Designers want a piece of Cannes

With the glut of coverage already devoted to American award shows, it was only a matter of time before the keen gaze of opportunity turned to Cannes.

“Cannes has always been huge for film, but fashion-wise it wasn’t on our radar until fairly recently,” says Susan Ashbrook, executive vice president of Film Fashion, an agency that works with designers like Monique Lhuillier and Kevan Hall to clad talent in their clients’ designs. “With the Internet photo services, it’s become very big for us.”

Indeed, Hall was elated when images of Andie MacDowell, swathed in his aqua beaded gown, peppered the online press. Says the designer: “It’s an international festival, so what is worn is seen throughout Europe and the U.S. That makes Cannes very important.”

What also makes the festival relevant is the “anything goes” spirit that infects the red carpet proceedings. This is, after all, a venue known for its acceptance of the outlandish and over-the-top. “Europeans have a very different feel for fashion,” says stylist Estee Stanley, who, with partner Christina Ehrlich, will dress Penelope Cruz this year. “They take it seriously, but in the sense that you can create as much drama as you want to with your fashion.”

But unlike the Oscars, which is a one-shot deal for actresses to wow audiences and critics, Cannes offers myriad chances to impress. In fact, a starlet could get razzed and then redeem herself for sartorial triumphs and missteps over and over again during the 11-day festival.

“With two major screenings per day and all the parties, celebrities have time to express each facet of their personality through their style,” says Swarovski’s creative director Nathalie Colin Roblique. “Cannes can be fun, casual chic or ultra glamorous.” (To mark its their eighth year at Cannes, the company will unveil a “Red Carpet Collection” of fifteen handbags designed exclusively for the festival.)

Chopard, too, has a hand in designing items tailored specifically to Cannes. The Geneva-based jeweler, which has been a festival sponsor for a decade, will collaborate with fest favorite Valentino this year. On TK night, eight celebrities will ascend the steps wearing frocks by Valentino and jewelry by Chopard.

But unlike past years, in which the design houses reached out directly to stars, there are now style sentries to woo too. “Years ago, actresses came by themselves,” says Chopard’s Stephanie Labeille. “Now, there are no American actresses that are without the help of a stylist.”

The company has also teamed up with Stuart Weitzman on a “priceless” one-of-a-kind shoe, a publicity ploy that has garnered the footwear designer tons of coverage at the Oscars for the last several years. The fancy footwear will be worn by a yet-to-be-named actress.

Weitzman, who is opening stores in St. Tropez and Monte Carlo, sums up the appeal of Cannes with a telling observation: “This is the place where the 5-inch heel was born,” he says. “In the states, actresses ask for 3 ½ inches, maybe four.”

In other words, what a difference an inch makes.

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