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The fledgling fashion designers that took ​​Hyères Festival by storm

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The French festival known for incubating emerging designers and artists celebrated an exciting new cohort, all with sustainability and innovation at the crux of their work

Last weekend, in the soft, golden sun-dappled hills of the south of France, the international fashion and art communities gathered to celebrate burgeoning new talent. Here in Hyères, a region beloved by Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, creativity has long been celebrated. The 36th edition of the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival took place once again IRL, staged at the inimitable art patrons’ Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles Villa Noailles, a stunning early modernist residence designed by renowned French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. The festival has been a jumpstart for some of fashion’s most fervent talents, from Viktor & Rolf to Anthony Vaccarello of Saint Laurent.

The 2021 edition of the festival brought together 10 global design talents to present collections with sustainability, craftsmanship, and innovation at their crux. The festival spotlighted the fashion designer finalists in its intimate showroom and on a dazzling catwalk display on the Saturday evening. The designers were then judged on their submissions for the Mercedes-Benz Sustainability Prize, which marked the first sustainability-focussed award at the festival, as well as prizes and grants like the Chloé Prize – which challenged the participants to create a sustainable look inspired by the brand – and the 19M Chanel ‘métiers d’art’ Prize.

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London designer Ifeanyi Okwadi walked away with the Hyères Grand Prize for his collection inspired by the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which protested against the installation of nuclear missiles in Berkshire in the 80s. The 27-year-old, Savile Row-trained designer’s captivating collection gave a fresh, emboldened perspective on menswear with its astute social commentary, dual uses, structure and wearability, multitudes of texture and detailed craftsmanship. The strong storytelling and commitment to tailoring captured the jury’s attention – one jacket’s print recalls the barriers between police and protesters, where stretched necklines and sleeves speak to the physicality of resistance. “I am so excited for the future now,” Okwadi told Dazed after his win. “I feel a mixture of emotions but I’m mostly overjoyed. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can now produce with the support.” Okwadi intends to pursue studies at Central Saint Martins, work on his own label, and design at an established fashion house.

Finland’s Sofia Ilmonen won the first ever Mercedes-Benz Sustainability Prize for a gloriously colourful collection that used vegetable dyes and cleverly conceived modular designs that minimised fabric waste to create billowing, theatrical, meticulously finished looks in the ‘Same Same But Different’ collection. Baroque sleeves and cold shoulders, forest green and brilliant yellows and lilacs glided down the runway. The Aalto University and London College of Fashion graduate was a unanimous winner. She told Dazed: “This prize gives me the confidence that I’m on the right track with my values and concept. I can focus on refining what I do to a greater level now.”

The sustainability prize was assessed alongside sustainability-focused mentoring sessions for the 10 shortlisted finalists led by Fashion Open Studio, in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, in the run-up to the festival. Fashion Revolution co-founder and creative director Orsola de Castro and Fashion Open Studio special projects curator Tamsin Blanchard mentored the designer’s in technical, business, and creative innovation with sustainability in mind, from fabric curation to the retail market and tracing their supply chain. 

“There will be no future unless we train future generations to do significantly better than the ones who came before them,” de Castro tells Dazed. “The fashion industry has long overlooked important issues such as transparency, accountability, environmental and social rigour when it comes to practices. No industry is as old fashioned as the fashion industry right now. It’s great to watch it being challenged to its core, from its core.”

“The next generation – and all the finalists are a prime example of this – are well aware of the challenges,” says Blanchard. “They know the industry is polluting, exploitative, and wasteful. They’ve often seen practices they don’t feel comfortable with during work experience. Mentoring starts with identifying what resonates with the individual designer. It might be finding ways to not use animal products, or working with local supply chains, bringing opportunities to suppliers in their regions. It might simply be finding a way to build a sustainable business that is small, finding new ways to measure success. Fashion Open Studio is building an international cohort of designers with a platform to promote those who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks or found it difficult to be recognised and celebrated.”

“What’s exciting is that it’s not just their own work that they are interrogating, but the practices of the industry at large. They are being equipped with the knowledge and confidence to ask those questions of brands they work for, to change the industry from inside.” 

Below, we caught up with all 10 finalists from the UK, Taiwan, Finland, Latvia, Thailand, Switzerland, and Colombia about their collections, their plans, and hopes for a sustainable fashion future.

MATEO VELASQUEZ

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Mateo Velasquez: A responsible experiment with upcycling techniques aiming to challenge hypermasculinity.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Mateo Velasquez: It has been really supportive and a great learning experience which has provided us with amazing information and tools to learn more about different ways of creating responsibly. The best outcome was to learn and share about how the other finalists were integrating their creativity to make things ethically and how we are all focused on creating positive change.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Mateo Velasquez: I hope fashion becomes truly transparent and stops using sustainable terms for marketing strategies or to cover themselves up. I’m hopeful for more young brands and designers who truly care and who, with small steps, will change the way we dress and consume.

For my brand, I hope to continue to experiment and show the world how things can be done differently, tackling the supply chain, being environmentally conscious and socially responsible.

MENGCHE CHIANG

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Mengche Chiang: Ridiculous yet elegant, nomadic yet romantic.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Mengche Chiang: During the mentorship, mentors would push us or even encourage us to go for an even more sustainable way to do things, and to think things. I feel like it’s a rather healthy and innovative angle to look at fashion.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Mengche Chiang: As we have wasted so much on material and stockage in fashion industry, there are a lot extra supplies going into leftovers, taking so much space and money, and the essence of fashion and garments lost in the process, as people would never cherish them as the supplies have been surplus. Therefore, I believe in well design and refined creation, almost like haute couture, is the new wave and rebirth of fashion, to make people really cherish and take them seriously.

RUKPONG RAIMATURAPONG

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Rukpong Raimaturapong: My collection is called “United” and I want to capture this sense of unity and celebration of different types of people in Thai society. This was expressed in the used of materials, I gathered silks from different weavers throughout the Isan region and mixing them with materials that can be found on the streets of Bangkok.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Rukpong Raimaturapong: I really opened my eyes and made me think about the process that I take in making the collection. I have thought a lot about how I sourced my materials and people who make the clothes and made sure I knew everyone along the way. It is also my job to tell their stories as well.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Rukpong Raimaturapong: For me sustainable fashion in the future will need to balance 2 things, materials and wearability. With this collection I hope I can shift a little bit the perception of a traditional fabric that feeds many household throughout Thailand in a more contemporary context both back at home and also in the west

ELINA SILINA

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Elina Silina: My collection is a celebration of craftsmanship, colour and my ancestry. It’s about two important women in my life, my mom and my grandmother, teaching me crafting skills and passing on wisdom from generations before me.

What has mentorship and participating in the prize/programme meant to you?

Elina Silina: For me the most relevant part of the mentorship was the focus on working together and collaborating with people working in various fields of design or professions. It showed me that there are so many sustainability pathways I could take and it sparked a greater wish to dive deeper into exploring these pathways.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Elina Silina: Humans have always been designers, all those great thinkers of the past whose ideas have shaped the world today in one way or another have been designers. The whole process of designing is driven by creativity, exploration, passion and going against the grain. This is what we need in the future, creative minds with passion for change, rebellious spirit and consciousness. I believe that we should never stop learning, we should never feel full and always have a thirst for knowledge. 

This is precisely the reason why I am continuing my education in sustainable fashion and textile design at Aalto University in Finland. I hope that during these two years of master’s studies I will be able to grapple with and somewhat comprehend the concepts of sustainable design for the future, and begin to realize myself as part of the community as someone who deserves to be there and has an input.

SOFIA ILLMONEN

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Sofia Ilmonen: The collection is about modular transformable design which allows endless possibilities for modification with just a move of buttons.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Sofia Ilmonen: I gained valuable information and some practical solutions from the top professionals in the fashion field. Moreover, being able to have an open conversation about sustainable fashion was refreshing and all in all the mentorship gave a lot of food for thought. The positive feedback has also encouraged me to carry on within the modular transformable world.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Sofia Ilmonen: I believe that the future of fashion lies in systematic change, where strategic innovations create opportunities to develop completely new sustainable ways of doing business. In practice the modular clothing concept could operate through a product-service system, where the collections are created using the same module format and the customers could have their existing module garment changed into a new season style through the service. This would aid the change towards a more circular economy from the predominant linear cycle in fashion.

LAIMA LURCA AND MARTA VEINBURGA

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Laima Lurca: “Collective Blanket” marries capitalism and Soviet times in an imaginary story, which is bold, colorful, and humorous.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Laima Lurca: For me, it was a big step forward, closer to making my brand more sustainable, as all the suggestions given by mentors were very detailed and reasonable. We analysed every look of the collection and for me, it was challenging to explain every sustainable aspect, but I think I did it well due to the comments of mentors. I am honestly so proud of the work I did for the sustainable look. I created a jacket from fabric scraps which were all cotton leftovers from the collection. I enjoyed the process so much and will develop this technique in my future work as well!

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Laima Lurca: As I mentioned before, the advice received from the mentorship I will implement in my future work. That means developing a zero waste practice.

VENLA ELONSALO

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Venla Elonsalo: My collection is fun and colourful womenswear collection that connects soft toys to fashion.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Venla Elonsalo: It has been a pleasure to take part in this. I have received good knowledge and guidance. It has been very important.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Venla Elonsalo: For me, the sustainable fashion of the future looks good as there has been very good development in more sustainable solutions. Of course, it still needs a lot of work.

IFEANYI OKWUADI

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Ifeanyi Okwaudi: My collection captures the spirit, determination and experiences of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Ifeanyi Okwaudi: The mentorship has really provided me with a stronger understanding of ways in which we can improve and make changes within our own practices to create a more harmonious relationship between us, our environments and communities.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Ifeanyi Okwaudi: I prefer the term ‘improvements’ rather than ‘sustainable’. Improvements meaning to always challenge myself through my work, finding new and better ways of operating within the fashion industry on all levels.

ARTTU ÅFELDT

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Arttu Åfeldt: Classic menswear, which is based on details and materials.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Arttu Åfeldt: On the mentorship I got a lot of information, and we had a good talk about how I could make better choices in terms of sustainability. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this mentorship.

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Arttu Åfeldt: It is essential for me that the fashion we produce today is long lasting and made of good quality materials that way we can ensure the longevity of the products and reduce the waste of the industry.

ADELINE RAPPAZ

Describe your collection in one sentence.

Adeline Rappaz: It’s a collection that wants to show that it’s possible to make High Fashion and precious fabrics with waste and scraps. It is inspired both by my hippy/punk artist parents who taught me do it yourself, ecology and counter culture and at the same time my passion for haute couture with its volumes, its luxury and its know-how. It is made entirely in up-cycling, with a deep work on materials through dyeing, embroidery and patchwork, And imposing cuts inspired by the evening gowns and bustiers of great designers like Balenciaga, Dior or Charles Fréderik Worth.

What has the mentorship and participating in the prize and programme meant to you?

Adeline Rappaz: As these issues are important to me, I was very happy that this mentorship existed. It allowed me to learn more and to think further. It’s always interesting to be able to share with professionals in your field who have an ecological and ethical conscience. It allows us to discuss concrete issues.

I also find that this mentoring brings visibility to all these issues and gives them more importance, which is a good thing for fashion. 

What does sustainable fashion in a future world look like to you and your work?

Adeline Rappaz: Given global warming and the state of the planet, we have no choice but to ask the question and act to drastically reduce our impact. Everyone is finally realising the scale of the problem. We can see that all the brands and groups are starting to think about how to reduce their impact and rethink fashion for greater sustainability. But the task is huge and we really need to be able to rethink our way of working and consuming in depth. 

The idea is to develop my brand by continuing to work on up-cycling and the different techniques I experimented with during this collection. To create an eco-responsible brand that works with local artisans. I like the idea of having a brand that not only creates clothes but also gives me the space to work with other mediums, like scenography, photography, ceramics or graphic design. What is important for me is to tell a story and create emotion.