Cannes: Gown Today, Gone Tomorrow
Cate Blanchett tried making sustainability chic. The red carpet said no
I was recently a guest at the Goodwill of Greater NY and Northern NJ annual benefit. Besides raising $200,000 to provide employment and services for workers with disabilities, the event shined light on sustainability with Goodwill finds imaginatively “upcycled” by designer brands Tommy Hilfiger, Gigi Burris Millinery, Maxwell Osborne of anOnlyChild, and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School. Event host, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, capped things off by telling the crowd that she’s a regular shopper at Goodwill, along with her two teen-aged sons.
Flash forward to Cannes, 4,000 air miles away, about a month later and on a whole other planet. On the same day that Hollywood faced a second round of Netflix layoffs and against the backdrop of an ongoing war in Ukraine, the Cannes Film Festival rolled out the red carpet on May 17 after two years of pandemic-driven fits and semi-starts.
It marked the third ostentatious stop on this year’s major red-carpet trifecta as things shakily return to normal, following the Oscars and the Met Gala. The festival has long been intertwined with fashion, given longtime sponsors L’Oreal Paris (returning for its 25th consecutive year), Chopard; (which also designs all the festival award statues and bestows the Trophée Chopard on a rising actor and actress); and global powerhouse Kering, which owns Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent.
And in its 75th year, Cannes is hoping to jump-start film, of course, but also the glamour of the before times prior to the coronavirus, and even farther back to Hollywood’s “Golden Age” when stars such as Rita Hayworth and Brigette Bardot converged on the Mediterranean mecca.
To that end, festival jury president Vincent Lindon told a packed press conference, he was “overjoyed” at the schedule of parties and galas and a jostling armada of photographers chronicling the promenade of this year’s jurors (including director Joachim Trier, Rebecca Hall and Noomi Rapace) and famous faces including Julianne Moore, Elle Fanning, Eva Longoria and Lashana Lynch, all begowned and tuxedo’d in the festival’s proscribed formal style (remember when Flatsgate was a crisis?). Next week comes the post-pandemic return of the annual glitzy amfAR Gala Cannes at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc with performers Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin and Charli XCX.
RECYCLABLE CANNES? NOPE!
But while the festival itself announces greener strides this year by cutting paper printing by half, making electric or hybrid vehicles 60 percent of the official festival fleet, and eliminating single-use plastic water bottles, the fashion world continues to bury its head in the South of France sand.
This year at Cannes, there are next-to-no outward efforts toward fashion sustainability, a topic that — at least publicly — almost every major fashion house has expressed commitment.
Indeed, the Cannes catwalk is flashier, the intersection of fashion and celebrity more crowded, everyone desperately wanting things to be the way they once were.
Like a dowager shakily tottering in YSL Tributes, Cannes’ new embrace of social media may be one of the main culprits for fashion’s full bore blinders-on return. The fest has taken on TikTok as its first digital-media app sponsor. Meta (aka Facebook) is also providing content via a lavish “Instagram Creator Villa” — providing a perfect backdrop for a post or a story — and it’s even kitted out with the company’s hardware, like its Quest 2 VR headset and Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses, alongside the expected libations and free swag (aka., future landfill).
It’s quite a turnabout from days of yore when Cannes wouldn’t even countenance people taking selfies on the carpet (a rule that somehow still coexists with the festival’s online intiatives). But now everyone wants a look that grabs clicks, any clicks — from the celebrities who walk the film festival carpets to the Gen Z content-makers desperate for a steady supply of new duds for their video posts and Insta stories. In short, everyone wants to be a fashion star, and content is king.
French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, president of a jury judging TikTok videos, got into a tif with TikTok execs over their interference ( “They need to know that an artistic jury is a jury — not an algorithm”). But who cares when Khaby Lame, 22, a Senegalese-Italian TikTok personality with more than 138 million followers (second globally only to Charli D’Amelio), got more attention as the stars on the red carpet and was named one of the best dressed men of the festival by GQ France for his red carpet suit made by his sponsor, Hugo Boss?
Way back, at Cannes in 2018, Cate Blanchett appeared at the festival’s opening fete and surprised everyone by rewearing an Armani Privé black-lace gown that she had been seen in before at the 2014 Golden Globes. Later, at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, as jury president, she recycled a pair of gowns, wearing a navy-blue Esteban Cortazar gown she had previously donned for the London premiere for her film Carol on opening night, and an Alexander McQueen original that she had first worn to the 2016 BAFTAs the next, “upcycling” the red-and-gold top with black trousers instead of the original feather skirt. Her longtime stylist, one of the best in Hollywood, Elizabeth Stewart, applauded the star on Instagram: “#CateBlanchett is committed to a sustainable red carpet. One way is re-working past iconic looks!”
Going farther back, model/philanthropist Petra Nemcova spent two weeks in Cannes in 2018 attending red-carpet events and premieres in sustainably made gowns and accessories.
“FASHION IS EXCESSIVE”
But now, almost with an urgent need to un-remember everything from the past two awful years, it’s business as usual, as daily emails overflow into my in-box from all the designer houses about whom they have dressed.
Of course, not everybody has the rich red-carpet history that Blanchett enjoys, and often original gowns are returned to the originating fashion houses and packed away in the archives. Some other good-hearted sustainability efforts, like Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge and Red Carpet Advocacy (RAD), the initiative founded by costume designer Arianne Phillips and marketing veteran Carineh Martin have seemed to be absent from the red carpet during award season this year.
In the pre-Oscar runup in March, Suzy Amis Cameron did head up a celebration for her Red Carpet Green Dress efforts and Vogue chronicled GCFA founder Firth’s intimate dinner at the San Vicente Bungalows in West Hollywood to present this year’s “Green Fashion Awards,” saying, “There are plenty of stylists and talent that want to do things differently.”
But, I say, show me the gowns.
Yes, I know all the reasons why sustainability is hard. First, we’re talking about the highest fashion art, represented in the form of the often couture-level or fresh runway creations from leading fashion houses armed with stratospheric marketing budgets to pay their “ambassadors” and celebrity muses. Second, the demands of celebrity in the internet age require that if you’re not a natural fashionista then you better have a crack stylist, because let’s face it, everyone is looking at what you’re wearing. And third, those red-carpet and publicity tour appearances can keep a star on top or lift a journeyman actor into the limelight, what with the endless attendant publicity if they look “cool.”
I should also add that I don’t expect any one actor working in the industry to be singlehandedly responsible for curing a society’s ills (or for passing up remuneration from a fashion house either, if that’s involved.)
But why does sustainability have to be the last thing on the list?
Outside of the hothouse of celebrity style, the fashion world got a jolt of reckoning recently when it was reported that Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein was valued at a mind-blowing $100 billion. That’s a lot of readily disposable $7 tops and $5 skirts. Following that, actress and screenwriter (and daughter of Larry) Cazzie David called out Gen Z’s blindspot that drives the constant flow of cheaply made fashion in an April Airmail rant, citing “the endlessly unfulfilling, bottomless pit of ‘content creation.’”
Instead of rejecting the cycle of consumption, she wrote, “we spend our time seeking the reward that comes at the end of every photo in a new outfit, every video talking alone in a room, ranting about nonsense like skin-care products or the fuckability of different fictional characters.”
Some in the fashion world do seem to be waking up to this unsustainable culture. I just got my weekly email newsletter from the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and they are sounding the alarm, highlighting the Special Focus: Planet Earth initiative in support of the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action with panels on decarbonizing fashion events, supply chain transparency and ethical sourcing (details at CFDA.com).
In New York, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act is up for a vote in the legislature this spring, which would be the first law in the U.S. to explicitly place sustainability requirements on large fashion companies (not surprisingly, I’ve heard it hasn’t gotten much designer support yet.)
But even red carpet denizens are somewhat conflicted on the subject of sustainability, as I found when I reached out to celebrity stylist Laura Jones, whose longtime client is the current Cannes jury chair herself, actress and director Hall.
Look, Hall has some of the most fresh and individualized style of anyone in the spotlight, justly celebrated on the red carpet and especially in her press tour for last year’s Passing. She’s seemingly unafraid of vibrant color, forward silhouettes and often embraces designers not often typically seen on the red carpet (Proenza Schouler, Batsheva, Huishan Zhang to name but a few).
Stylist Jones, who often addresses environmental concerns as a writer in her journal The Frontlash and as a consultant to clothing brands such as Tory Burch, Nanushka, and Fashion Revolution, admits the fashion-celebrity nexus is problematic, but sees it more as society’s dilemma.
I asked Jones first what went into coming up with those head-turning looks, including the fuchsia Gucci number that Hall wore on Cannes opening night, and she told me a lot of it was intuitive after working with Hall for almost a decade or so.
“We both love to try new things,” she explains, adding that it’s not so much an effort to put together a look that’s unexpected in a self-conscious way as a delight in the power of fashion. “We're interested in shape and color and form, and (that) kind of communication aesthetically.” Both like to keep to a sense of fun, she adds.
“Fashion is excessive,” she continued. “Clothing is not existing on a needs-based level in modern society, and I don’t think that’s particular to the red carpet. It’s emblematic of a broader kind of excess that’s being called into question by people inside and outside of fashion.”
So, to her, the red carpet is bit more of a surface issue and the real systematic prescriptive needs to revolve around improving conscious and ethical standards in production and mandating that change through legislation such as the New York sustainability proposal. “It feels also like a probably more achievable goal than shutting down red carpets and things like that,” she says.
In the end, she adds, “I think it's important to just remind people that having the things that we love and also caring for the environment are not incompatible.”
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