Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:20 am

Why Cannes is film’s own fashion week

The festival has become the single most important film event of the year in marketing terms

Forget Easter parades, with their flower-bedecked hats and pastel prints. Forget May day, and dancing around a ribbon-strewn pole among the crocuses. Forget those few days in April when the mercury suddenly hit shorts-wearing heights and all the tulips came up. It’s not until I hear the words “Cannes Film Festival” that my mind truly turns to summer style.

Maybe it’s the hundreds of pictures of film stars on the Croisette, faces framed by the Mediterranean in the background. Maybe it’s that with all those press calls and interview duties, Cannes forces celebs to sport day wear as well as red carpet wear. But I think it’s mostly to do with the fact that Cannes has become probably the single most important film festival of the year in marketing terms – and I’m not talking about movie marketing.

The Sundance Film Festival is known for being fun and funky, but it’s cold – it takes place in Utah, in January – so everyone is wearing puffa jackets, knit hats and flannel shirts: not the sort of clothes you see and think, “Oh, I should rush out and shop now”. Also, not the sort of atmosphere that lends itself to red carpet moments.

Venice is glamorous, but more “arty” and smaller (also, it takes place in August, when everyone is on holiday, and all those canal and boat arrivals mitigate against major paparazzi moments); ditto Deauville. Tribeca, which recently ended, is spread throughout the grey streets of New York, and though it always features a big dinner courtesy of Chanel, complete with many Chanel-clad celebrities, it is run by the publicity-shy Robert De Niro, and centred around independent film. It doesn’t have the budget for blow-outs.

By contrast, Cannes seems ever more fashion-focused. This year, for example, for the first time a fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier, has been chosen as a member of the jury. The festival’s official “icon” – aka the face on all their posters and promotional materials – is that perennial fashion inspiration Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, when announcing the choice, the organisers explained: “The festival is a temple of glamour and Marilyn is its perfect incarnation.”

Chopard and L’Oréal are headline sponsors, as usual; Swarovski has created 1,800 pieces specifically for the Cannes attendees; Chanel ambassador Diane Kruger is also on the jury, which should guarantee at least 10 days worth of fabulous gowns as she attends various evening screenings (think of the precedent Sharon Stone set when she was a jury member in 2002); Gucci is presenting a film it has restored in partnership with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, complete with Gucci-sponsored dinner at the Hotel du Cap; and, of course, there is a paparazzo’s dream line-up of female celebrities set to walk the red carpet.

. . .

This year the names will include Kristen Stewart, who is not only a star of Walter Salles’s upcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but the “face” of Balenciaga’s new perfume, which suggests there will be a lot of Nicolas Ghesquière-designed frocks on show (Stewart was front and centre at his last ready-to-wear show). Then there’s Tilda Swinton, who has become a loyal Haider Ackermann muse – her appearance at Cannes last year for We Need to Talk About Kevin in draped jewel tones was widely applauded, and transformed Ackermann’s public profile. This year, Swinton stars in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which opens the festival.

Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman has two films showing (Hemingway & Gellhorn and The Paperboy) which means multiple opportunities for the show-stopping gowns she favours. Also due to appear are Kirsten Dunst, a big Chanel fan; Jessica Chastain, whose strapless gold-embroidered Alexander McQueen gown at the Oscars was a staple of all the “Top Ten” lists; and Reese Witherspoon, whose pregnancy chic has inspired how-to-dress stories. Finally, Brad Pitt is on the guest list thanks to his film Killing Them Softly, and if his fiancée, aka Angelina Jolie, also shows up ...

The point is, it all adds up to a fashion week by another name. Certainly there will be enough frocks on view and in magazines to rival the runways of the Big Four ready-to-wear cities, but even better: here we get runway to reality, not just runway. (Before you say anything: granted, it’s not everyone’s reality, but at least the models are generally of the more mature, even child-bearing, years – and hips.)

And this, I think, is key – perhaps ultimately the key to why Cannes functions so effectively as a fashion show. For those of us at home, schooled by the internet and the high street in immediate gratification, reading about a film that we cannot view anywhere from weeks to months to maybe never can be immensely frustrating. But at least we can see the outfits and, often, try them on (or “homages” that look a lot like them) shortly thereafter in stores. In this way the fashion becomes a stand-in for the films: a way of buying into that slice of culture before the culture itself is available.

Or maybe it just looks pretty. Either way, as far as I’m concerned, the opening ceremony is the equivalent of Pavlov’s bell: it sounds, and we start to dress.

For the best red carpet looks from Cannes last year, go to www.ft.com/redcarpet

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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