Hailee Steinfeld and Willow Smith Are Fashion's Youngest "It" Girls

Christopher Polk / Getty Images for VH1

The usual suspects floated down the red carpet at the recent SAG Awards: Nicole Kidman, statuesque and swathed in black lace; Annette Bening, glittering in a floor-length beaded gown; and Natalie Portman—finally displaying that baby bump. But also there, beaming in the middle of the crowd, was Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old nominated for her role in True Grit. She wore a fitted Prada mermaid dress with bold orange and pink stripes, her hair bounced in ringlets, and she flashed bubble-gum pink nails. When it originally came from Prada, the dress was strapless, but her stylist added thin black straps to make it more age-appropriate. Steinfeld was a red carpet double-whammy: both fashion-forward and every bit her age.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive —despite a few cranky dissenters— yet one thing was made clear: Hailee Steinfeld is very young, yet very fashionable. She is part of a new crop of tween starlets who have entered the awards season dress derby at ages younger than ever before. For the first time, storied fashion brands including Prada, Chanel, and Valentino are allowing their gowns to be worn by stars as young as 12. There’s now a fashion divide for up-and-comers: In one camp sit the scandalously dressed Disney stars—and in the other are the serious actresses who are taking fashion risks in age-appropriate attire. These new “it” girls—Hailee Steinfeld, Elle and Dakota Fanning, Chloe Moretz, and even Willow Smith—are launching new designers, and helping older brands to reach teens.

“What Michelle Obama did for first ladies, these girls have the potential to do for tween stars,” says Jane Keltner de Valle, fashion news director at Teen Vogue. “They’re making themselves viable fashion forces, they’re elevating young designers to a global platform, and they’re getting people excited about fashion again.”

Steinfeld burst onto the fashion scene at the Golden Globes last month, where she wore a white column dress by fashion newcomer and CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Prabal Gurung. Her hair was pulled back into a slick ponytail and she wore understated accessories. It was the Hollywood newcomer’s first major style moment. Practically overnight, she was voted best-dressed on Style.com. Says her stylist, Karla Welch: “A good dress opens many doors.” Next, Welch says, Steinfeld will appear in a dress from Prada's younger-sister line, Miu Miu.

The Golden Globes were also a big moment for Gurung, who is not yet a red carpet staple. “I could not have been more impressed with the way Hailee carried and presented herself at the Globes,” he said through his publicist. “Seeing all of these girls walking the red carpet fresh faced and dressing appropriately for their age is a promising moment for a designer.” Steinfeld’s dress choice also introduced Gurung to a new generation. “My guess is that most teenagers didn’t know who Prabal Gurung was before Hailee stepped onto that red carpet,” says Keltner de Valle. “But believe me, they noticed.”

The tween style quotient isn’t just beneficial for new designers—it’s also helping older brands stay fresh. “What I’m seeing more and more is that the houses are open to young talent,” says stylist Jessica Paster, who has prepped actresses for the Oscars for 14 years. She has styled everyone from Annette Bening to Cate Blanchett, but this year, Paster began working with her youngest client yet: 12-year-old Elle Fanning, who enlisted her help during the press whirl for the film Somewhere. “It’s so refreshing when you have houses like Chanel and Rodarte and Valentino that are so open to dressing young girls,” says Paster. (Rodarte made headlines last year when they custom-made a look from their Spring 2011 runway for Fanning.)

Of course, harnessing the influential power of these stars is lucrative for luxury retailers. Red carpet newcomers are able to connect with teen consumers, whose purchasing power generally increases every year. In 2010, projected annual spending for 8- to 12-year-olds was $10.7 billion—up from $9.1 billion the previous year—according to the YouthPulse report by trend research firm Harris Interactive. And the personal spending power of teenagers is growing in 2011, with 53 percent of 13- to 15-year-old girls buying clothes with their own money in January.

“Not every girl can buy a Rodarte dress,” says Keltner de Valle. “But in terms of inspiration, the effect is huge. Everyone looks to a younger generation for inspiration. These girls have a huge sphere of influence and power. And for a long time it was being ignored.”