Forget fashion shows. When red-carpet snaps whizz ‘round the world faster than the speed of gossip, a photograph of the right star in a certain designer’s gown can move product more effectively than any ad campaign.
The nexus of red-carpet dressing—fashion’s favourite spectator sport—is the Cannes Film Festival. Over 12 days and nights of photo calls, premieres, yacht parties, press conferences and charity galas, actresses can attract the right kind of attention through canny dressing choices.
And fashion houses can reach audiences who would never be moved to click between runway looks during show season.
‘It’s great exposure in terms of red-carpet presence,’ says Emilie Legendre, Group Communication Manager for Elie Saab. ‘Mr Saab thinks that the red carpet is the best catwalk you can imagine. Customers identify more easily with actresses, who are real women, than with models, who are usually very tall and skinny.’
Elie Saab is one of a number of European fashion houses that set up camp in Cannes for the duration of the festival, with a brief of catering to the stars’ dressing needs.
Legendre and her team begin preparing for Cannes as soon as festival organisers release details of the Official Selection, around mid-April. A number of actresses undergo fittings in the weeks before Cannes so they can arrive at the festival with the reassurance of knowing they have something beautiful to wear.
Then, one week before the festival, the press team packs nearly 100 fashion items—ready-to-wear and haute couture gowns for red-carpet events, shorter looks for photo calls, plus shoes, handbags, jewellery, garment bags, tissue paper, mannequins, a steamer and a sewing machine—into a lorry for a careful drive down to Cannes.
They install these pieces in a suite at the Martinez hotel, ground zero for Cannes glamour. Rails of dream gowns in ice-blue lace and emerald sequins encircle a dressing area and a table of accessories. Appointments start almost immediately, with actresses and stylists streaming in and out for fittings.
All the dresses are samples, sewn to fit tall, thin runway models rather than actresses. To remedy that, Elie Saab has Linda, a seamstress as discreet as she is expert. From her perch behind a rail of haute couture, Linda raises hems, narrows sleeves and magically extends waistlines, teasing fabric from within gowns to make them a smidgen more accommodating.
If more sweeping alterations are required, the team can usually obtain more fabric, at least for in-season gowns. In the case of vintage dresses, Linda has been known to dismantle matching dresses from the same collection to carve out extra fabric.
All of this, and there’s no guarantee that actresses will ever wear their chosen gowns. So much could change—actresses’ minds, the weather—that press teams never announce who they’re dressing until the actress actually sets foot on the red carpet.
‘Mr Saab has a real policy of never chasing actresses,’ says Louise Kahrmann, PR manager for the house. ‘We never, ever pay anybody to wear our dresses or attend our events. And because we don’t pay, you never know. But normally when they reach the alterations stage, it’s because they want to wear the dress.’
If the set-up sounds inviting, it’s also very exclusive.
‘We always try to make sure we dress people who have something to do with the festival,’ Legendre explains. ‘We always give priority to the actresses in competition, or jury members, or someone coming to present a prize, because we feel they are entitled to have a larger choice.
‘And also, we dress the people we have longer-term relationships with, who have been faithful to the brand for many years. They know that they can call us and we will always find a way to dress them.’
Several dressing commitments on the same night requires careful agenda-juggling to avoid taxing Linda’s capacity for alterations, and alienating potential Elie Saab faithful.
The only event that compares in terms of the scale of preparation is the Oscars, and that’s just one night—Cannes lasts for 12.
‘For the Oscars, you prepare for one week, and then you only have one night. If you don’t dress the people that you want to dress, there’s no other night, whereas in Cannes, you have 10 more days when you can work on it again. It’s much more pressure.’
It’s a marathon, but Legendre and her team aren’t complaining.
‘There are really worse conditions,’ she says, ‘than working surrounded by these beautiful gowns.’