Pale & Interesting. May 2013.

Dear Rowley,

I’ve been keeping rather a hawk’s eye watch on the Cannes Film Festival in advance of the amfAR show and dinner next week. As you know it is aeons ago since I last reported on the women’s runway collections for the FT but I’ve got to say Cannes has made me think that fashion is a subject of fascination again. At Cannes there was a marked absence of heinous digital print that looks like a cross between a Damien Hirst splatter painting and something unpleasant you’d spy down a microscope in a petri dish.

Gone too are pointless details: explosions of ruffles placed at the most unflattering points on a woman’s body, maternity wear peplums, cutaway necklines that defy dignity and experiments in asymmetry that would have had Madame Vionnet reaching for the sal volatile. There’s a cleansing of the palette that isn’t leading us back to minimalism but does say something entirely new and entirely now. I call it a strong modesty first seen when elfish, elegant Carey Mulligan chose an edgy black knee-length Balenciaga for the Met Ball this year embellished by a single gold safety pin brooch: the sole concession to the Punk: From Chaos to Couture exhibition theme.

The Met was just the prelude for Mulligan’s appearance at Cannes. Nothing could prepare for the purity and beauty of the blush pink silk Dior Couture dress she wore for the premier of The Great Gatsby. I haven’t seen the movie yet but the trailer and stills promise that Mulligan’s Prada-clad Daisy Buchanan will make as profound a fashion moment as Mia Farrow in the 1974 film. But back to that Dior. I have huge respect for John Galliano’s dreamlike work as creative director of Dior but Raf Simons’ work for the house is a game-changer.

Mulligan’s Dior dress combined delicacy and superb construction; falling to the red carpet from a halter neckline, fitted at the waist and hips then fanning out into a perfectly proportioned train. With hair undressed and only Tiffany diamond drop earrings and a line bracelet as embellishment, Mulligan looked ethereal, elegant and, most importantly, at ease with her age and the age. Nicole Kidman, a member of the 66th Cannes Film Festival jury, showed the artistry of Raf Simons at the Gatsby premier and why he is the new master of modern couture.

Kidman’s Dior was a pretty sugar pink silk ballerina line cut as a high bustier, nipped into the waist then gently falling to mid-calf in a pretty bell-shaped silhouette. The dress was overlaid with a filigree layer of embroidered, beaded floral openwork in a colour drift from powder pastel to neon. The hot coral flowers that danced along the hem of the dress were picked up in a pair of eye-popping neon stilettos. Not a jewel touched the bare arms or neck but Kidman’s upswept hair showed off delicate solitaire diamond studs.

Emma Watson confirmed the new mood of strength and subtlety when she arrived in Cannes yesterday to promote Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring. There was a fascinating shot of her posing on the Croisette wearing a wine coloured Christopher Kane mini dress smiling knowingly in front of the banks of cameras: a young woman in command of her career who needs neither plunging necklines nor status jewels to sell her ‘brand’ . Interesting too that Watson wore not a single jewel at the premier that night allowing her black sequin and ivory silk Chanel column dress to shine.

In comparison model du jour Cara Delevingne looked distinctly retrospective modelling a black lace Burberry red carpet dress and Chopard diamond necklace, drop earrings and ring. The hair and make-up was Jerry Hall circa 1979 and rather too heavy for such a lovely young face. She reminded me of Ingrid Thulin in the last scene of Visconti’s The Damned. Delevingne had clearly been briefed to pose with hand on shoulder to show ring, necklace and earrings in a single shot: inadvertently showing off her latest finger tattoo. Next to Mulligan, Watson and Kidman, Delevingne appeared strangely old-fashioned.

Cannes is catnip for designers because, unlike the Oscars, all the stars are in town for the duration so it’s a marathon of day and evening dress culminating in the amfAR evening at the Hotel du Cap. It also looks like rather fun in comparison to the Oscars and Met Ball in New York. The latter always strikes me as a rather stressful affair. Fashion and film collide on the red carpet and nobody seems to be having a particularly amusing time. The dress code is dictated by Vogue editor Anna Wintour who in the case of Punk: From Chaos to Couture this year chose to ignore the theme entirely leaving her guests who’d made the effort looking rather foolish.

That said, I adored the insanity of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Giles graffiti ball gown accessorised with a Philip Treacy feathered mohican headpiece and Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles. Madonna pitched up wearing a Givenchy couture tweed shorts suit, ripped fishnets, support stocking and a black nylon Bettie Page wig. Though 10 out of 10 for effort, comparisons with Hilary – ex Dragon’s Den – Devey were forthcoming. As Georges says in La Cage Aux Folles ’there comes a time in every Salome’s life when she cannot afford to drop the seventh veil’.

Until next time…