By now, Brad Pitt is probably used to the mother of his brood grabbing the spotlight whenever they walk a red carpet together. But even Angelina Jolie must have been surprised that she wasn't the one — it wasn't even them together — who stole the show at the L.A. premiere of Pitt's summer hit, Inglourious Basterds, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The most famous attendants on that balmy California afternoon were a few strips of black leather Michael Kors had artfully culled into a strapless, body-hugging cocktail dress. Within hours of that little number's debut on the red carpet, the brand's boutiques were completely sold out of the $3,295 dress. Since then, Kors has gone into production on that dress no less than three times.
Jolie's look packed a punch, not only because it tapped into some of the season's key trends — leather, edge, girl power — but also because it completely summed up the woman it was clinging to. It was all Angelina, from sensuality (strapless, open clavicle) and danger (black leather!) to modern modesty (a conservative length) and good fortune (the best accessory ever: Pitt). She got the precise results we imagine she wanted, because, let's be frank, no one goes on the red carpet to not get noticed. Blake Lively had some equally good fortune in a fuchsia cashmere version of the same dress at the CFDA Awards. DJ and party girl Leigh Lezark qualifies the effect of such striking numbers wisely: "It's the dress that every girl in the room wants to get into and every boy in the room wants to get you out of."
In the past year, there have been several fashion hits of that caliber: Rihanna at a charity gala in exaggerated Louis Vuitton shoulders; Beyoncé Knowles at the BET Awards in sequined, thigh-grazing Balmain; and Nicole Kidman at the Academy of Country Music Awards in a L'Wren Scott gown with a daring low-scooped back. Celebs and social fixtures alike have turned heads this year by zeroing in on fashion's flashiest trends, from novelty fabrics to outrageous silhouettes. Leather looks were a ubiquitous choice for many. Model Dree Hemingway accompanied Alexander Wang to the CFDA Awards this past summer, where he won a young-designer award, in one of his leather dresses — which ended up propelling the daughter of Mariel and the great-granddaughter of Ernest from being a fresh face to a face of the moment.
Another ingenue who recently made her mark is actress Emma Watson. Her sampling of carefully chosen frocks, from a tulle Rodarte confection to a short gold sequined Burberry Prorsum, turned her into a major fashion player in a few short months. But it was a Proenza Schouler dress with a leather bodice that she wore to the New York premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that asserted what many were saying about the 19-year-old star: She is fashion's freshest icon. "I'm feeling tough tonight," Watson said at the time. "And kinky!" Proenza Schouler's Lazaro Hernandez was impressed with Watson's transformation. "It takes a sophisticated girl to pull off a leather dress in the middle of the summer, and Emma did just that — effortlessly," he says. "The confidence involved belies her age." Leather also showed up on women like Erin Wasson and Daphne Guinness in an altogether different form: pants. Wasson chose a pair of trousers from Phi with zippers running up the front seams for the Met Gala in May, proving yet again that her uniquely sexy tomboy style is unforgettable — especially at an affair where everyone else was in a gown fresh off the runway. "I felt powerful, mysterious, like the dark horse," Wasson says of the look.
Guinness was so taken with an old pair of leather pants that she started making her own trousers with PVC she sources herself at fabric stores in downtown Los Angeles. "They're the most comfortable thing in the world, and they go with everything," the fashion icon says. To prove it, for the New York premiere of the short film she created for her new eponymous fragrance for Comme des Garçons, she showed up at the Hudson hotel in the same shiny black trousers she wore on the plane over from London. Those will surely get you noticed at customs. That said, it's hard to overlook a woman who makes dominatrix pants look divine.
On the complete other side of the style spectrum, bright colors were a big hit over the past year too. "I think it's about having fun again, especially with what else is going on in the world," says Lezark, no stranger to wearing ensembles that get her plenty of attention. She explains that while one response to the Great Recession is to face hard times with hard looks, the other approach is to dress to distraction. Hence the bright-pink Dior and Giambattista Valli outfits she wore during Paris Fashion Week this past March and the white strapless Versace she wore to a party at the label's New York store.
Lezark's most, er, interesting look of the year? A pair of ripped purple tights that she paired with an Hervé Léger swimsuit for a party during New York Fashion Week. "I figured, why not?" she says. Brights and neons dominated the scene. Demi Moore showed off her rocking body in a purple Louis Vuitton dress at an L.A. movie premiere, and Margherita Missoni outshone the competition in a scarlet-red Missoni fringe dress at an amfAR event in Milan. MTV hostess and recent London expat Alexa Chung, an aficionado of darker duds, made a foray into color with a short red Calvin Klein Collection dress she wore to host the opening of the label's shop at Saks Fifth Avenue. The result? An affirmation that you can blend bright Americana with hip East London. "Recently, I've been dabbling with crimson, but I'll never be coerced into yellow!" says Chung, laughing. Girl-about-town Byrdie Bell ventured into bright-yellow territory for a night of cocktail parties in Manhattan, under the assumption that "bright colors and unexpected hemlines equal results," according to the actress. "Frumpy will always be frumpy. So yes, less dress, please!"
Bell hit on the third major trend of some of 2009's standout dresses: A convincing look is a short, tight one. Diane Kruger worked this to great effect for the majority of her Inglourious Basterds press tour, with highlights being the backless beaded Atelier Versace she wore at the Hollywood premiere, a bright-red satin Marchesa cocktail dress in Sydney, and a canary-yellow Louis Vuitton dress for the film's photo call in Berlin. Similarly, art-world darling Dasha Zhukova, who once teased that she had to be careful that when she played with color she didn't leave the house looking like a Christmas tree, stood out three times in shorter styles this year: a pink-and-white Rodarte at an opening in Moscow, a glittery Marios Schwab for dinner with Jeff Koons in London, and a specially made Proenza Schouler at a dinner party at Larry Gagosian's house for her first issue as editor of Pop magazine. Yet for those who are trying to look modern and relevant, the question of length still remains: How short is too short? "If you can see your underwear, then it's too short," Lezark clarifies, provided one has the legs to carry it off. "However, everything else is fair game." To the sexy debate, Chung adds, "'Body con' is something I've been more into lately. A smock dress basically makes you invisible. Even if other girls admire your commitment to not giving a shit what boys think of you, after a while it's nice to be noticed."
L'Wren Scott, whose perfectly tailored, sleek, and sexy dresses have garnered results all year on the likes of Nicole Kidman, Ellen Barkin, and Sarah Jessica Parker, says what's important to remember about impact dressing is the shape and the wearer's attitude. "A great silhouette is very important, and you must feel good wearing it," she says. "If you feel great, you will, in turn, look great." As all the stars who dare to wear her clothes invariably do. "The dress that gets results is the one that suits your shape the best," says Chung. "That advice has been around since forever, but I really think people are beginning to take it to heart now."But if a girl would prefer not show off her gams or dress in neon, she needn't feel out of style. Outlandish six-inch stilettos like Nicholas Kirkwood's sometimes get as much attention as a barely-strung-together dress. Not to say that long gowns can't still turn heads. Harley Viera-Newton, the house DJ for Dior Beauty, has been banking on their impact. As a gesture of rebellion to her peers working flashy minis, she's chosen long. "My friends were surprised that I picked longer gowns. But I felt like I was being daring by doing so," she explains. "So I'll probably change to minis when everyone is wearing long again."