By  on May 8, 2008

HYERES, France — Underlining its status as an international launchpad for new fashion talent, more than 400 industry professionals plus 200 journalists flocked to the 23rd International Festival of Fashion and Photography held here from April 25 to 28.

Over a sun-soaked weekend, 10 fashion designers, whittled down from 250 candidates initially, impressed a jury presided over by Givenchy's creative director, Riccardo Tisci, who declared half of the designers could easily have shown at Paris Fashion Week.

"People are saying it doesn't look like a young designer's competition," said Tisci, who was joined by fashion experts including Haider Ackermann, Lane Crawford's fashion director Sarah Rutson and stylist Patti Wilson.

Tisci predicted that three or four of the competitors would go on to be successful. Among them will likely be British designer Matthew Cunnington, whose "Hail Mary" collection of voluminous black wool and jersey dresses, inspired by his mother's forced adoption of her illegitimate daughter in the Sixties, swept the L'Oréal Professionnel sponsored prize of 15,000 euros, or $23,300 at current exchange.

"For me, it was perfection," said Tisci, lauding the collection's volume and details. "Not many people have a sensibility like that."

The jury lauded Birmingham-based Cunnington's devoré technique, where he burnt the natural wool on a screen print with acid to leave patches of viscose exposed — a literal expression of being emotionally torn apart.

"There's a need for sensuality and beauty today, instead of aggression and sexuality," said Ackermann.

Belgian stylist Jean-Paul Lespagnard, meanwhile, took an ironic view of fashion, sending Dolly Parton-wigged models sashaying down the runway in clown-striped or cowboy pants, plus drag queen killer heels, accessorized with french fries made from Perspex. Lespagnard, who trained in theater design, scooped both the audience award and French fast-fashion chain 1.2.3's 15,000 euro, or $23,300, prize.

Some of the designs will go straight to the shop floor. Maria Luisa will display Lespagnard's collection later this year, while Lane Crawford is planning to host installations by several, as yet undisclosed, designers.

Tisci, meanwhile, evoked the possibility that several Hyères participants could work with him at Givenchy and also plans to point willing investors in their direction. "In fashion, without money you can go nowhere," he said. "I've been there; 10,000 euros [or $15,500] changes everything."To increase their odds of success, several exhibitors said they would unveil accessories rather than apparel first. "I think it's a way in business because it works much more easily," reasoned Lucia Sanchez, an Argentinian-born designer who's worked at Isabelle Marant, Marni, Wunderkind and Gucci, who showed shoes and handbags with cow horns for heels and bag handles.

Likewise, German-born Miriam Lehle, who took a candle to four meters of fabric to create each melted dress in her collection, plans to launch a more commercial and wearable accessories line for fall.

The money machine, meanwhile, was questioned by 23-year-old Isabelle Steger, who plucked models of all ages from their day jobs in offices or fast-food outlets to wear her collection of oversize workwear, suits and coats, to represent the capitalist world. The designer, who was taught by Raf Simons in Vienna, also displayed a host of electronic gadgets, including cell phones painted to resemble wood.

Steger, who's in the running for a design scholarship in her native Austria, believes such competitions are crucial for young designers like her. "The fashion business is so cruel. You have much more freedom when you do art. They give you more time to fail."

The fashion industry's relentless treadmill is much to blame for that, said Lane Crawford's Rutson. "It's my job to be open," she said. "Unfortunately, the schedule we have now in fashion is killing that openness. If you'd got me straight after fashion week, I would have been more critical, but here I've understood where they're coming from. Hyères has saved me."

In the photography competition, French lenswoman Audrey Corregan won the top prize, while a special mention went to Germany's Amira Fritz.

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