Hedi Slimane: The designer dividing the fashion world

The French designer Hedi Slimane has put noses out of joint and scandalised the fashion world with “disrespectful behaviour” and a puzzling recent collection. But Maya Singer detects method in his madness.

Fashion month is upon us. New York, London, Milan, Paris, and by October 2nd, the last official day of shows, we’ll have seen about a thousand collections, and formed a solid sense of what’s in store for Spring 2014, at least when it comes to clothes. The fashion weeks can be hard work of late, but every so often, something really interesting happens.

Last year, as the industry geared up for Spring ’13, there was the genuine sense of a moment. Two of the most compelling and intelligent designers around, Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, had just taken over two of the most important Paris houses, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The fashion world was giddy with anticipation of what these men would send down the runway in their first ready-to-wear outings for the brands.

Of the two, Simons was more of a known quantity. In addition to designing his eponymous menswear line, Simons had spent seven years as the creative director of Jil Sander, where he’d proved his acumen as a designer of women’s clothes. Beyond that, he’d already made his debut at Dior, showing a couture collection that showcased his absolute fluency with the fashion house’s particular way of doing things.

Slimane was the wild card. In 2000, he took over as the designer of Dior Homme – a perch Slimane transformed into a bully pulpit. His influence was massive. At Dior Homme, he introduced the rock-inspired, ostentatiously narrow silhouette that ultimately defined the look of the ‘00s. (Think skinny jeans.)  And then, after reinventing style in his own image, Slimane flew the fashion coop. In 2007, he left Dior Homme, moved to Los Angeles, and focused on his work as a photographer. Rumour had it that he’d retired from fashion design forever. And then, five years later, with just as much suddenness, he was back.

Notes on a scandal

And Slimane made it very clear that he was out to shake the dust off Yves Saint Laurent. Hackles were raised when he announced that he’d be relocating the YSL design studio from Paris to Los Angeles, and again when Slimane changed its official name to Saint Laurent Paris and updated the logo to feature a clean, sans serif font. Quelle horreur! But the real controversies were still ahead. Last October, in Paris, as Slimane at last unveiled his first Saint Laurent collection, he saw fit to seat some of the biggest wigs in the fashion press in the second or third rows. Some editors even had to stand. It was seen as a slap in the face, and more than a few journalists called Slimane out in their reviews of the show for being disrespectful and exclusionary. Most of them also dismissed the clothes. The general critical sentiment was summed up by Cathy Horyn of the The New York Times, who wrote: “the collection was a nice but frozen vision of a bohemian chick at [LA hotel] the Chateau Marmont….. There wasn’t something new to learn here.” Ouch.

Many expected that Slimane would make his peace with the editors in his follow-up show. But if the seating was less controversial last season, the clothes were even more so. Whether you loved the collection or hated it, there was no escaping the fact that Slimane had produced a very straightforward homage to the ‘90s grunge era. Fashion folk are used to designers referencing bygone styles, but they expect those riffs to involve a certain amount of reinterpretation; Slimane’s take was so literal as to be perplexing. What on earth was he up to? Was this a comment on fashion’s penchant for recycling? A vacuous effort, no better than Topshop?  Or something else entirely? Some natterers complained that Slimane, with his scruffy Courtney Love-alikes, had insulted Yves Saint Laurent’s legacy, and permanently alienated the house’s chic customer base. Others wondered if he hadn’t gotten to the heart of YSL by referencing Yves Saint Laurent’s own interest in street style and his way of designing for a cadre of muses.

That grunge collection, which is now in stores, is still a subject of heated debate in fashion circles. I’m not exaggerating when I say I know people who are actually enraged by it. I’m not enraged, but I continue to be perplexed. Slimane is an enigma, and I’d love to understand what, exactly, his motivations are as a designer. I suspect he’s on to something – an idea about how luxury fashion ought to communicate itself that goes far beyond clothes.

Sell sell sell

And so the day after the Saint Laurent show last March in Paris, at the moment of highest dudgeon for Slimane, I found myself killing some time at the concept store of clothing and accessory retailer, Colette. There was a display of the new Saint Laurent Paris handbags, and I found myself lingering there, snapping the bags open and shut, trying them on, checking myself out in the mirror with them slung over my shoulder. I am emphatically not an ‘it bag’ girl – but I really, really, really wanted one of those Saint Laurent bags. I wanted one so bad it hurt.

And so, when people would ask me what I thought about the Saint Laurent show, I would shrug my shoulders, and say – honestly – “I don’t know.” And then I would add, “But I bet that stuff is going to sell like hotcakes.”

Now, as we head into a new round of shows, I thought I’d check out that assessment with Justin O’Shea, the buying director at online retailer Mytheresa.com. O’Shea has invested heavily in Saint Laurent Paris, and as he told me, that has as much to do with Slimane’s overarching vision for the brand as it does the inherent strength or saleability of any individual item.

“First and foremost, he’s a master at branding,” O’Shea said. “He asserts a look, or an attitude, and he sticks by it. I mean, when you get up close to the clothes, they are absolutely beautiful. The fabrics are amazing. It’s very, very luxurious. But we’re an online retailer; it’s hard for us to sell that quality. But what we can sell is the brand. Hedi has created this ‘cool kid’ club, and you don’t get to be in that club if you’re wearing a knockoff. What matters,” O’Shea continues, “is that little tag inside, at the back.”

O’Shea’s take on Slimane, and his modus operandi at Saint Laurent, strikes me as quite canny. It’s very easy for a fast fashion retailer like Zara to knock off a print or a silhouette. What they can’t knock off is an essence. Slimane is conjuring an attitude – cosmopolitan bohemian, let’s call it – and what matters to him in a collection is how well it elaborates that mood. What doesn’t matter, at all, are the opinions of the reviewers in the front row. Other designers may sink or swim based on critical reception to a collection, but Slimane has made Saint Laurent critic-proof. At his first show, editors complained that their backbench seats made them feel like they didn’t matter. The truth is – they don’t.

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