WHY THERE'S BUZZ: Earning a following as a designer for Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Tse, the Korean-American Chai, 31, went solo 18 months ago. "We refer to him as 'the classicist,'" says Avril Graham, Harper's Bazaar's executive fashion and beauty director. "Clever touches are his signature"—like a ribbon belt over a trench coat—"but it's never overgilded."
HOW HE MADE IT: At 13, he took art classes at New York City's Parsons School of Design; seven years later he was an apprentice at Lanvin in Paris.
WHAT INSPIRES HIM: "My woman is not the one in the middle of a party," he says. "She's the quieter woman everyone notices."
WHY THERE'S BUZZ: Demi Moore and Amanda Peet are fans of his pieces, which "are soft, sweet and alluring," says Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys New York.
HOW HE MADE IT: A native of Thailand, Panichgul grew up watching his cousins sew ("I was fascinated by the way clothes were put together," he says) and was a Harper's Bazaar editor before founding his line in 2004.
WHAT INSPIRES HIM: Panichgul, 31, is drawn to photographers like William Eggleston. "I love pretty, but I love strong," he says. "That's the balance I try to find."
PHILLIP LIM 3.1
WHY THERE'S BUZZ: "He hits all the trends," like skinny pants and cuffed shorts, says Meenal Mistral, fashion news editor for WWD and W, "and has a knack for knowing what girls"—like fans Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz—"want to wear."
HOW HE MADE IT: After interning with Katayone Adeli, the Chinese-American Lim started the Development line in 2000 before leaving last fall to launch his new label.
WHAT INSPIRES HIM: Prince in Purple Rain? "His costuming is elegant with street credibility," says Lim, 32. "That's what I'm trying to convey."
DOO-RI CHUNG Doo.Ri
WHY THERE'S BUZZ: Her drapey silk jersey dresses and ruffled trenches "are finger clothes—you want to touch them," says Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
HOW SHE MADE IT: In 2001, after six years at Geoffrey Beene, Chung, 32, started her line ... out of the basement of her Korean parents' Saddle Brook, N.J., dry cleaning business. "I never had to worry about lunch!" she says.
WHAT INSPIRES HER: The indie band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a fave, "but I don't believe in divine inspiration," Chung says. "For me, one outfit will set in motion the next look, and then the next."