Master Class: Hedi Slimane
Master Class: Hedi Slimane
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date August 2, 2016
You know a Hedi Slimane design the moment you see it. While many designers struggle to adapt their tastes to a burgeoning fashion market, Slimane has established his own brand of signatures, styles, and inspirations all without ever founding a fashion house that bears his name on the door. By revolutionizing, and, in some ways, defining some of Paris' most illustrious maisons, the Frenchman's aesthetic reaches far beyond the ateliers of Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent.
Born in Paris to an Italian mother and Tunisian father, Slimane's earliest (and perhaps longest-lasting, in retrospect) love was photography, not design. Starting around the age of 11, Slimane acquired his first camera and began to learn darkroom printing. His interest in photography would touch nearly all aspects of his future work, and ultimately became an intricate part of his online presence, archived neatly in his online photo diary. In his early years, Slimane had more of an interest in becoming a journalist, even visiting the offices of major French newspaper Le Monde.
By the age of 16, he was designing pieces for his own wardrobe and inevitably completed a tailoring apprenticeship, but it was his time assisting fashion consultant Jean-Jacque Picart that set him up for his future successes. After acting as "go-between" amongst designers during Louis Vuitton's centenary celebration of its iconic monogram, Slimane's taste and tact earned the respect of Pierre Bergé, better known as Yves Saint Laurent's business partner and spouse. Originally placed in a first-assistant position at YSL, Slimane quickly rose to the director of menswear by the age of 27. Slimane’s most influential moment during his first turn at YSL was the "Black Tie" collection of the F/W 2000-2001 season, which not only reintroduced skinny silhouettes back onto the runway, but helped establish Slimane’s aesthetic to the fashion-conscious public. It’s these designs that famously prompted the once-overweight Karl Lagerfield to lose roughly 42 kilograms just so he could fit into Slimane's tailoring. When YSL was purchased by the Gucci group however, drama and incompatibilities between Slimane and then-Gucci designer Tom Ford forced Slimane to step away from the house.
Slimane wouldn’t be out of the spotlight for long, though, taking on the role as the head of Dior Homme in 2000. As GQ noted in a 2005 profile, Dior's history made it a Parisian mainstay, but the maison's lack of tradition in "every area except menswear" allowed Slimane to reshape Dior Homme in his own image, something that Slimane has since done at every house he’s worked for. While Slimane’s work on the runway helped push men's design forward, it could be said that his greatest impact on Dior Homme and menswear were his 21cm, 19cm, and 17cm denim. Named for the measurement of the hem of the jeans when laid flat, these jeans are often some of Slimane's most lusted-after designs. It's an open secret that the 19cm denim directly inspired Kanye West’s own line of jeans during his collaboration with A.P.C., not to mention the song "Christian Dior Denim Flow".
During this time, Slimane's recurring interests in photography and music returned to the fore. After receiving a post in the artist residency program at the Kunst-Werke Studio, Slimane spent large chunks of time in Berlin between 2000 and 2002, documenting the rise of underground indie rock and finding models for his work at Dior. Slimane's ability to successfully street cast the talent for his runway shows is rivaled only by a handful of his contemporaries, like the equally legendary Raf Simons. This time abroad documenting musicians and rebellious youth would go on to bring a consistent visual aspect to his work. In other words, Slimane's designs may be super-skinny, but there are boys who embody his vision in the real world, you just have to know where to look. Discussing the experience with Index magazine back in 2002, the designer noted, "I don't know many people in Berlin. In addition, I don't speak German. So my rapport with the city is quite easy and immediate, without any particular expectations...It offers a totally different perspective from Paris. Berlin is constantly being reinvented." His time in Germany resulted in Berlin, first a book and then an exhibit at the MoMA PS1.
Aside from representing his artistic interests, Berlin is a major indicator that rock-n-roll culture isn't just a gimmick for his designs, or something that is merely a passing interest. It's embodied in everything Slimane puts his hands on. When he received the first-ever CFDA "International Designer of the Year" award, it was presented by David Bowie (an ardent Slimane fan). Slimane designed on-stage outfits for fellow rock legends like Mick Jagger and Jack White, along with rising stars The Libertines, The Kills, and Franz Ferdinand. He created two more art books—Stage, in 2004, and London Birth of Cult, in 2005—that centered on the revival of rock music and the artists that were leading the movement. Slimane often recruited his favorite bands to perform or compose music for his fashion shows, his muse Pete Doherty performing with his band at Slimane's 2005 birthday party. All of this goes to show that, while some designers cash in on the grit and attitude that's often associated with rock music, Slimane absolutely lives it.
By 2006, it was time for Slimane to renew his contract with Dior Homme, something that seemed almost inevitable when you consider that LVMH had provided Slimane with generous creative freedom and the ability to work on projects outside of his responsibilities in Paris. At the time, there were even rumors that Slimane would be establishing a label under his own name backed by the illustrious LVMH fashion conglomerate. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes mentioned this concept as far back as 2003, claiming that "sources at LVMH infer that the designer might be soon given his own line — if this creative and independent spirit can be contained inside a silvered cage."
Despite his good relationship with his employer, talks broke down, and the offer to start his own house was dashed when doubts arose over Slimane's ability to have personal control over his name and the resulting designs. Stepping out of the fashion world for roughly six years, Slimane focused instead on photography. There were concerns he would never design for a major house again.
Before departing Dior Homme, the designer launched "The Diary," an archive of Slimane’s personal and professional photography. Model muses, indie rock icons, and candids are littered throughout the collection. Whether you're a fashion historian, or simply enjoy Slimane's subjects of interest, the still-running online platform is the best way to encounter what exactly makes Slimane tick, with his "Fashion Diary" stretching as far back as Slimane's 1999 YSL fittings.
From 2007 to 2012, Slimane was involved in a number of photographic art projects. Aside from shooting for magazines like VMan, Purple, and various Vogue titles, Slimane decamped to L.A. to capture the lives and vibes of California. This time abroad most notably resulted in "Myths and Legends of Los Angeles," a group show displayed at the Almine Rech Gallery in Paris and Brussels, and "California Song," a showcase of his personal photography at the MOCA in L.A.
While Slimane was off on the west coast living the bohemian artist dream, the Parisian fashion world was in an uproar. After John Galliano's infamous drunken anti-semitic rant, Dior was imploding in the public sphere and was suddenly in need of a new creative director. It was widely considered that, with his illustrious career at Dior Homme, that Slimane would be the first and only choice to follow up the massive vacancy left by Galliano. However, that position would ultimately go to Raf Simons, then-creative director of Jil Sander. However, it was another former employer that would come calling in the form Yves Saint Laurent. While Slimane had never formally designed a womenswear collection prior to this appointment, his history styling women like Madonna and Nicole Kidman proved he was not unfamiliar with dressing the female form.
In a statement from YSL at the time of Slimane's hire, the designer had "total creative responsibility for the brand image and all of its collections." Slimane took full advantage of this freedom from the jump. Within his first year, Slimane dropped the "Yves" from "Yves Saint Laurent," simplifying YSL to Saint Laurent, immediately prompting some negative backlash from the public and industry. Furthermore, Slimane moved the design studio from Paris to his home city of L.A., another first for the Parisian maison. Controversy struck again, when then—New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn was barred from attending subsequent Saint Laurent shows after giving an earlier collection a negative review. Slimane even drew the ire of his old pal Kanye West, explaining that the rapper would be invited to his first Saint Laurent runway show, but only if he refused to attend any other shows in Paris that season. Naturally, West vented about the issue publicly, explaining the situation during his now-infamous first interview with then-BBC Radio 1 presenter Zane Lowe—"It's been like that for a minute Hedi Slimane!" West even wrote a song, "I Am a God," in the wake of his frustrations.
Some might have argued that the all of the drama wasn't worth having Slimane in the driver's seat, but the sales figures would quickly silence any doubters. Sure, Slimane might have shaken things up, but that also meant shaking the brand free of its once-stuffy reputation. Sales rose 37 percent by the third quarter of 2015, turning Saint Laurent into Kering's (the conglomerate that owns Saint Laurent) fastest growing label. However, after three years at the helm of Saint Laurent, Slimane abruptly announced his departure. Contract negotiations and non-compete clauses aside, Slimane is now one of fashion's most desirable free agents. No matter how things play out, or where he ends up, it's clear that if you give him his creative freedom, the profits, and maybe some theatrics, will undoubtedly follow suit.
While Slimane has only held positions at two different fashion houses, it's hard to ignore the impact he's left on the wider fashion consciousness. Rappers don't just wear Saint Laurent, they reference it in their lyrics. Slimane's grungy inspirations aren't just embodied on the runway, they're brought to life both within the editorial pages of international fashion magazines and concert stages alike. Love him or hate him, Slimane's perspective is undeniably recognizable, not to mention a commercial boon to boot. For a designer who seems to have harnessed and deciphered the DNA of natural rockstar cool, it's hardly surprising that Hedi Slimane has become something of a rockstar himself.