Quietly turning away from the demands of rigorous marketing-driven storytelling, Jean-Pierre Blanc, the founder of the International Festival of Fashion and Photography in Hyères and notable director of Villa Noailles, has an altogether more modest approach.
“I don’t like stories,” says Jean-Pierre, before adding quickly, “At the same time, I love the ones I come up with myself! Novels and scenarios can completely bore me because there’s a beginning and an end and I was always discouraged by the word fin in a film.” The idea of an ending or a sense of completion is, for Jean-Pierre, not an idea worth entertaining. Thirty-one years ago he created the International Fashion and Photography Festival in the South of France—a progressive move in 1986 when Paris held center stage for the arts. By spotlighting new talent, Jean-Pierre was one of the first to encourage young artists and promote diversity—factors that he continues to strive for today.
Self-taught and equally as determined as he is modest, Jean-Pierre is driven by passion, friendship and generosity. This is why the cult fashion festivals, photography, design and architecture that he has created occupy a truly special place in the landscape of French creative platforms and take place in the modernist Villa Noailles, which Jean-Pierre is director of. Nestled in the hills of Hyères and designed in the ’30s by Mallet Stevens for Charles and Marie Laure Noailles, there’s a unique approach at play here—as one of the first modernist buildings in France with unrivalled views of the bay of Hyères it’s practical yet extensively elaborate.
Charles and Marie Laure were patrons of the arts and cinema enthusiasts, supporting both with particular admiration for the new and avant-garde. Art works from Brancusi, Mondrian, Dali and Giacometti were some of the first chosen for their own private collection. After Marie-Laure’s death in 1970, Villa Noailles was bought by the town of Hyères and while the heritage building was restored, the grounds were opened to the public. In 1996 the Villa became the event space for the International Festival of Fashion and Arts in Hyères—once again the villa became a place to foster new talent and propel designers and artists to a growing number of visitors.
The Exhibitions of Villa Noailles
Karl Lagerfeld, Arnold Gordon and more at the modernist villa
“We built these adventures from the heart, with the love of people and of life.”
“We built these adventures from the heart, with the love of people and of life. We never said we’ll put flowers on the counter because it will produce some particular effect. Everything was done at the mercy of chance and encounters,” explains Jean-Pierre of his approach that’s far away from the usual format common to Parisian circles. “This is what gives the whole thing its beauty, no doubt, but also its immense fragility,” he continues while making an overt reference to the prototyping of the Château Saint Pierre, which was ravaged by fire in mid-October.
For this native of Les salins d’Hyères—the seaside neighborhood where contests of pétanque (a local kind of lawn bowling) take place during the design and interior architecture festival known as Design Parade—the passion in general, and that of fashion in particular, serve as a truly unifying theme. “A sort of escape: I see myself flipping through the City magazine dreaming of fashion and imagining myself understanding it, knowing it. The people of Paris or other capitals can’t imagine how vital magazines are in the provinces, although nowadays we do have that connection with the Internet. I also did some growing up in nightclubs and perhaps it was there that the spectacular side of fashion affected me as well.” Jean-Pierre adds soberly. “I earned a degree in international business in Toulon and my final dissertation was to create a festival that would make the connection between fashion designers and professionals.”
“In a simple and small local organization, things were accelerated by a story of friendship, trust and life.”
Soon after its inception in 1986, the International Competition for Young Stylists as it was called then, revealed year after year the best Belgian, Dutch, Finnish talents. “In 1992, Didier [Grumbach], the then president of Thierry Mugler, agreed to serve on the jury. We became friends and he agreed to chair the association in 1998. That was an incredible stage of development since Didier introduced a board of directors that was a real dream team.” A dream team that included Marie-Claude Beaud, Andrée Putman and Isabelle Bourgeois to name a few. “In a simple and small local organization, things were accelerated by a story of friendship, trust and life.” The festival is known globally for giving a platform to emerging designers, artists and photographers—many of whom go on to become established names in their field.
“If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing, that much is for sure.”
On the short list of famous designers that emerged in Hyères, Viktor & Rolf, Felipe Oliveira Baptista and Julien Dossena featured as prominently for fashion as Sølve Sundsbø and Camille Vivier did for photography and Nacho Carbonell, Brynjar Sigurdarson and Constance Guisset for design. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As Jean-Pierre recalls: “In 1989, Sami Tillouche came to present his men’s collection at the festival and Hedi Slimane showed for him that year.” Hence this incredible sense of family that endures and innervates each event at the villa, merging all disciplines. For Jean-Pierre: “They’re merely human adventures and this is why it’s the adventure of my life. Three quarters of the people I met here have become friends. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing, that much is for sure.”
Jean-Pierre recharges his surprising level of energy by observing the happiness of the talents that blossom as they pass through the villa—and with the growing public interest that accompanies them. A modernist home that has become a place of openness and forward-thinking initiatives, not to mention the wonder spot for many films: “I could watch the film Les Mystères du Château de Dé by Man Ray, every day. It was filmed here at the villa.” Other films financed by the original owners, Charles and Marie-Laure included Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film Le Sang d’un Poete and Salvador Dali’s L’Age d’Or—the latter of which was censored for fifty years after its release.
“No noise, no cars, no scooters, no streetlights, no billboards, no running water.”
He also regularly takes refuge in his small home on the island of Le Levant as often as he can, just a stone’s throw from Hyères. “It’s the only one of the three islands where you have an endless view of the sea from anywhere, just like Santorini,” he explains. “No noise, no cars, no scooters, no streetlights, no billboards, no running water.” A perfect destination to disconnect and even for a (paradoxical) fashion detox, as the island is a nudist paradise. “Yes, you can look at it that way, but this is only the first impression because Le Levant, at least Heliopolis [the main village], was never a nudist island and the tradition calls for elegant dress in the evenings.
“Personally, I love being naked and if I could be all the time, I would,” he says, as we head down to the water for a swim. “In the perfectly Levantine way of doing things, however, you must have a pareo and they really can be wonderful. For a time, there was even in a small local industry that made so-called “minimums” (a restyled sarong) and leather sandals, called “Levantines”, which appeared in Paris Match magazine in 1939. But in all honesty, there’s also an important homosexual history on Le Levant—and I’m gay so this is an environment that’s unopposed to my way of living. That said, it’s the cultural adventure of the island through the films and photographs produced there that captivate me even more.” But, he concludes, “I’m not sure if it will last long as the Levant is now experiencing some real hype. Hype. I hate that word.”
Thank you, Jean-Pierre, for taking sharing the dream of Villa Noailles and the island of Le Levant, your inspiring Island paradise.
You can read more about the past winners of the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography, and its future plans here.
Inspired by sojourns in the South of France? Check out our other portraits in the country here.