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HYERES, France — “This is hugely important as this is the first stepping stone,” said Alexandra Verschueren, 22, after winning the main L’Oréal Professional Grand Prize at the 25th edition of the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography, which ended Sunday.

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Using paper as her starting point, Verschueren worked architectural structures on classic garments like a felt cape or jean jacket by manually pleating, cutting and folding fabrics to achieve three-dimensional origami surfaces. Verschueren was one of 10 international designers competing for the prize, valued at 15,000 euros, or $19,290 at current exchange, a list that was whittled down from around 300 applicants. Verschueren is a fashion graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, where she is based.

Another favorite, Paris-based Mongolian designer Tsolmandakh Munkhuu, 33, won the event’s Public Prize for her “Black Magic” collection that included charcoal-hued embroidered coats with dramatic peaked shoulders.

Dries Van Noten presided over the fashion jury, which included journalist Sarah Mower and stylist and consultant Charlotte Stockdale.

Exhibitions included a new video work by Steven Klein, “Your Hallucination Is Now Complete,” a frenetic rush of stills taken from ad campaigns and fashion series by the photographer between 2001 and 2010. Klein skipped attending the event at the last minute in favor of shooting a video for Lady Gaga.

Among the crowd viewing former Hyères winner Jean-Paul Lespagnard’s installation, a tree house filled with kitsch knick-knacks, was Robin Schulier, a buyer for Maria Luisa in Paris, who lamented the lack of storytelling at play among the fashion finalists.

“Munkhuu did manage to create a universe and I found Nora Berger and Kathrin Lugbauer’s collection very modern, but in all the sense of a universe was cruelly missing,” he said. The latter duo’s ethnic-chic lineup had a “Madame Grès in Africa” theme.

“It’s never been so dark and cerebral,” noted Maida Gregory-Boina, artist director of the catwalk shows, reading the mood as a sign of the times.

While allowing that young designers face major challenges today, Van Noten observed that new opportunities have also bloomed, such as the Internet. For Van Noten, even the era’s biggest hurdle, the financial crisis, could prove a good thing for true originals.

“There’s new interest in haute couture, but in a different way. There’s so much of everything that the last thing people want is one more of something that already exists. Please do something different, surprise us,” he told WWD.

Discussing the pressures of the job, the Belgian designer, whose latest projects include the renovation of his Hong Kong store, due for completion in August, said he heads to his garden whenever he needs to decompress. Said Van Noten: “You can put as much pressure on yourself as you want.…Sometimes you have to mow the grass.”

“Neither Store Nor Magazine,” a roundtable discussion on the possibilities of the Internet as a tool for raising the profile of young designers, included the likes of Chloé president Ralph Toledano and digital marketing expert Emmanuel Vivier.

Nathalie Doucet, founder and president of the Arts of Fashion Foundation in San Francisco, revealed plans to launch a site in August geared to raising funds for young talent. Dubbed Invest Fashion, the site will propose 10 designers at a time and will invite bidders to help raise $75,000 to finance the production of designers’ first collections, which will also be sold on the site. “It’s a sustainable, innovative way for designers to create their client base,” she said.

During the festival, Mower, the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent, agreed there’s a real opportunity for designers to brand themselves online and create “a world that we’ll buy into.”

Mower predicts the digital age will really take off for fashion over the next five years. “We’re just waiting for this generation to show us,” continued Mower, who revealed London Fashion Week is already creating a digital schedule to complement its catwalk lineup. LFW organizers are encouraging young designers to make films with filmmakers. “It’s very difficult because you have to also have some kind of runway show or presentation,” said Mower. “It’s a very personal business. I’m always encouraging designers to do the low-fi thing and simply bundle their designs into a bag and take them to show editors and stylists.”

Lespagnard said he sees the Internet as a vital communication tool. “Just look at the brilliant way in which Jean-Charles de Castelbajac uses Facebook. It’s a great for delivering information instantly and there are so many new exciting ways of communicating online,” said Lespagnard, who has designed a collection for Italian denim brand Loha Vete and hopes to present a ready-to-wear collection in Paris this fall.

Recalling Alexander McQueen’s final show last October, which was live-streamed on Nick Knight’s, Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, forecast “more and more [fashion] will present on the Internet.…The more I think about it, the more I realize how clever the McQueen thing was in the end.”

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