It's that time of year again. Within the next two days the twinkliest stars Hollywood has to offer will be making the long journey to Europe (or as we call it, "France") to descend upon their raggedy-toothed, chain-smoking old-world counterparts.
No, it's not a declaration of cosmetic warfare, it's the 2011 Cannes Film festival, aka the first day of the jetset summer (or, at least, the beginning of a fresh, 12-month-long cycle of bellinis and bikinis, for the right people in the right places).
Though you might be forgiven for thinking that the point of the whole thing is for audiences to view and absorb the latest masterworks from the world's leading directors (Woody Allen's kicking it off with his latest, Midnight in Paris, while Lars Von Trier's premiering apocalyptic romance Melancholia), that would be to miss out on the real news of the coming weeks: who wore what, where, how and with whom.
Yes, Cannes is something of an annual fashion show, with its main runway, the Promenade de la Croisette typically packed with the greatest (and latest) summer smart-casual looks. Of course it's the women that are going to get all the press, with their Balmain-this and glittery-vintage-that, but there's also a wonderful tradition of male dress that's typified by Cannes, a kind of Riviera snappiness that's remained much the same since the mid-20th century. Think Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief, dandling around Côte D'Azur towns in a linen jacket, open-necked shirt and knotted cravat. Or Sean Connery in Cannes for the premiere of The Hill in 1965, surrounded by bikini-clad beauties and wearing a striped Hawaiian shirt and white chinos.
The French Riviera look is a light, summery style that hasn't ever really gone out of fashion. But nevertheless it seems to be, for want of a better word, back, on this season's menswear runways. Massimiliano Giornetti at Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, constructed his dandyish, supremely elegant spring 2011 men's collection from memories of a summer spent in the south of France, channelling historic holidaymakers Picasso and Cocteau in cream double- breasted jackets, slit-neck striped knits and contrasting knotted scarves in bright yellow.
Junya Watanabe, the protégé of Comme Des Garçons' arch-deconstructionist Rei Kawakubo, fielded a surprisingly straightforward collection that reworked nautical dress, with blazers in denim pastels and cream worn over Breton stripe tees and wide-legged, docker-style trousers. Perhaps what might have happened if Steve McQueen had ever survived to wander into Dover Street Market one day.
In London, Margaret Howell offered a more muted take on the look in a seaside palette of pastel blue, bright white and sand. Rumpled navy jackets were worn over pristine, wide-necked shirts, and fine-knit striped tees were paired with pleated linen-mix chinos.
"I think come summertime there's always an element of Riviera, nautical or seaside styling," says Lee Douros, menswear buyer for the London-based fashion e-tailer My-Wardrobe.com, whose Croisette-ready offerings this spring include neat linen blazers (from Swedes Our Legacy), Breton tops (from Hartford and YMC) and Sebago deck shoes in pretty much every colourway available. "It's such a strong thing for men – it's easy to pull off and look good," says Douros. "Not just shorts and a T-shirt, but a dapper approach to summer dressing. Turned out and with lightweight layers."
One of the best things about the male Cannes wardrobe is that "it doesn't change much", Douros observes. The basic look is simple: a light linen blazer with pale chinos in white, blue or beige, teamed with a Breton stripe tee or a square-necked, pastel shirt. The precariously jaunty neck scarf is optional, but if you're going to go for Gallic gold it's best in a Grant-esque polka dot.
Timeless it may be, but the look seems particularly right this spring. Mei Chung, men's buyer for forward-looking London boutique Browns, attributes this in part to menswear's most recent obsession – as he puts it: "The Fifties and Sixties culture of art, design food, travel, film... think Mad Men." Browns itself has made a marked commitment to Riviera-tinged smart-casual wear for spring by becoming the first UK shop to stock preppy, yacht-y American label Club Monaco (who also happen to be doing a fine striped sweater at the moment). Though the brand's name is almost enough to prove its coastal credentials, the clothes back it up: a smart mix of classic Americana and louche, European elegance. Yes, very Los Angeles à la Cannes. Chung describes it as "perfect to kick off our UK spring and summer time". And it's pretty hard to argue with that.