In honour of our upcoming “Masters of Fashion: Renegades” edition, we at Fashion Industry Broadcast are giving you a taste each week of the gifted and often troubled individuals that choose to forge their own paths in the fashion world. This week is Hedi Slimane, the rock star of high couture. Enjoy!
Hedi Slimane had been designing at Yves Saint Laurent for three years before the house of Gucci acquired it. He had arrived almost by accident; his work as a Louis Vuitton assistant had drawn the attention of Saint Laurent CEO Pierre Berge, who tapped him as the man to turn around the moribund fortunes of their menswear line.
Slimane had just begun to find his signature style when Gucci, led by their hallowed creative director Tom Ford, stormed the offices of YSL. Ford had been raised to deity status by reversing the fortunes of the flagging Italian label; now he looked to do the same for the French at Yves Saint Laurent.
Ford insisted that all Saint Laurent designers report directly to him, creating a new and unfamiliar hierarchy that Slimane could not abide. After a single disastrous meeting with Ford, Slimane walked out on YSL and the golden ticket he had stumbled across three years prior. It seemed insane to many, and rightfully so. Who was Slimane – a three year “veteran” of design – to question the messianic and unparalleled wisdom of Tom Ford?
Fifteen years later, we know the answer. Hedi Slimane is a creature entirely unto himself; a force majeure of fashion whose fascination with rock and roll iconography permanently shifted menswear and with it, the cultural perception of what an ideal man could be. Like the rock gods of old he so idolised – who could come to idolise him in return – capitulation is simply not a part of his build.
It is, and has always been, Hedi’s way – or the highway.
Hedi Slimane was born July 5, 1968. The son of a Tunisian father and Italian mother, he was raised in the pleasant but unremarkable suburbs of Paris.
With a name directly lifted from the traditional “Heidi” and the gradual emergence of his svelte frame and pronounced, almost feminine facial features, Slimane always expected his perception of genders “would be slightly out of focus.”
But at an early age he discovered a cultural respite from the generic machismo of mainstream society. Slimane was six years old when he received his first record: a live recording of David Bowie produced as he tore headlong into his “Thin White Duke” phase. The album was universally panned; Mick Jagger went so far as to claim that if he got the kind of reviews David Live did he would “honestly never record again.”
But for Slimane, it opened the door to a lifelong love affair with rock and roll. Seeing the pale, disheveled Bowie on the front cover allowed him to feel at ease with the idea of femininity within masculinity – a concerted interest in his later work as a designer.
While Slimane became interested in a wide range of rock subgenres – including The Rolling Stones and The Clash, two bands he would later design for – he has stated that glam rock is “the most significant influence for the future in both design and photography.”
Buying clothes for his hollow silhouette proved a near impossible task; and so, at the age of 16, Slimane borrowed his mother’s sewing machine and began to design his own. Being svelte, he discovered, had its advantages:
“I always thought clothes looked better on a lean figure. Life was not that unfair after all. There was a future for skinny people.”
After high school, Slimane studied Art History at the École du Louvre in Paris, using his free time to help friends on fashion shoots as a freelance director and casting scout. There were also early aspirations to become a reporter but he put them aside to spend three memorable but destitute years in New York during the early nineties.
His first big break came in 1992 when LVMH consultant Jean-Jacques Picart spotted him and, on a hunch, hired him as an assistant. Together they worked on the project “monogram canvas” for Louis Vuitton, recruiting seven of the most influential designers in the world – including Helmut Lang, Manolo Blahnik and Vivienne Westwood – to reinterpret the iconic monogram design in celebration of its centenary.
Picard was one of the first to encourage Slimane to become a designer; after three years as an assistant such an opportunity arose in the form of Yves Saint Laurent. Pierre Bergé, CEO of YSL at the time and the stalwart companion of the man for whom the brand is named, had heard of Slimane through reputation, and despite his lack of design experience deemed him the perfect man to revive the fortunes of YSL menswear.
“Milan was menswear, and French houses were not interested in men’s fashion,” Slimane has said. “To hire me was an insignificant decision, if you think in concrete terms. But, from a different perspective, I really had as a kid a natural attraction to the house of Saint Laurent, and when Pierre Bergé took the chance I thought I was extremely blessed.”
Slimane admits to initially being “petrified” of the daunting task ahead of him, “walking on tiptoes” for many a month until he grew more comfortable in his role. He needn’t have worried: Yves Saint Laurent himself attended his debut menswear show in 1996, bestowing his blessing by enthusiastically applauding the collection from his seat in the front row. Slimane was named the men’s artistic director of YSL the following year. His confidence as a designer grew with each passing collection, culminating in the Black Tie collection that debuted in January 2001 – the foreshadowing of his skinny silhouette designs that could later come to dominate the male fashion world.
It was the last collection he would design for YSL for over a decade. In the ensuing months Slimane would reject the stringent authority of Tom Ford and abandon the label he helped redefine.
Slimane absconded from Paris – despite it being his home, he never had felt comfortable there – and moved to the progressive scene of Berlin for two years, where he took up residence at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art.
It was during his time in Berlin that Slimane began to seriously indulge his burgeoning passion for photography. He took pictures of the locals and street kids with a unique flair for style; and perhaps most importantly to his later work as a music photographer, he began to document the underground dance club scene that Berlin is famed for. The photographs were eventually released to the public through an exhibition and Slimane’s first book, the appropriately titled Berlin.
Slimane’s respite from the fashion world was a short one. During his time in Germany he was offered the creative directorship of Jil Sander but turned it down to accept a position at the head of the Christian Dior menswear line.
It was during his time at Dior that Slimane redefined the “contemporary masculine concept” and elevated himself to a position resembling cult fanaticism in the process. He continued the skinny silhouette ideal he began at YSL, seamlessly infusing high couture with the counter-culture aesthetic of his rock and roll heroes. Celebrity clientele began to clamor for Slimane designs. Brad Pitt asked the designer to create the suit for his wedding with Jennifer Anniston; the next year, Dior saw their profits rise by 41 per cent.
After attracting the attention of cultural taste makers it became inevitable that the mainstream would follow suit. The traditional Adonis perception of masculinity was tilted on its axis, displaced by a lither and more feminine body type exemplified by men like Jared Leto and Orlando Bloom.
It wasn’t just the men, either. Despite exclusively designing menswear, Slimane began to draw female wearers like Madonna and Nicole Kidman; women for whom his slender designs transferred across gender lines. In 2002, Slimane became the first menswear designer to win the coveted CDFA award for International Designer. David Bowie, whom Slimane now dressed for tours, presented him with the award.
The move to Dior had clearly been a masterful one for Slimane. Yves Saint Laurent, by contrast, was imploding. Despite the guidance of the venerable Tom Ford the company was losing tens of millions of dollars a year, their collections in a creative slump; rumours swirled of incessant turbulence within the YSL camp.
Slimane, however, could seemingly do no wrong. His three great creative passions – music, photography and design – were becoming seemingly inseparable from one another. One of his most celebrated photography books, London: Birth of a Cult, captured the resurgence of the British rock scene in all its disturbed, destructive glory.
The book centres around Libertines and Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty, perhaps best known to the fashion world as the drug-addled former paramour of model Kate Moss. Slimane followed Doherty for over a year, chronicling the musician and his signature flair the press would come to describe as “skank chic.”
Slimane’s descent into the London underground came to strongly influence his designs and shows. As former band manager Alan McGee attested, “Every fucking model looked like a Libertine, know what I mean?”
It wasn’t just Doherty. Slimane has an uncanny ability to befriend the most influential rock stars on the planet. Mick Jagger and David Bowie rest in his personal Rolodex; so too do Courtney Love and Thomas Mars of French band Phoenix. The designer has dressed everyone from Jack White to Franz Ferdinand to Paul Simonson of seminal punk band The Clash.
The key to his popularity? Authenticity. Slimane prides himself at being on the precipice of the rock movement. His celebrated shows are almost painfully cool: ultramodern extravaganzas scored by the buzziest of both unknown and iconic bands with set designs plucked directly from the youth culture of whatever city he finds himself entrenched in at the time. It’s an aesthetic that extends to his audience, more often packed with skeletal musical misfits than the couture designs and haughty critics that so often dominate other collection unveilings.
Yet Slimane is something of an anomaly within the culture he adores so much. He doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs, preferring to consecrate those who do. His demeanour, from every indication, is that of a shy, genial man whose immaculate politeness stands in stark contrast to the template of both the fashion and musical industries – two avenues hardly renowned for their abundance of healthy egos.
There is one area, beyond the commonality of creativity, that Slimane shares with many of his rock and roll idols: perfectionism. Every aspect of his collections – from conceptualisation down to the design, lighting and casting of his stage shows – is overseen by Slimane with a quibbling sensibility that borders on the infinitesimal.
Slimane has distinguished himself from other designers for his penchant of casting unknowns and nonprofessionals in his shows. He will often draft band members to represent his designs or otherwise scour the streets looking for just the right personality to mesh with a collection – a process he refers to as “boy safari.”
Like every other element of his creative process, he is reluctant to define the essence of his casting – “You sort of know if it’s working or not,” he has glibly remarked in the past – but based on his track record Slimane prefers his models tall, lean and slightly androgynous; not overly dissimilar from himself.
No one can fault Slimane on his creations: his perfectionist streak and myopic vision for fashion has resulted in a cultural shift in menswear that continues to this day. But such vision often acts as a double-edged sword; his unwillingness to compromise, for all of its vaunted genius, has been the root cause of every major controversy in his career. Just as it plagued him at Yves Saint Laurent, so too did it come to taint his relationship with the house of Christian Dior.
Slimane was becoming restless towards the end of his tenure at Dior. His contract with the label had expired in 2006 and he wished to spend more time pursuing his extracurricular passions – not only photography but also architectural spaces and art projects, in which he had dabbled over the previous few years.
Dior bent over backwards to accommodate him, negotiating a nonexclusive contact that would free Slimane from the endless cycle of collections and give him more time to pursue his outside interests. While he accepted the new contract, Slimane remained discontent. He was unhappy with the direction the menswear line was taking, and a proposal for his own signature label – one that would allow him to design womenswear for the first time – was wholly unsatisfactory in his eyes.
Negotiations broke down a year after signing his nonexclusive contract. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH, told Slimane to come back to reality. Slimane would do no such thing, releasing a statement that said, “There are areas I will not compromise at all when it comes to my work.”
For the second time in his career, Slimane walked away from the world of fashion. This time, however, his sabbatical would not last months but years: relocating from Europe to the seamy underground of the Los Angeles music scene.
California was in the early stages of a rock and roll renaissance at the time. Independent label Burger Records had just formed and was encouraging a new wave of psych, surf and punk rock, exemplified by bands like Hunx and His Punx, Mystic Braves and The Garden.
Slimane was there to capture it all on camera, immersing himself in the scene for five years; even after returning to fashion he chose to remain in LA. His time in the underground would later be collaborated into the exhibition Sonic, a photographic chronicling of rock and roll culture since the late fifties. Sonic ran the gamut of his experiences in Berlin, London, New York and Los Angeles, his grainy, black-and-white photos capturing the essence of rock and roll: grimy venues replete with spilled drinks and sweat; the raw energy and anger of the fans; the youthful, eternal cool of the bands, regardless of age and era.
It was an essence that reflected his design philosophy. Slimane has described his work as a reflection of the “transient age between childhood and adulthood” – what most of us would colloquially describe as “being a teenager.” That same ethos is at the core of rock and roll. “There will always be disenfranchised youths trying to find their friends, trying to find their place,” according to Burger Records co-founder Lee Rickard.
Slimane certainly had friends: during his self-imposed exile he shot portraits of celebrities as diverse as Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Gisele Bündchen and Robert De Niro. His place, however, proved to be more elusive. Slimane continued to keep a weather eye on the world of fashion, consistently toying with the idea of returning to the field in which he made his name.
Many within the fashion industry were less than inviting. Slimane had managed to burn a number of important bridges on his way out that to this day remain unrepaired. Karl Lagerfeld, who once included Slimane in his entourage and famously lost tens of kilos to fit the new slim dictum of Dior, stopped wearing his clothes; Jean-Jacques Picart, the man who initially encouraged Slimane to become a designer in the first place, had fallen into bad terms with his former assistant.
When the disgraced John Galliano was excommunicated from Dior in 2011, rumours swirled of a triumphant return to form for Slimane. But his perfection again got the better of him and the label refused to acquiesce to demands that included even more creative control and a worldwide refurbishment of every Dior boutique, store and outlet.
The fashion world was less kind. Slimane had effectively excommunicated himself when he left Dior, burning bridges with former friends and colleagues that to this day remain unrepaired. Karl Lagerfeld, who once included Slimane in his entourage and famously lost tens of kilos to fit into the slim dictum of fashion Slimane had ushered in, stopped wearing his clothes.
But there was one influential figure from Slimane’s past whom remained steadfast in his corner: Pierre Berge, the man behind the curtain at Yves Saint Laurent. YSL had continued to struggle through the years Slimane designed at Dior. Tom Ford had left the label in 2004 after the pressure of designing for YSL and Gucci simultaneously proved too demanding; to say nothing of his notoriously frosty relationship with Yves Saint Laurent himself, who felt the changes Ford made were an insult to the legacy of his label.
Stefano Pilati, head of YSL’s ready-to-wear department, inherited the mantle of creative director. It took six slow years, but Pilati managed to pull the company out of free-fall through his successful accessory designs.
His collections, however, were hit-and-miss: some were beloved by critics and celebrities alike while others barely registered on the fashion radar.
For Yves Saint Laurent, the designs were simply not up to scratch. “Some of it is good, some of it is not so good,” he once remarked of his Pilati’s work. Berge agreed with his longtime partner, going so far as to purposefully remove him from the guest list of an YSL retrospective in 2010.
Making matters worse were the rumours floating through the fashion industry that Pilati’s head was perennially due to roll; for months there was speculation that Raf Simons would be replacing the deposed Pilati when his inevitable resignation came about.
The rumours, as always, were half-right. Pilati was gone by early 2012, but it would not be Simons that replaced him; instead, it was Slimane.
While Berge – who had not been CEO at YSL since 2002, despite retaining serious clout – claims he never actively championed Slimane for the role of creative director, it was a perfect match: “I’m very happy. Anything that makes the house more Saint Laurent is welcome. I am happy that Stefano Pilati is gone, just as I was happy when Tom Ford left.”
Not everyone saw the recruitment from Berge’s point of view. Slimane had lost favour with the critics who so adored him during his time at Dior. When he sauntered into the house of Yves Saint Laurent and began to make sweeping changes, many saw the opportunity to fashion their pens into pitchforks.
Under the perfectionist dictum of Slimane, stores were refitted to his specifications; the headquarters were relocated from Paris to Los Angeles; and perhaps most blasphemous of all, “Yves” was dropped from the name of the label – if only from their ready-to-wear collections.
Critics demanded an explanation, but Slimane remained silent on the changes. Tensions mounted between the media and Slimane in the lead up to his debut collection with newly christened “Saint Laurent Paris” – especially when told of their requirements for entry into the show: only approved photos of Slimane could be used in conjunction with articles, the brand was never to be referred to as its former name, and unlike the majority of designers, Slimane would neither be providing references for his collection nor would he be speaking to the media after the show.
Those who refused the demands would not be permitted entrance into the show; those who did were relegated to standing at the back of the audience, tucked behind the cavalcade of drainpipe trouser cronies and the indie rock celebrities peppering the front row.
Slimane had undoubtedly earned the near-unanimous ire of critics across the world. But fashion aficionados were more optimistic. There was tremendous hype surrounding the debut womenswear collection of Saint Laurent Paris, the first Slimane had designed in his career.
He had stiff competition. Raf Simons, who had stepped into the creative directorship of Dior following the departure of John Galliano, unveiled his first collection just prior to the Saint Laurent Paris show to thunderous applause.
The fashion world expected Slimane to receive the same rapturous reception. But it never came. His debut collection was intended as a retrospective nod to the past works of Yves Saint Laurent; a way of acknowledging the past before moving the label into the present: embroidered chiffon blouses and ruffled capelets, flared dresses and gold sequined cardigan jackets all evoked a distinctly seventies touch, contemporised with a leathery touch of rock and roll and the Slimane staple of uncannily thin construction.
There were a number of noteworthy names in Slimane’s corner following the show. An eclectic gaggle including Anna Wintour, Lady Gaga and Kate Moss found the collection enchanting; designer Diane Von Furstenberg, who was old enough to have seen the debut collection of Yves Saint Laurent, found it beautiful. “I thought it was pure Saint Laurent. And I recognised my youth,” she gushed.
But to the great delight of critics, the collection failed to connect with a wider audience. The Business of Fashion website wrote the game was up the moment they heard “the somewhat muted applause and hushed voices after the show.”
“What was most surprising,” concluded esteemed reporter Lisa Armstrong, “was how unsurprising it was.”
Others were less kind. “The lack of professional courtesy smacked of ignorance or arrogance,” wrote New York Times critic Catherine Horyn. “I had the impression from the clothes of someone disconnected from fashion of the past several years.”
Horyn, more than most, had a right to be angry. She had been refused entry to the show thanks to a long running spat between her and Slimane – one that began in 2004 after Horyn wrote an article on Raf Simons that seemingly slighted Slimane:
“Essentially I wrote that without Mr. Simons’s template of slim tailoring and street casting, there would not have been a Hedi Slimane – just as there would never have been a Raf Simons without Helmut Lang,” Horyn explained.
Slimane, who insisted he was the first to conceptualise the skinny suit, never forgave Horyn for the transgression; and, following her glowing review of Simon’s debut at Dior, lashed out at the critic through the social media. He described Horyn as a “schoolyard bully and also a little bit of a standup comedian,” concluding that while she would never get a seat at Saint Lauren Paris, she might be able to get a “2 for 1 at Dior.”
The fashion world watched the back-and-forth between designer and critic with a mix of horror and unblemished fascination. It seemed almost out of character for Slimane and his perfectly practiced cool; the man known for his undeterred sense of vision and nonchalance in the face of scathing criticism.
But if Slimane really was attempting to channel the career of Yves Saint Laurent, the reaction could not have been more appropriate. Saint Laurent built a career on division: his infamous 1971 collection, Liberation of Paris, made references to the Nazi occupation of France along with camp nods the drag queens of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York. Upon seeing the collection, groundbreaking fashion critic Eugenia Sheppard described it as “frankly, definitely and completely hideous.”
If the reception of critics scorned Slimane, it certainly didn’t stop him. His following collections drew from his staple of rock and roll iconography: flowing luxe boho dresses and floppy hats, and a revival of the nineties grunge “kinderwhore” style of baby doll dresses popularised by musicians like Courtney Love.
The latter drew mocking laughter by still-bitter critics upon unveiling. But such critics would have been wise to study the sartorial history of Yves Saint Laurent. Slimane was following the template of the eponymous designer: to question the nature of luxury and merge street fashion with the painstaking techniques of couture. In 1960, when a 24-year-old Saint Laurent worked for Dior he showed off a couture collection inspired by beatniks in Saint-Germain jazz clubs, it was an expression of his desire to dress his generation.
This is the reason Pierre Berge has dubbed Slimane the spiritual successor of Yves Saint Laurent. More than most critics can understand, his designs tap directly into youth culture through the eternal adolescence of rock and roll.
His work at Saint Laurent has become an exploration of rock subculture, moving with an almost chronological grace through the great leaps in popular music: rockabilly, glam rock, psych-rock, grunge, and more.
It’s a design philosophy that agrees with the public. In his three years at the helm of Saint Laurent sales have doubled to annual revenues of $787 million dollars, driven primarily by the success and timeless appeal of his ready-to-wear apparel. Unlike his peers, who deliver thematically driven collections that shift wildly from one season to the next, Slimane remains consistent: collections replete with over 50 looks consisting of rotated pieces that, like the aesthetic of rock and roll itself, remain eternal.
Even as Slimane nears 50, he is still very much keyed into the youth culture that so bolstered his success. There are collaborations with young musicians of the LA scene: Grimes and Seth Bogart from Hunx and his Punx, who help design an array of t-shirts, shirts, bags and shoes. Band members continue to sit crosslegged at the feet of the front row during Saint Laurent shows, cheering on their friends and peers.
And then there is his new pet venture, the Saint Laurent Music Project: musicians as diverse as Daft Punk, BB King and Kim Gordon are shot by Slimane wearing their favourite pieces from the most recent Saint Laurent collections; an advertising campaign that once again melds Slimane’s greatest passions into an indistinguishable reflection of the culture he has held such passion for since he first held a David Bowie record in his hands.
Beloved by his fans, divisive to his detractors, Slimane persists the only way he knows how: on his terms. He may not be the golden child of the fashion world anymore but Slimane undoubtedly retains the golden touch of design; extended, in true rock and roll fashion, through a middle finger pointed directly at his critics.