Why Hedi Slimane Matters
As he shows Saint Laurent amid speculation about his future, an assessment of the designer’s legacy and impact on fashion, menswear, even Kanye West.
Today, Hedi Slimane will show his 14th collection for Saint Laurent at the Palladium in Los Angeles. Once again, he will do so against the backdrop of heightened expectations, as rumors swirl of his departure from the storied house he revitalized and made his own. In what has been a tumultuous year for luxury fashion, though, Slimane’s own exit would be the most consequential of all.
A withdrawn figure at a time when designers are encouraged to be ubiquitous on all media channels, Slimane, through his time at Dior Homme and later Saint Laurent, savvily cultivated a reputation as an avatar of cool in a way that makes him a player both in the fashion firmament and in pop culture. Should he leave, you can imagine Kanye West himself offering up a barrage of tweets on the subject. Though Saint Laurent’s official stance on the rumors is a terse “no comment,” no matter what happens Wednesday, Slimane has made sure all eyes are on him on the day before New York Fashion Week kicks off.
Although Christian Dior revolutionized post-war womenswear with his New Look, it would take more than 50 years and a young Parisian wünderkind for its menswear to be recognized as something more vital than just expensive accessories and colognes. Growing up in the racially diverse 19th arrondissement, Slimane was making his own clothes by the time he was 16. After moonlighting as a freelance art director and casting scout, he made the acquaintance of the fashion editor Stephen Gan in ‘90s New York and eventually caught the eye of influential fashion consultant Jean-Jacques Picart, who hired him as his assistant.
By 1996 — at age 28 — Slimane was appointed the director of Yves Saint Laurent’s menswear, but although his designs had been well-received, the arrival of Tom Ford as creative director in 1998 led to friction. “Reporting to Tom was not going to happen,” Slimane told The New Yorker a decade later. “He is not a designer. He is a marketing man.” Instead, Slimane took his talents to be creative director at Dior Monsieur, which he rebranded Dior Homme.
His appointment would be a watershed moment in men’s fashion: Although designers like Helmut Lang and Raf Simons also veered towards a skinnier shape in menswear, Slimane jumped to the forefront by interweaving the clothes with a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and attitude. His Dior was characterized by extremely skinny suits, cut with high armholes and sleeves so narrow they may as well have been full-length sphygmomanometer cuffs. More broadly, he ushered post-metrosexual men into the idea of being unabashed consumers of runway fashion, allowing them, finally, to have a bit of fun with their closets.
Thrilled with Dior Homme’s performance, LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton signed Slimane to a three-year deal in 2003. Not only was its chairman, Bernard Arnault, fond of wearing Slimane’s suits to public appearances, but so were the same rock stars the designer channeled in his collections, like Mick Jagger and David Bowie. No less an illustrious figure than Karl Lagerfeld became besotted with the young designer: “I think he did to men’s fashion what Armani did 20 years ago,” he once said. Slimane’s jeans inspired a Kanye West song: “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” which also features Kid Cudi rapping: “Dior, Dior, galore, I love the cut.”
There had been designers before who crossed over into pop culture — Saint Laurent himself was a vanguard in self-marketing. But Slimane’s trademark nonchalance nurtured a sophisticated and über-cool image that catapulted him to a place in the popular imagination that few modern fashion designers, with the possible exception of Lagerfeld and Ford, attained. By the time he left Dior in 2007, he had become synonymous with the radically altered new silhouette of menswear, a standard few could live up to, let alone his respected successor, Kris Van Assche.
With that, we come to Saint Laurent. Again. Slimane enjoyed a brief tenure of indulging his hobbies – music photography, lucrative ad campaigns, an editorial here and there for his old pal Stephen Gan — but eventually, he picked up the design bug again (François-Henri Pinault’s checkbook surely helped) and returned to the fold in 2012 on his own terms. He set up shop far away from the Paris ateliers in Los Angeles, a city that captivated him during his sabbatical, and he quickly dropped the “Yves” from the name of his collection, rebranding it simply “Saint Laurent.” His demand that credits be labeled as ‘Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane’ was mocked at the time but soon imitated by other designers, including Riccardo Tisci.
Expectations for his debut spring 2013 collection were staggeringly high. “Some of us will never know what it’s like to be preceded by a reputation for utter cool,” Women’s Wear Daily noted drolly. How was he going to live up to the hype? Slimane looked past his doubters and remade Saint Laurent in his image, sending out a grunge and rock-inspired line-up featuring his trademarks — slim denim, skinny silhouettes, pointed-toe Chelsea boots and a very West Coast aesthetic. Most daringly, he infused the label with a streetwear sensibility despite its blue-chip prices. The reaction was apoplectic. “The clothes held considerably less value than a box of Saint Laurent labels,” Cathy Horyn wrote in the New York Times. “Did Slimane offer a new, stunning prescription for edgy chic funneled through the Saint Laurent lexicon? Not even close,” was the WWD reaction. Even West turned heel when the designer demanded he turn down invitations to other shows if he wanted to attend the debut collection. West responding with the bombastic track “I Am a God” and by mocking Slimane in interviews.
Slimane knew something that Saint Laurent himself learned upon showing his infamous 1971 Libération collection: damn the critics, play to your customer. The clothes and accessories were wearable and uncomplicated — a familiar remix of his signatures at Dior Homme and YSL’s greatest hits — but deceptively well-constructed, luxury staples of the highest quality. Over time, he slyly recast the label as the ultimate clearinghouse of cool. He stocked his runways and campaigns with the impossibly hip musicians he’d been photographing for his personal blog Diary, allowing him to sound a dog whistle to young people who might not have been able to buy haute couture, but who could buy a sneaker or perfect leather jacket and then post their purchases on Instagram, using the #saintlaurent hashtag and tagging unofficial accounts like @clubsaintlaurentparis and @saintlaurent.gallery. In turn, that well-calibrated image made the label more coveted by women who could legitimately afford the clothes. And you know what? It worked. By 2014, Saint Laurent’s annual sales doubled to nearly $800 million, according to the label’s parent company Kering. No wonder he’s often mentioned as a candidate to replace Simons at Dior.
When he shows his men’s fall collection and the first part of women’s in L.A., he may again be greeted with derision from critics. But Slimane’s excellent sell-throughs underline there are plenty of people willing to spend money to live in his universe. And even if he steps down, the world he’s built at Saint Laurent will keep spinning. He’s always been more flattered by his customers than skeptics, anyway.
“The nicest thing for a designer, I suppose, is to see someone you absolutely don’t know in the street wearing your clothes,” Slimane once said. “That’s fantastic, and that means that the clothes are selling.”