"I'm a big narrative person. I love a narrative," he says. "The year that Elle Fanning was at Cannes and just said, 'Look, look, look, hat, look, hat, shades, look' — I was like, 'Y'all better work. I'm looking, I'm searching, I'm keeping up. Y'all came to serve.'"
The moments that have stuck with him over the years are those that convey a message and say something about the person wearing the clothes. "Another person who really touched me was Spike Lee. What that meant for the community to have Spike as a judge wearing Virgil Abloh's Louis Vuitton... There's so much noise now. When people are like, 'Oh, this is intentional. There's thought behind this' — that's how you captivate an audience," he says.
This is Smith and Emiston's second Cannes Film Festival working as a duo, and they continue to support primarily emerging talent, or people that are using this as an opportunity to present a new side of themselves at one of the most-followed carpets on the calendar. This year's slate includes Sabrina Elba, Naama Preis, Kristine Kujath, Mehdi Dehbi and Kristoffer Borgli, among others.
Festivals like Cannes are first and foremost about marketing, for both the project and the talent. This is the starting point of a film's promotional cycle, after all: By the time the BAFTAs and Oscars roll around, these projects have been out there — critics have raved about them, audiences have seen them, stakeholders have voted for them. However, at a place like Cannes, you're trying to drum up excitement for it. Before you even start thinking about that, though, you have to talk about access, argues Smith.
"I think for stylists that look like myself or stylists that come from marginalized communities, we were never included in the conversations around luxury, and unfortunately that means we weren't included in conversations around film festivals," he says. "Cannes, Tribeca, Venice... This is the crème de la crème of the film world, and those were just conversations that we weren't a part of — unless, by chance, there was a minority actor who might have had a film there, but often it's the case that, because these people are trying to get into these rooms, they feel like they have to have a proximity to whiteness to gain that access, which is completely understandable. However, I quickly realized when I worked at Vogue that there was something to be said for looking out for young talent and emerging talent, because you hope that the younger generations are a little bit more clued up and are also trying to shift and change narratives that could possibly be an entry point for you to get access to this growth. And that's exactly how I have managed to get access."
That's how Smith started working with two of his biggest clients, Ariana DeBose (an Instagram DM) and Naomi Scott (an instant chemistry on set for a magazine shoot). He himself was able to attend his first Cannes because of the late publicist Salvo Nicosia, who he calls his "fashion godfather," who invited him to stay with him at the festival "when I barely had enough money for the EasyJet ticket": "I remember he said to me, 'You can stay with me, and we'll figure the rest out when you get here.' He saw what I see in these people that I work with. He saw the potential and the growth and the possibility. Because of him, I am where I am in my career."
Beyond being an industry event, millions of people log on to see the looks on the red carpet and read the latest on the films premiering in the south of France. With so many eyeballs on Cannes — and on the fashion, specifically — it's a massive opportunity for both actors and their glam teams. Still, it's more so an investment: Though styling plays an integral role in this opportunity that can crown a new face or build buzz around a performance, it can be pretty low on the priority when it comes to budget.
"One of the things that I'm going to be very vocal about moving forward is the state of financials for creatives," says Smith. "At festivals, these films are trying to get distributors. They're trying to get people to buy them so that they can get them spread out across cinemas, across the world, get the eyes on them. They don't have large budgets; styling is the last thing that they think about — they have to fly the talent in, they've had to put the talent up. Everyone at that stage is trying to get the coins."
Still, many understand the value of making an impression on this stage. Cannes is "a big validation point across several sectors," Smith says. "That's why Sarah and I made it an important factor for our business. We heavily invest in Cannes, most of the time at a loss for the business because we're working with younger stars, but we do it because we see something in that actor, that actress. That film might go somewhere. This is where you have to be able to take a risk and a gamble. This is where stars and dreams are born."
We've seen time and time again the world be introduced to the Next Big Thing on the red carpet at Cannes. It could be an actor making their silver screen debut, or a familiar face that's reintroducing themselves in a new role. Take Elba, for instance: Up until now, she's been primarily known as a model and a philanthropist, but she's making her acting debut in a film premiering at Cannes. Smith and Edmiston have been styling her as she makes this shift.
"This is the moment where she's going to say to the world, 'I'm an actress,' because you have the most density of eyes looking at you," says Smith. "Also, there's that step of validation. Okay, you're in a film with Tilda Swinton, you're at Cannes — yes, tick. You have on the jewels and the diamonds and the couture, yes."
Since Smith and Edmiston first teamed up in the summer of 2020, the styling duo has worked with a long list of talent on their Cannes debuts: Preis, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Amir Jadidi in 2021; Elba, Kujath, Dehbi, Borgli, Odin Lund Biron, Izabel Mar, Lauren Lakis and Sam Kamerman in 2022.
"Cannes is almost like a members club. If you can gain entry at any level, it provides you with credibility," says Smith. "As I would say to my young stars, this is an audition. As soon as you hit that carpet, you need to have an email drafted in your inbox — who's that dream agent, that dream publicist that you've always wanted? That director that you've always wanted to work with? Because when you send that email after you had a film at Cannes, guess what? That click-ability is going to be much higher."
Of course, getting the invitation is only part of that equation. With so much noise and over a week's worth of carpets, you want to think about how you can break through that.
"We're trying to create moments that when our client hits the carpet with their cast, they stand out," says Smith. "You want people to be like, 'Oh wow, there's a cast, but wait, who's that girl?' This is where fashion speaks volume. The carpet is insane — I always say to my clients, 'This and the Met Gala are probably the most intense carpets you'll ever do in your career.' For us, as always, we're trying to honor the authenticity of the client and honor who they want to be." Still: "You want to show up and show out."
Often, we'll see a lot of custom looks from the biggest fashion houses on the Cannes red carpet. The process for getting these, according to Smith, is "much quicker" compared to other events. This year, him and Edmiston had four clients with just-for-them ensembles.
"The way that we always do is we start a conversation. We say, 'What's the inspiration? And why are we doing custom?' It's the why. Let's just not do custom for the sake of doing custom," he says. "Sabrina came to us and was like, 'I'm inspired by Queen of Sheba.' She had the fabric, she had a PDF, and I was like, 'Cool. There's not a designer right now who's making that silhouette or doing that, so this has to be custom, so that we can honor your voice.' And when we had her fitting, she said, 'This is the best custom that I've had, and I feel like I've really been listened to.' The custom process for us is much quicker, but it's much more intentional."
If they decide to go the runway route, the challenge can be getting brands to loan clothes for talent that isn't quite established just yet. "There are a few brands who I must applaud, who I've watched take chances and take risks, who I have really great relationships with — Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Valentino," he says. "I'll reach out to them and say, 'I have this young, new talent that I'm trying to break. Can you support?'"
Cultivating those relationships with brands, Smith continues, is key not only because they'll come through with the product, but because they can help the talent feel at ease at a really nerve-wracking moment of their lives and careers.
"You think about which brands made that easy, because you have to also remember these are ingenues, young actors — they're nervous. I want to partner with brands who make the fitting pleasant and easy, who you can call last minute, like, 'Oh my God, I need a dress right now. The carpet is in two hours.' That literally happened," he says. "What you learn is, 'That brand was very difficult to work with. Let's try to alleviate all the stress and let's work with our friends.' By the time you get to Cannes, you've had a whole awards season and you've finished Met, so you know who the people you can rely on and you can depend on are. And you want to be fabulous... You start strategizing, and you start strategizing with people who you want to go the distance with."
The Cannes red carpet, Smith argues, "could make someone a star — that's why I always say to my people, it's important that you have a shit-hot team. If there's a synergy between stylist, publicist, agent and the film team, and you get all those people on the same page and you guys are all shouting and making the noise together, it will be the shout that's heard across the world. 100%."
That's why, when it comes to the fashion, he continues, it's "all systems go."
"You want to do a long train, do that long train. You want to wear all the diamonds, wear all the diamonds. You want to have the biggest bustle, we'll have the biggest bustle. You want to plunge to below your belly button, plunge it down. Try it out, and see what happens," he says. "I think that's what Cannes is about, because after you leave, then it's about being like, 'So, that worked, that didn't work.' Now you get on more specific carpets. Also, because Cannes is so international, it's a mixture of taste. For instance, if your premiere is in New York, you want to think, 'This is a New York audience.' If you're in London, you'll be like, 'Let's do a London designer.' So that experimentation component also comes with the Cannes carpet."
Smith describes his and Edmiston's roster as "the United Nations of styling": "We're not just styling the prototypical leading man and woman. It really is this eclectic mix of personalities, of individuals who are all willing to create art and have their voice be heard."
Ultimately, he says, "To be a part of that in any capacity and to help elevate their narrative through the fashion is the most rewarding and tiring and exhausting thing ever."