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France’s Artful Dodgers

HYERES, France — Art seems to be triumphing over commerce in the minds of Europe’s budding young designers, and it’s worrying industry experts who convened for the 18th annual International Festival of Fashion Arts here last...

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HYERES, France — Art seems to be triumphing over commerce in the minds of Europe’s budding young designers, and it’s worrying industry experts who convened for the 18th annual International Festival of Fashion Arts here last month.

“I wonder how ready this group is to design real clothes,” said designer Ennio Capasa of Costume National, a member of the jury charged with selecting a winner from among 10 contestants. “They have very artistic ideas, but how those translate to clothes is sometimes hard to understand.”

The festival is gaining a reputation as a key cultural event, and has been a springboard for designers like Viktor & Rolf and Alexandre Matthieu. But this year’s edition coincided with a low ebb in what was once a strong wave of young designer fashion. Other jury members, including Dior president Sidney Toledano and shoe designer Pierre Hardy, agreed it was hard to elect a worthy winner.

Many of the competitors, all recent fashion graduates from Belgium, Holland, Germany, France, Denmark and Austria, said they consider themselves artists first and designers second.

Take this year’s grand-prize winner, Sandrina Fasoli, a Belgian who studies at La Cambre in Brussels. Artist Vanessa Beecroft inspired her collection of diaper-like coats and T-shirts printed with lingerie motifs. “I wanted to explore the limits of nakedness,” Fasoli said.

Another winner, Hamid Ed-Dakhissi, a Moroccan who won the Henri Bendel prize, explained that his collection was “not clothes, but pieces that can be worn like art.” And young Germans Sonja Bossert and Brigitte Schorn designed a collection based on silhouettes of household appliances and hardware, such as coffee pots and handsaws.

Despite the high-minded fashions, the festival provided tools for some designers to bring their concepts back down to earth. French ready-to-wear chain 123 awarded Fasoli $15,000 to produce a small collection for its stores. It did the same for Laurent Edmond, a French designer who based his collection on abstract geometric forms. And Bendel pledged to help Ed-Dakhissi produce his collection and then import it to its Manhattan store.

The blurring lines between art and commerce also caused heated debate over fashion photography, another focus of the festival.

Members of a panel discussion — Regis Durand, director of France’s National Photography Center, art director Marc Ascoli and Stephane Wargnier, art director at Hermès — agreed many young photographers seem confused about their purpose.

“A fashion image can become art,” said Wargnier. “But one must not forget that’s not its main function. A fashion image is designed to sell clothes and ignite desire — a desire to buy.”

The polemic spilled over to the young photographers’ competition. “There are beautiful images,” said Herve Mikaeloff, a curator at Paris’ Caisse des Depots art center. “But some of us wonder if the talent here is adapted to fashion or whether it’s for the gallery.”

The issue seemed to sway the decision of the jury, which included Luca Stoppini of Italian Vogue, writer Glenn O’Brien, gallery owner Philippe Jousse and Paul Wombell of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, who gave the top prize to Timur Clikadag of Turkey for his poetic and idealized pictures of everyday people in Istanbul. Although they could be called art, they also could have come straight from the pages of an avant-garde fashion magazine.

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