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Photos by Pierre Debusschere

Hyeres Festival 2008

Matthew Cunnington, Jean-Paul Lespagnard, Lucia Sanchez and Isabelle Steger.

The Hyeres Festival in Provence started 22 years ago and is held every year to promote the best new photography and fashion talents. In the past the festival produced some of the most interesting designers working in the industry: Viktor & Rolf, Christian Wijnants, Romain Kremer, Sebastian Meunier, Eric Lebon, and more recently, Sandra Backlund. Given the success of its past winners, the event has become a steady fixture on the fashion map, consistently proving its accuracy at spotting the best young comers. This year's contestants presented an eclectic mix of inspirations with themes ranging from ethnic to elegant to grotesquely macabre. Here are some of my favourite designers to come out of Hyeres 2008. 
The Grand Prix prize of the festival went to the British designer Matthew Cunnington. His collection "Hail Mary" tells the story of his mother, who, due to social pressure, was forced to abandon her illegitimate daughter, and the encounter between the two 30 years later. Elegant yet demure, Cunnington's all-black designs evoke the intensity of that emotional moment. With the use of draping, pleating and devore, he creates clothes where every detail conveys a symbolic meaning – a voluminous, bell-shaped dress is a sign of "letting go", a burnt-out fabric expresses fragility and a pocket in the shape of a keyhole gives way to unfolding a secret story.
Jean-Paul Lespagnard's humorous collection was the most theatrical presentation at this year's festival, winning him both the Public Prize and the award of the French label 1, 2, 3. For his collection, the Belgian designer imagined a character named Jacqueline, who runs a typical Brussels French fries store. She is obsessed with Texas and her wardrobe is the epitome of her fancy – a colourful mish mash of striped and glittery leotards, cowboy trousers and stilettos with french fries sticking out of the cone-shaped heels.
The ethnic vibe was strongly present in the work of Lucia Sanchez, a recent Central Saint Martins graduate, whose passion for textile making has led her to manipulating the majority of her collection fabrics. Drawing upon differences between Europe and her native Argentina, she mixes elements from both cultures such as plastics and hand-made materials and melts them together to create a constrained, sophisticated silhouette.
Isabelle Steger came up with a conceptual collection inspired by George Orwell's 1984. Describing her style as "a statement against the normative politics of fashion", she makes structured, oversize garments that draw upon traditional office clothing. Her designs have a cold, minimalist feel, oscillating somewhere between 80s power dressing and the austerity of Belgian design. By distorting the silhouette, Steger creates the illusion of body awkwardness that makes her models appear simultaneously vulnerable and empowered.