RARELY is there anything un-noteworthy about Madonna’s fashion choices. In 1998, the goth-inflected gown she wore to the Academy Awards catapulted its relatively unknown designer, Olivier Theyskens, into the limelight. At this year’s Super Bowl, she pranced and popped squats in three couture looks from the French house of Givenchy during a rousing halftime show for an all-American audience. And when she attended the Golden Globes in January, she chose a gown by Reem Acra, an offbeat design with a chain-mail bodice in gunmetal gray and a fluttery emerald green tiered skirt. It raised eyebrows, too.
Reem Acra may not be a familiar name, and yet Ms. Acra, a dressmaker born in Lebanon, is hardly a newcomer to the fashion stage.
“We’ve been dressing a lot of people, and dressing them well,” she said earlier this month in her garment district studio, blithely cool in slouchy navy trousers and patent leather high-tops.
Julie Bowen, of the television series “Modern Family,” and Diane Lane also wore Reem Acra gowns to the Globes, aligning them in a starry constellation that includes Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift — not exactly women who run in the same pack. And if you are betting on who will wear what at the Academy Awards this weekend, you will get short odds that Reem Acra will end up in the mix.
“Certain designers just know what makes an impact on the red carpet, and she is one of them,” the stylist Ilaria Urbinati said, shortly after outfitting Jayma Mays of “Glee” in a dark navy sequined Reem Acra dress for this year’s SAG Awards. “She nails a sparkly number, and she does great colors. Plus it fits clients of all body types.”
For a decade and a half, Ms. Acra has quietly and deliberately built her company, which she began in 1997 as a bridal line. She has since welcomed a multiplying flock of nonmarrying clients, first introducing evening gowns, followed by a ready-to-wear line. She still operates in a niche market — even her ready-to-wear collection maintains a potent punch of luxe, and her lower-priced gowns cost between $3,000 and $6,000 — but the increasing exposure from those red-carpet turns is winning nods from fashion’s more mainstream followers.
“She’s known for her beautiful embellishments,” said Colleen Sherin, the senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, which sells Reem Acra designs in four of its top evening-wear markets, including New York and Houston. “She has a signature look, and she’s been staying true to that.”
A few days before she was to show her fall 2012 collection at Lincoln Center, Ms. Acra appeared unruffled, though aware of the demanding days ahead. “I went to acupuncture before I came in,” she said. “I need to keep my energy.” She would be presenting her ready-to-wear line on a runway for the first time.
“I like to do things that are step by step,” she said. “It takes experience to get to the next level. And you have to put your heart into it. This isn’t all fun.”
Indeed, Ms. Acra’s slow and steady course is almost an anomaly in today’s fashion world, one in which retailers, and certainly the fashion press, champion photogenic young designers like Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra, who, feted and chronicled, ascend to cultlike stardom.
“I do it my way, and so far it’s been very successful,” she said, while evading the question of her exact age (“not yet 50”).
Seemingly, the only exceptions to her measured pace were the two events that turned Ms. Acra on to fashion design in the first place. While she was attending the American University of Beirut, a young American editor approached her at a party to ask what she was wearing. It was in fact a garment she had designed herself. Ten days later, with the help of the editor, Ms. Acra staged a fashion show at her college, attracting, as she recalled, 2,000 attendees.
After completing her courses in Lebanon, Ms. Acra studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and at the École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, the venerable school of design in Paris, familiarly known as Esmod. In Paris, she agreed to design a friend’s wedding dress. This time she had three weeks. The wedding, at the gilded Hôtel de Crillon, came off in high style.
Within days of returning to New York, Ms. Acra decided to start a bridal company: “I took my American Express card, maxed it, did a few dresses, showed them to Saks and Neiman, and I had an order of 30 dresses.”
Bridal gowns that are both classically feminine and romantically modern became her signature, but it is also Ms. Acra’s tailoring and fit that enabled her rise in that market. She credits her youth, during which she had the odd luxury of a live-in seamstress.
“It was very rare to have one, and I don’t know why my mother had this in mind, but the woman made dresses for me and my mother,” Ms. Acra said. “So I grew up learning about construction, fabrics, without knowing that this could be fashion or anything.”
Despite the consistent, and lucrative, demand for wedding apparel, Ms. Acra never envisioned limiting herself to bridal gowns. Most women marry once — well, in theory — and Ms. Acra, who is unmarried, wanted to cultivate a return customer with garments that were no less glamorous but reflected her own aesthetic. Within a few years, she was also designing looks for evening, all the while keeping her operations intimate. She declined to divulge sales figures — she is the company’s sole owner — but notes that it has grown to include 55 full-time employees.
Every once in a while, of course, fortune smiles and there is a breakthrough. In 2008, a relatively unknown Olivia Wilde wore a Reem Acra lavender dress with delicate pearl cap sleeves to the Emmy Awards, prompting a collective head turnand lending Ms. Wilde enough image-changing impact that her acting career soon thereafter saw an uptick.
REFLECTING on designing for Hollywood, where the heat of the spotlight can be exponentially greater than a walk down the aisle — or nearly any other gala event, for that matter — Ms. Acra, sounding like a savvy actress concerned about how her image will be perceived, spoke of the importance of a mutual fit.
“It’s about making sure the two brands, my brand and the personality of the celebrity, blend together,” she said. “But I also have to be able to say to myself, ‘Would I wear this?’ ”
For her fall show at Lincoln Center, Ms. Acra sent out more day wear, further evidence of her measured growth. Shift dresses in hunter green and Bordeaux leather came down the runway, followed by metallic tweed jackets and pencil skirts. A thigh-skimming dress with dolman sleeves glittered with a pattern of sequins. It was a progression of looks for breakfast at Mercer Kitchen, for a night out at Le Bain.
Yet the closing parade showcased what Ms. Acra is still best known for: floor-length gowns in shimmering silk chiffons and metallic embroideries. A one-shoulder Armaniesque silk dress with a sheer beaded skirt drew particular attention.
On potentially dressing red-carpet denizens for the Oscars, Ms. Acra spoke with the serenity of a woman who has been in the trenches, who knows how impactful (or ephemeral) one dress can be:
“There have been inquiries. Of course. It has to be the right person.”