Byline: Robert Murphy

HYERES, France — Martine Sitbon turns on a stiletto heel, startled by the rumble of a motorcycle arriving at the Villa de Noailles.
The black-clad rider cuts the engine and shakes off his helmet, revealing himself as designer Jean Colonna. “I hope I didn’t frighten anyone,” he chuckles in a deep tenor. Welcome to the quaint Riviera town of Hyeres, which once a year is summoned out of fashion hibernation by the Festival International des Arts de la Mode.
Since its inception 15 years ago, the event, whose past laureates include up-and-coming designers Victor & Rolf, Niels Klavers, Xuly Bet and Gaspard Yurkievich, has become an important rite of passage for young European fashion and photography talent.
But for many of the style-savvy who stomp down to Hyeres shod in Prada or Gucci heels, the three-day festival over the last weekend of April is as much about making new acquaintances, catching up with old ones, and disporting themselves in the balmy spring weather as it is about unearthing fashion’s next big thing.
Designers Veronique Leroy, An Vandevorst and her husband Filip Arickx, the Antwerp-based duo known as AF Vandevorst, hired white and yellow mopeds as weekend transportation.
They were soon dubbed “The Mod Squad.”
Arickx’s resort attire was black leather pants tucked into knee-high motocross boots found at a London flea market.
It was a far cry from the Bermudas and vibrant print shirts sported by most locals. When it came to choosing a helmet, Arickx picked Evel Knievel-like headgear painted with flames and a dark slap-down visor.
“It’s probably too much for a scooter,” he conceded. “But I’m in fashion. If I can’t wear this, I might as well look for another job.”
The festival also presents the unique spectacle of small-town France meeting cutting-edge fashion. The septuagenarian Hyeres mayor Leopold Ritondale made a local fashion statement in the powder blue suit with a bold geometric-print tie that he wore to inaugurate the festival.
There were audible snickers when festival director Jean-Pierre Blanc presented Ritondale with a skintight, sleeveless T-shirt designed by Gaspard Yurkievich and emblazoned with the words “I Love Hyeres.”
But the Hyeres inhabitants showed up and took part in the fashion show competition at Les Ecuries Godillot, a former horse stable in the town center.
Some of the looks on the runway got catcalls while others were greeted with sighs and applause of admiration. In general, the locals say they’ve grown to love the festival.
“It’s a great time to see new trends,” said one excited woman.
Apart from the fun and games, including lazy waterfront lunches, quick dips in the chilly Mediterranean and late-night outdoor disco dancing, the festival also serves as a venue for more established designers.
Sitbon and the avant-garde accessories duo Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag, known as Bless, were given free rein to exhibit their work in the Villa de Noailles, the Modernist mansion designed by Robert Mellat-Stevens that serves as the festival hub.
Sitbon used three vaulted rooms in the Villa’s cellar for her show, an intimate peek into her quirky universe. The central room showed a video installation by Jean-Baptiste Mondino of Kirsten Owen, Sitbon’s favorite model, lip-syncing — sometimes singing off-key and off beat — a few of Sitbon’s favorite songs. The tunes ranged from David Bowie to the Velvet Underground.
The idea behind the video: “I wanted to project myself through Kirsten,” explained Sitbon. “I thought this would be a personal way of explaining my clothes and the personality behind them.”
In a room adjacent to the projection, aparel was exhibited from recent collections, which visitors perused as if in a boutique — albeit without a fitting room.
The Bless team, known for their conceptual creations, tried to distance themselves from art with a capital “A.”
“We get so many invitations to show our work in an art context, that we wanted to come up with a way to make money with our designs,” said Heiss.
“It’s hard for a young designer to keep one foot in the fashion business while still creating something new.”
So Bless turned the three-room space on the Villa’s ground floor into a prototype shop, showcasing items from embroidered jeans and T-shirts to umbrellas, hairbrushes and furniture.
Footwear by Christian Louboutin, Michel Perry, Benoit Meleard, Pierre Hardy and Rodolphe Menudier was featured in a separate exhibition, billed as French Shoes, at the Tour des Templiers, in central Hyeres.
And security took the gallery atmosphere seriously. During a cocktail party inaugurating the French Shoes exhibit, Louboutin took one of his shoes off its pedestal, and got a scolding. “Look but don’t touch,” barked a guard. A blushing Louboutin quickly complied. “They have their orders,” he said lightheartedly, gingerly replacing the shoe.
When it came time to judge the competing young designers, the jury members — including Sitbon, the Vandevorst duo, Leroy and Colonna — agreed 2000 was not a stellar vintage. On Sunday morning, they congregated at the Le Provencal, the hotel in the nearby hamlet of Gien where most festival participants bunked, to deliberate.
“Look, it’s a relief that we don’t have a revelation every year,” said Leroy. “There’s already enough competition out there.”
After much difficulty, the jury selected its winners. German-born designer Anke Loh, who has worked in the studio of Martin Margiela, garnered top honors for a collection she said was inspired by “movement, especially in dance.”
Arickx said its “tight focus” gave it the edge.