The Fashion That Is Uniquely Cannes

PARIS — The red carpet marathon known as the Cannes Film Festival is now in full swing. More than halfway though the 12-day competition on the Côte d’Azur, style-watchers have seen screen beauties from around the world taking to the famous steps of the Palais des Festivals. The longtime mix of serious movie business and international glamour have made this much-photographed city the last bastion of creative red-carpet dressing.

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Cannes Film Festival
Coverage of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, including articles, photos and overviews of the films in competition.

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Fashion Shines at Cannes Over the past few years in the United States, the pressure to look picture perfect during awards season has largely resulted in women wearing gorgeous gowns that quickly fade from memory for their lack of creativity. The industry built up around event dressing, with stylists and publicists clothing actresses and celebrities in beautiful but boring ensembles, has also reduced the personal connection many stars once had with fashion designers. And the weight of the “one-night-only” Oscars has tipped the sartorial scales toward the safe.

Not so at Cannes.

Nothing like a trip abroad to broaden fashion horizons. And nowhere is forward fashion thinking more favorably looked upon, and sometimes forgiven, than in France. “Here in Cannes,” said the Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli, “it’s all more open and lively: it’s more like actresses take real control of their own style, and building up their own character. For me, this is very inspiring, because there is nothing that I love more than a woman with a strong personality.”

Mr. Cavalli, along with Giorgio Armani, has dominated much of the Cannes costume scene. Mr. Armani dressed the jury president, Isabelle Huppert, and the jury member Asia Argento in two of his couture “Privé” designs for the festival’s opening while Mr. Cavalli clothed the young Taiwanese juror Shu Qi and the Indian actress Aishwarya Rai.

“There is an air of fun at Cannes — it is the Mediterranean spirit,” said Mr. Armani. “This is after all a place forever associated with starlets on the Croisette and the youthful Brigitte Bardot on the beach.”

There is no better example of the eclectic styles that Cannes brings together than the jury this year. Its large contingent of accomplished women of all ages and nationalities, with years of experience in the film business, have shown themselves to be independent thinkers.

From the traditionally dressed Sharmila Tagore in colorful saris to the American actress Robin Wright Penn, whose preference for working in independent films translated into a shimmering silver lamé Elie Saab dress for the opening and a sporty body-hugging black gown for the screening of the movie “Vengeance,” these are women who know who they are and what looks good on them. Not many people would have guessed from seeing them standing next to each other on the red carpet that Ms. Huppert and Ms. Argento took their opening-night looks from the same Armani couture collection, so strikingly different were the outfits.

The choice by many of the celebrities to wear one-of-a-kind ensembles throughout the festival shows that the movies are still a sort of dream factory and the stars still symbols of that dream.

For the designer Haider Ackermann, his first outfit worn at Cannes, by Tilda Swinton, was an opportunity for worldwide exposure that he feels would be difficult to get elsewhere. “I am not sure they would understand it in America,” he said. “At Cannes you are more free to choose what you want. There is more fantasy.”

The gowns at the festival generally steered towards the strapless or asymmetrical shoulder, with red being the color of choice for many. Millefeuille skirts frothing into trains have been a nice change from the draping goddess dresses that have become ubiquitous event ensembles. And a surprising number of shimmering gowns have sparkled in front of the cameras this year.

“Sparkling gowns really bring back the glitz and glamour that we need right now,” said the designer Andrew Gn, who created the midnight-blue ensemble that the American actress Elizabeth Banks wore to the screening of the film “Chun Feng Chen Zui De Ye Wan” (Spring Fever). “They lift you up!”

If the clothing continues to be custom-made, there is still an easy-breezy feel in the way it is all put together. Hair is loose or in updos that give relaxed elegance to the complete look. And given the temperamental weather on the Croisette this year, casual coifs have been the smart move. Chopard jewelry has been much in evidence, which is no surprise as the brand is a sponsor and has its own awards ceremony during the festival. The stars seem to have no desire to tone down their jewelry in reaction to the global recession, with many going for statement necklaces paired with discreet earrings hidden from view under those loose locks.

But the best thing about celebrity- watching here is that it still remains a bit of a free-for-all. Twelve days of opportunity for actresses to try something different. Twelve days for stars from outside Hollywood to get exposure they would find nowhere else. And 12 days for those wonderful unknowns who find their way onto the carpet hoping for their 15 minutes of fame.

Dulce Primavera (Sweet Spring)

Mister Christian Dior mentioned grooming as one of the fundamentals of fashion. I believe in a well groomed hair and makeup. Here a is a timeless, beautiful example.

Why Everything French Is Hot Again

Paris designers have drawn inspiration from the four corners of the globe and even outer space. But for Fall, many of them stayed closer to home, mining that ineffable chic that can only be described as Parisian. Or to put it another way, Lacroix wasn't the only designer doing Lacroix on the runways. At Louis Vuitton—all ruffles, ruches, and poufs—Marc Jacobs name-checked Marie Seznec, a longtime muse of Christian's (left, circa 1986). Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière, meanwhile, traded in his femme-bots for femmes fatales (with a little Alexis Carrington in the shoulders). And then there's Esteban Cortazar, who, in his third season at Emanuel Ungaro, nailed the playful, girls-just-want-to-have-fun, bubble-skirted vibe of the house's heyday.

Tour de Force

The biggest star at the American Ballet Theatre's opening-night gala wasn't a performer but a guest. As everyone knows by now, Michelle Obama was on hand—in black sleeveless Alaïa—to enjoy a program that included excerpts from Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet and a jazz number featuring Herbie Hancock on piano. Of the night's many curtain calls, none matched the standing ovation the First Lady received when she took the stage; if there was a no-flash rule inside the Met, it certainly went down the tubes during her brief remarks at the dais. And to the delight of opera-glass gawkers, Michelle O. took in the proceedings from a very visible parterre seat, alongside fellow honorary chairs Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Carolina Herrera, who co-sponsored the evening.

Thanks to the guest of honor and the abundance of seasonal frocks, this black-tie evening was about fashion as much as dance. Veronica Webb and Rachel Roy paused to discuss Michelle's best wardrobe picks on their way in. "I love her in Alaïa, and I love her in her cardies with her belt," Roy offered. Webb chimed in, "My favorite fashion moment for her was that she wore her Tracy Feith dress more than once."

Kelly Ripa denied that the guest of honor had anything to do with her decision to show biceps. "It's springtime—good luck finding a dress with sleeves!" Ballet certainly tops the other fine arts as a way to firm up arms and just about everything else, noted Dree Hemingway, the model and former student at the School of American Ballet. "My body has always been really toned because of ballet," said the 21-year-old, who was there on the arm of Francisco Costa. "I don't think I'll ever have to work out—until I get really old. Talk to me in a couple years."

— Darrell Hartman