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The provenance of the Hollywood red carpet traces back to ancient Greek royalty, when Clytemnestra rolled out a carpet for her husband, Agamemnon, in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This mise-en-scene sounds about right, considering that today’s high-profile style parade also serves as a kingmaker for stars and fashion brands. While legacy houses in New York, Paris and Milan reign, independent designers from vibrant fashion scenes throughout the world — from Lagos to Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore — are challenging the monarchy, with the support of powerbroker stylists and changemaking Hollywood stars.
Making history voicing Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess in Raya and the Last Dragon, Kelly Marie Tran, styled by Wayman + Micah, promoted the film wearing global designers of Asian descent, including Vietnam-based Cong Tri’s elegant halter dress. In recent months, the styling duo also has looked to Cong Tri to outfit Spirit Untamed‘s Isabela Merced in a mesh and leopard ensemble and In the Heights‘ Leslie Grace in a pastel pantsuit.
Stylist Jeanne Yang — whose A-list clients include such top Asian American and Pacific Islander talent as John Cho, Jason Momoa and Kumail Nanjiani — notes, “I’m always open to highlighting new designers if you have the opportunity and you have a platform.” For the world premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first big-screen Asian superhero film, Yang collaborated with Singaporean label Dzojchen on a custom kimono suit for star Simu Liu. Says Yang, “I felt it was really important that we gave representation to an Asian designer.”
These efforts are in line with the decision Tracee Ellis Ross made in 2018 to wear only Black designers when hosting the AMAs and Viola Davis’ celebration of African culture on red carpets during last year’s Oscar season (such as wearing a floral dress by Nigerian British designer Duro Olowu for the NAACP Image Awards). And at the Met Gala on Sept. 13, Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton used the power of the red carpet to draw attention to emerging Black design talent based stateside, inviting Jamaican American Evin Thompson of Theophilio, stylist Jason Rembert of Aliétte and L.A.-based Kenneth Nicholson (who created Hamilton’s suit) to sit at the racing driver’s table.
With established luxury design houses (and their generous budgets) dominating the red carpet, independent brands — domestic and international — face several barriers. Along with fighting for name recognition, limited finances can inhibit small brands on their quest. Lending out precious samples to sit in showrooms (or on a stylist’s rack), with no guarantee of a placement, and pouring labor and resources into creating custom pieces involves substantial costs. Stylists often need options on a moment’s notice, so shipping clothes (which usually is exorbitant for overseas brands) can be prohibitive. But star placements remain a powerful marketing tool, so brands rely on relationships that publicists and showrooms have with influential Hollywood stylists for access.
“They call me when they need that special-special something,” says Liza Vassell, CEO of Brooklyn PR, which represents a coterie of stylist-beloved international brands, including Indonesia-based Sebastian Gunawan, Haitian Italian Armani protege Stella Jean and Dzojchen.
Says Nigerian designer Mai Atafo, whose luxury label Atafo is a favorite of the Lagos glitterati: “That moment can make you, literally, for life, if not converting directly into dollars. But the awareness you get is super important at that point in time.” To build his brand stateside, he works with Showroom Etc, which aims to establish African luxury fashion designers on the global stage, alongside the Guccis and Versaces, via red carpet, editorial and TV/movie placements. “I want us to be part of the mainstream industry,” says founder and CEO Elaine Mensah.
Stylists including Jason Sky and Wayman + Micah pull from Showroom Etc, with the latter recently selecting an Atafo gown for The Underground Railroad actress Thuso Mbedu to accept her Hollywood Critics Association Award in. “It takes someone who literally wants to push the conversation — and the mission of Africa in Hollywood — that will make it happen,” says Atafo.
Adds Chelsea Scott-Blackhall, the British Singaporean founder of Dzojchen: “It’s vital. No matter how well you can design, if you don’t have the eyes looking at those designs, it gets lost in the vastness of fashion.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Taraji P. Henson