetic codes.
“My family is from Martinique and the Caribbean, so it’s really, really important for me to always showcase color, and for it to be vibrant,” Rembert says. “When my clothes walk down a runway or you see them on the carpet, I want people to feel happy seeing them. And I’m really into shapes, especially with embroidery. I always like wrap skirts. I like high waistbands. I’ve always been trying to showcase new shapes and different shapes on my runway.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to this for Rembert: “I like to be chic. I want my woman to be chic. Even in a sweatsuit, a woman can be chic.”