NEW YORK - For his Spring 2003 show, eveningwear designer Carmen Marc Valvo created glamorous corset gowns and cocktail dresses inspired by 1950s sirens like Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.

He chose smoky eye shadow and dark eyeliner for his models and voluminous hair to balance the slender silhouettes of his outfits. Finally, he focused his attention on selecting a color for a tiny and seemingly insignificant detail - his models' nails.

"When they come through here, their nails are disgraceful," Valvo said. "They wear so many ill-fitting shoes. ... When you're showing eveningwear, with open-toed sandals, I said, 'I need a fully polished manicured look.'"

So, Valvo began arranging for manicurists to be backstage before his show. On Friday, when his models stepped out onto the runway, the nails on their fingers and toes glistened with a light latte hue that complemented his feminine and flowy ensembles in nude, black and ivory.

Once, designers preparing to show their collections mainly worried about matters related to fabric, cut and sewing. These days, they are paying much more attention to packaging their clothing since they reach a much wider - and more sophisticated - audience through magazines, newspapers, television and the Internet.

With the recent boom in the nail industry and more Americans getting manicures and pedicures than ever before, designers have gradually begun turning to nails to help tell the story.

"Fashion is not really about the clothes any more - it's about the whole package," said Gordon Espinet, a global makeup artist for M.A.C. who did nails for Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein and Bill Blass this season. "Fashion has become such a giant moneymaking industry that people have become much more serious and detail-oriented and interested in showing the realistic view of it. Like, this is the full look of the season - you want to wear your hair this way, you want to wear this kind of shoe, and you want to be really well groomed, hand and foot."

Part of the new attention to nails at fashion shows has grown out of the fear of having missteps divert attention from the designers' vision.

"They want everything to look clean and not distracting," said Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, who observed backstage at the Marc Jacobs show that the designer had ordered light pink polish for his models' nails to complement his sweet 1950s looks. "A messy nail can be really distracting and can convey sloppiness. It's a small detail, but a lot of what you absorb at a fashion show is subliminal. It's that last detail that really shows a sense of finish."

And, in recent years, there's been more of a need for designers to ensure the finish is there themselves. With magazine editors and designers seeking models with more varied and exotic looks, there's been a shift away from the previously dominant supermodel culture in fashion. As a result, many models have become less accustomed to looking perfect off the runway.

"Back in the old days, when models did their own makeup and they were models 24/7, you just kind of left it to each girl to make herself look great," Espinet said. "Nowadays, with the influx of models who aren't experienced models, you'll get girls who are young. She's 16 years old, she's just arrived from the Ukraine, and she's not up on the idea of wearing makeup."

With nails, designers have been taking cues from the American beauty industry, which has seen an increased interest in manicures and pedicures. Vi Nelson, spokeswoman for the National Cosmetology Association and the American Beauty Association, noted a recent industry report in Nails magazine that said the number of nail technicians in the United States doubled between 1991 and 2001. The same report showed in 1991 that nails were a $3.4 billion industry. By 2001, the figure had leaped to $6.3 billion.

"Professional manicures and pedicures have become part of a woman's beauty routine," Nelson said. "Just like you get your hair cut and colored, now nails are added to the mix."

Tawfik Mounayer, a new designer who made his fashion week debut over the weekend, said the popularity of manicures inspired him to pick latte and cream French manicure stick-on nails for his models.

"For me, it has to do with the woman I want to dress," he said. "She's the sort of woman who would definitely take the time out to do that."

Most designers go the Valvo and Jacobs route and pick soft, neutral colors that won't draw attention from the clothing. But some have used them to emphasize their collections' themes. Betsey Johnson recently commissioned long, bright red nails with crystals to go with her playful-yet-naughty dresses.

Jan Arnold, co-founder of Creative Nail Design in California, said the nails she did for designer Keanan Duffty a few seasons ago for a line of clothes that had a "shipwreck" look were a big hit with the designer and the models. Her team designed long, red, stick-on nails that were chewed off at the edges to look as if the models had clawed their way to shore.

"You can do their hair and their makeup differently, and they're used to that," said Arnold, whose team created 4,000 stick-on nails for the three designers of the Gen Art show this season. "But when we put the nails on the models, the most amazing thing happened. All of a sudden the models popped into character. They became actresses - several of them were play-acting to the photographers at the end of the runway, chewing their nails and working their hands in a completely new way."

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