HYERES, France — There are scores of fashion competitions around the world, some of them offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes, huge profile building opportunities in magazines like Vogue and Elle, and endorsements from powerful global brands like Swarovski and Mango. But there is nothing quite like the Festival d'Hyères.
Founded 28 years ago by Jean-Pierre Blanc, the Festival International de Mode et de Photographie à Hyères, which takes place each year in this sleepy seaside town in the South of France, is one of the longest running fashion competitions of its kind, offering a relatively modest sum of €15,000 for its main jury prize in the fashion competition.
But Hyères is not really about the money. It's about the mix of people the festival manages to attract. Where else could you find senior figures from the French fashion establishment like Christian Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano and Chambre Syndicale president Didier Grumbach mixing with Radiohead's Colin Greenwood and the local residents of Hyères in a landmark cubist villa overlooking the Mediterranean?
Indeed, perhaps the festival's most important differentiator is that it offers shortlisted designers unparalleled, intimate access to some of the fashion world's most talented creative and business people.
"At the beginning it was just the dream of a young guy," recalled Mr Blanc wistfully. Born and raised here in Hyères, Blanc was far removed from the elite fashion circles in Paris and longed for a way to be part of it all. "I remember that my dream came from the magazines where I learned about designers like Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana," he said. "I know something in my mind began with the beauty of this place."
Boy did his dream come true. In recent years, top names like Raf Simons, Dries van Noten and Riccardo Tisci have presided over the prestigious Hyères jury. Last year, even the reclusive Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto came to Hyères to head a jury which included art director Marc Ascoli, curator Olivier Saillard and photographer Paolo Roversi.
But how did Mr Blanc get the notoriously frosty French fashion establishment to engage with him in the first place?
"When Dider Grumbach agreed to become the president of the festival in 1982, he called the head of La Redoute and in five minutes we got 500,000 francs (about 15,000 euros)," said Blanc. Since then, fashion institutions like LVMH, Chloé, Galeries Lafayette, Première Vision and others have come on board. "The latest sponsors are Lacoste, SodaStream, Made in France, a new organisation that fosters collaboration between industry and fashion, and Eyes on Talents, a digital platform to put in contact new talents with big companies," he added.
What's more, as no single sponsor dominates Hyères, the prize feels more like a display of broad and genuine industry support, rather than a marketing opportunity, which keeps the focus where it should be: on the designers.
This year, the competition came full circle when Felipe Oliveira Baptista, winner of the 2002 jury prize in the fashion competition, was named president of the Hyères jury. I was really honoured to be asked to join him, alongside Harvey Nichols fashion director Paula Reed, Numero magazine's Delphine Roche, American Vogue's Mark Holgate, leading fashion headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre, photographers Liesbeth Abbenes et Maurice Scheltens and Barbara Coutinho, director of the Museum of Design and Fashion in Lisbon.
The winner of this year's fashion prize was Satu Maaranen, a 28-year-old Finnish designer who wowed us, both with her bold creative statements and the authentic narrative that inspired them. Still, I felt the overall talent pool at Hyères lacked depth and, indeed, it appears the festival is having challenges sourcing a set of applicants broad enough to match the breadth and global nature of the jury and other industry participants.
While there were many applicants from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia, surprisingly absent from the mix were young designers from Italy, Spain and especially the United Kingdom and the United States. For Hyères to reach its true potential, it will need to work harder on getting the word out more widely about this very special competition and its unique benefits. Indeed, Mr Blanc says he is keen to cast a wider net and engage more fashion schools in the UK and beyond.
At the prize-giving ceremony on Sunday evening, Mr Baptista joked that when he won the competition more than ten years ago, there was no money prize at all, just a potted palm tree and a magnum of champagne. Still, Hyères was a major turning point for him and one of the most important milestones in his career. The designer was recently appointed creative director of Lacoste, a position he will take up while also managing his own label.
Let's hope that Hyères gives rise to many more success stories like this — and that even more designers are able to take part in this highly unique festival of fashion in the years to come.