Sea, Fashion and Sun

The Hyères festival for fashion and photography is a beacon of creativity in a changing industry.

In a country – and industry – centralised around Paris, launching a fashion festival for young designers in a little sea-side town in the South of France is a bold move. Palm trees and beach huts don’t exactly scream avant-garde. However, for over three decades, founder Jean-Pierre Blanc has managed to lure the entire international fashion scene to Hyères to discover emerging talent at its annual Fashion and Photography Festival.

What started as a small competition in a local hotel-lobby quickly transformed into an internationally-recognised headhunting event, and the festival found a suiting home in the beautiful Villa Noailles, a 1920s family house designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens. The original owners, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, were legendary patrons at the heart of modernity, supporting and collecting work of avant-garde friends and acquaintances like Brecht, Vertov or Picasso. The legendary salon-like atmosphere seems to permeate every visitors, as strangers greet each other warmly. Nothing compared to the cooler-than-you attitude found at most fashion weeks.
Today, the modernist building has become the centre stage of the festival, hosting the jury-meetings as well as a number of exhibitions and talks. This year, visitors could gaze over the phantasmagorical images of fashion photographer Tim Walker in the old squash room, and the indoor swimming pool provided the backdrop for an overview of Schiaparelli designs.

The opening ceremony, which took place on the terrace overviewing the picturesque valley and scintillating ocean, confirmed this welcoming and open philosophy. “I love you all!” Jean-Pierre Blanc exclaimed at the top of his lungs before passionately denouncing Marine Le Pen, leader of extreme right party Front National and one of two candidates for the upcoming elections. A risky, but necessary stance, he later admits when we speak to him: “I know very well that it can be dangerous to be as frank as I am, but life is about taking risks.”

Despite his unfiltered attitude, Jean-Pierre hasn’t made a lot of enemies. In fashion, a need to please sponsors can easily to bland and impersonal projects, but the Hyères-born founder has managed to pull support from about every luxury brand on the market. Half of the festival is funded by private corporations, proving that one shouldn’t necessarily follow industry etiquette to make it in fashion.

“There’s nothing worse than finding a finished object. What we need is utopia, dreams, hope.”

Marine Serre, the only designer nominated for both Hyères and the LVMH prize, noted how different the energy is at the festival: “Hyères is more informal, more intimate. In short, it’s more Jean-Pierre.” The collegial surrounding creates the ideal breeding ground for contacts, and even friendships. “We’ve been here for two weeks, so we really had time to settle in and get to know the other participants,” said nominated menswear designer Maria Korkeila.

Since its founding in 1985, Hyères has become a separate branch in the fashion family, with regulars coming back year after year. Belgian journalist Didier Vervaeren won the prize as a young student in 1994 only to sit in the jury alongside Haider Ackermann fourteen years later: “I come back each year. The festival is a great place to meet new people and an important moment to understand the future of fashion. Here I discovered the importance of schools in Finland for example.”

Pierre Hardy, a Hyères-veteran and head of the newly-introduced accessories prize, first visited over two decades ago. Though still of high quality, the festival has changed drastically over the years: “The festival used to be more underground, less formatted. But then, fashion itself was less formatted.”

This doesn’t mean that the talent celebrated at the festival has lost any of its avant-garde identity. The industry might have changed pace and direction, Hyères still celebrates raw creativity. Hardy warns for “professional deformation,” designers who are too well prepared for the industry: “There’s nothing worse than finding a finished object. What we need is utopia, dreams, hope. I don’t want to see anything ready-to-wear, ready-to-buy, see now/buy now. That’s the exact opposite of I want.” Didier Vervaeren agreed: “Don’t try to come here and do anything that isn’t truly yours. Your work shouldn’t be too produced, too ready for sales.”

Nevertheless, the collections presented at Hyères felt more toned down than the average graduation show. The concepts and stories might be strong or even outrageous, but the final production is usually subtle. The work of winner Vanessa Schindler, for example, is the result of two years research on the latex-like material urethane. The sleek and mesmerising silhouettes were dotted with transparent, tear-like figures. Or Lotte Van Dijk, student at ArtEZ and ex-intern at Phoebe English, found inspiration in the paintings of Marlene Dumas. Her collection features beautiful hand-painted fabrics in Delft blue tones. What the festival looks for is not the commercially perfect or even the shockingly over-the-top, but something entirely honest and personal: “The prize will go to someone, not something,” said Hardy.

But what is the significance of that pure creativity in a rapidly changing industry? Jean-Pierre Blanc, ever the optimist, claimed that “creativity is still at the heart of our industry. Even business is a form of creativity. If you’re good, you’ll always be successful.” And what about claims that the industry is less open to young designers? “Nonsense! Since the beginning, people have asked me: ‘Why young designers? Why not talk about those that exist already?’ There has always been a part of the industry that only cares about established names.”

“If you’re good, you’ll always be successful.”

Sophie Fontanel, French journalist and fashion jury member, seemed to agree. A faster pace and new communication methods don’t necessarily mean the end of young creativity. On the contrary, the talent is only getting stronger: “Young designers today all have access to social media, they’re aware of what happens around the world and they’ve seen a number of images no one else has. They’re no longer secluded artists working by themselves.” She even feels like young designers should embrace new technology more carelessly: “What I would like to tell these young designers, is to be less complexed when it comes to talking about themselves on social media. I’ve noticed a lot of young designers holding themselves back, as if they’re trying to follow this artist posture. But I’d advise them to do more with their Instagram than mood board collages. Talk about yourself, talk about others!”

Sea, creativity and sun. The Hyères festival feels like a little piece of paradise in an otherwise cold environment, a secluded bubble of sea-side perfection. Where the fashion industry has gotten more commercial and distant, the festival managed to preserve a sense of authenticity and, most importantly, fun. Now, the real question is not, how to get more designer to Hyères? But, how to get more Hyères to the designers?

Learn more about the festival and how to apply here.

Words Aya Noël Images Natassa Stamouli