FROM LEFT: Hannelore Knuts and Justin Giunta; Kate and Laura Mulleavy

“I’m going to have black streaks all over my face,” yelped Kirsten Dunst backstage at this year’s Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards. Her concern? That she would cry when they announced that Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte had won the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award and her mascara would run.

Swathed in a superabbreviated Rodarte dress of ethereal sheer strips—as if she were a mini gray mummy with sassy legs very much on display—Dunst was there to support her designer friends. She “lights up a room,” says Laura. And in fact, the entire room was lit up by a youthful herd of designers at the helm of a paradigm shift—youthful, arty fashion seemed to conquer all that night.

Blame it on a ho-hum economy, but the relatively affordable creativity of youth culture—as opposed to the work of long-established designers— appears to be the hot currency this fall. “If people are going to spend money now,” explains Fern Mallis, senior vice president of IMG Fashion, “they want something that’s like nothing they already have, that’s really special— something fabulous that they love.”

“I have a pretty cultish consumer,” admits Scott Sternberg, head designer of Band of Outsiders, who tied for the top honor in menswear. “They want tailored, cool, young clothes that older guys can wear. It’s not the dream of Scotch and soda and Nantucket. It’s the ugly underside. It’s probably a little darker than that.”

“My parents had crazy style,” says Tim Hamilton, who snagged the Swarovski award for Emerging Talent Menswear. Hamilton, whose work is also slightly off-center, hails from an eccentric background. “My mother was Lebanese; she used to teach ballroom dancing,” he explains. “I grew up in this small Iowa town, and she would ask me to read Truman Capote to her out loud.”

“Lately,” he continues, “I’ve been studying interchange space and the Big Bang theory. It inspires color... fabrication. You’ll see it in my prints and knits.”

Also backstage, GQ creative director Jim Moore spoke of young designer/pop star Justin Timberlake’s collaboration with designer Johan Lindeberg ( J. Lindeberg) for the line William Rast. “William Rast is a perfect collaboration,” he says. “Johan is the ultimate modernist. He’s always looking for new influences—it’s not like he’s a basics designer. And as Justin grows into the role of fashion designer, he needs a partner who knows about tailoring. That said, Justin gets it right away. He knows how wide he wants the lapel to be. He knows he wants the swagger of a three-piece suit.”

Justin Giunta of Subversive Jewelry snapped up a Swarovski award for his edgy work. “This is one of my pieces,” he says of a large jet starburst on his coat. “We mix the ethnic handiwork of weaving with crystals and rhinestones that make the consumer market smile. It’s grassroots and handcrafted.”

As with Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s, First Lady Michelle Obama is a champion of quirky, youthful design. “You can’t buy the publicity that 26-year-old Jason Wu is getting,” says Mallis of Wu’s special relationship with Obama, who received a Tribute Award in absentia from the CFDA’s board of directors.

Offbeat established designers were equally enthusiastic. “Rodarte is one of my favorites,” coos CFDA Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award winner Anna Sui. “Gorgeous stuff... gorgeous! The economy will fuel creativity. Designers can’t just go with what’s been happening. A breakthrough designer is really going to show the path.”

“I started at Marc Jacobs,” says Alexander Wang, who wore black shorts and a skinny tie to accept his Emerging Talent Womenswear Award from Swarovski. “After working at Derek Lam, I started my own line. It’s mostly the crazy kids who have no boundaries that I find the most inspiring.”

During a Calvin Klein afterparty, a bearded Philip Crangi, who nabbed the Swarovski award for Emerging Talent Accessory Design last year, mentioned that winning had a big impact. “It changed everything—you’re finally legitimate,” he says.

Nearby, Zac Posen, young but already proven, says he’ll make his exclusive runway show an even more rarefied ticket this season. “We’re doing it in my atelier for fashion leaders, people I think have supported us,” he says. “Two hundred... and that’s it.”

Ah, youth.

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