A raincoat made from recycled garden hose by Lora Sonney; a bias cut gown made from discarded men’s ties by Alix Habran Jensen; a red carpet dress hand-stitched from discarded underwear by Sini Saavala. The ten finalists of the 37th Festival d’Hyères were fully intent on redesigning not just the industry they are entering, but redefining the raw materials too. For Tim Suessbauer, that means using tapestries from the sixties and seventies and working with the Lesage embroidery atelier to hand stitch the entire lyrics of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” on to a T-shirt; and for knitwear designer Antonia Schreiter, it’s all about developing new ways to create knit, including fusing together wool threads and scraps, to make a unique textile of intense colour and texture.
Amid the salty sea breeze and the last rays of sparkly summer sun, the competition unfolded at the 1930s Villa Noailles, overlooking the pretty town of Hyerès on the Provencale coast, the hub for this annual show of talent. For the fashion finalists, there are prizes sponsored by Chanel Arts and Métiers, Premiere Vision for the Grand Prix, and for the second year, a prize to celebrate sustainable thinking from Mercedes-Benz. There is also a public vote, which was won this year by Jenny Hytönen, the Finnish designer whose key interests, she told the audience, are knitting and BDSM. Her collection was an unlikely marriage of the two. This year’s jury was headed by Glenn Martens, creative director of Diesel and Y/Project, and included last year’s Grand Prix winner, Ifeanyi Okwuadi who is in his final MA year at Central Saint Martins and showed his collection Dust Black Sunday inspired by the Dust Bowl of the American Great Depression.
Over the summer, I met the designers via Zoom during two workshops designed by Fashion Open Studio in partnership with Mercedes-Benz alongside mentor-in-chief, Orsola de Castro, to nudge the designers forwards in how they approach their collections thinking about social and environmental sustainability. It’s a broad topic touching on many issues integral to any fashion designer, from sourcing materials to cultural appropriation and ways to utilise new technology. We talked with the designers about how their collections were developing, the materials they were using, their sense of purpose, and how techniques such as upcycling can be scaled for commercial production. Together we helped select a final look which would best demonstrate the designer’s approach. The final looks they presented as part of the fashion show were testament to the reality that working sustainably is an opportunity to problem solve and innovate.
The Hyères International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories takes place over a whole weekend. The fashion show for the jury and guests is the designers’ chance to make their mark, but the showroom visits the next day are an opportunity to touch the fabrics, see the craftsmanship and talk to the designers about their process and ideas. The showroom itself, also sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, was made from an assemblage of upcycled materials, constructed by the Dutch designer, artist and architect Rikkert Paauw, which in turn could be remade into something new at the end of its life. For the designers, this was the perfect backdrop. They are all working in ways that rethink aspects of the industry, or challenge it in ways that make sense to them. For Mipinta duo Fernando Miro and Alizée Loubet who have finessed an original technique of making lattice work of upcycled materials, the industry has to change, not just in reducing its environmental impact but in its culture too.
German designer Valentin Lessner won two prizes – the 19M des Métiers d’Art award, as well as the Mercedes Benz Sustainability prize. His collection was all about merging the traditions of the past and local folklore to make something new and relevant for today. Lessner is interested in individual pieces of clothing, each one designed with a sense of history, or heritage. “I like things rich in culture and layering them in a modern way,” he said. He used pieces of clothing from his own family, a headscarf from his grandmother which he fashioned into a hood, or a tailored jacket made using wool from a local German mill struggling to survive.
The essence of this collection is that every piece has been carefully considered to be made responsibly and appreciated for their materials and construction rather than as moments of fashion. Lessner looked back at his Bavarian heritage, taking inspiration from a Pagan beast from Alpine folklore called the Berchta. “I was super scared when I was younger seeing them,” he said, but he used the furry costume to recreate a textile of his own working with an Italian mill to make a modern Alpine camouflage in shades of green with a texture of moss. “The idea was grass on the mountains,” he said. To photograph his collection, he and his team hiked up his local Bavarian mountains in search of the perfect backdrop – like a picture postcard.
On the impact the prize will have on his work moving forward, Valentin said: “For the next year and the future in general, I would like to continue with my perspective of finding new ways on how to create meaningful garments in a responsible way. I am therefore also endlessly thankful for the additional 19M des Métiers d’Art award, as the savoir-faire of dealing with cultural and craftsmanship heritage in a contemporary way is being shared in common, also highlighting the people who craft and produce the garments and artefacts, not only the overall design that is mostly relevant in the end.”
Finnish designer Priss Niinikoski is interested in nature too, with a deep respect for natural materials, including flax and wool as well as a love of craft. Niinikoski questions the speed of fashion’s cycle. Her Harvest collection took her ten months to make, with a mix of techniques including hand knit and rug tufting. “These are objects you can also present in a space as much as have someone wearing them, but it’s more about the philosophy behind the material,” she said.
Also celebrating hand crafts and wool was fellow Finnish designer Juha Vehmaanperä who is the self proclaimed “craftiest bitch in town” with Not Your Mitten, a wildly upbeat and positive collection of bright crochet and knit – a real passion project that is infectious in its joyousness. Juha worked with Maison Desrues and their collection included brass brooches that doubled as knitting patterns as well as a pair of knitting needles that double as a necklace.
Sini Saavala, another Finnish designer (the festival has a long association with Finland’s Aalto University), had an entirely different and equally personal perspective for her collection whose soundtrack was Christine Aguilera’s “Dirrty”. The imperfections, the ladders, the holes, and the stains that she celebrates in her collection hand-stitched almost entirely from worn-out underwear donated by friends and family, from lacy bras to cotton pants, each showing the wear and tear and the material’s reaction to the secretions, sweat and everyday bodily fluids we leave in our undergarments, like biological dyes and prints. “I cut some of the nastiest parts to highlight them,” she said, “and there are some t-shirts, I feel like the jersey gets better as it gets older like silk.” Saavala won the inaugural L’Atelier des Matières Prize – an inspired choice which shows how much circular thinking is prized, especially when it goes hand-in-hand with immaculate construction techniques.
There are many different ways of doing things better, as these designers demonstrate. The raw materials we use need to be switched to those already in existence so we are no longer gratuitously producing virgin raw materials. The different techniques demonstrated by some of the designers show there are all sorts of ways to upcycle pre-existing clothes and materials whilst still maintaining the luxury of craft.
There are also questions about what we discard as rubbish, how we as clients and customers need to change our mindsets too. The 37th Festival d’Hyères Mercedes-Benz Sustainability Prize finalists have thought really deeply about how they make their clothes and how they source the materials for them, whether using existing materials or working in harmony with the biodiversity of nature. There is also consideration into the ongoing life of the garment once it has been passed into the custody of the lucky person who will eventually own and wear it. As these designers move on to build their own brands, create their own communities of makers and crafters or move up the ranks of the design studios within established brands, they will take these ideas and innovations with them and the fashion industry will be all the better for them.