Fashion's obsession with Hedi Slimane

An undated photograph of French fashion designer Hedi Slimane.
An undated photograph of French fashion designer Hedi Slimane. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Activities of former creative director of Saint Laurent are closely scrutinised for hints of a return

NEW YORK • Hedi Slimane has proven that he can be in fashion even when he is out of fashion.

Sixteen months after he left his post as creative director of Saint Laurent, the former designer - who turned photographer and then designer again, among other roles - is once again all over the industry after an extensive California photography portfolio for Italian Vogue and an interview he gave (via e-mail) to the magazine.

Amid a discussion of his art and life, he once again left the door open to returning to the business of clothes, causing a flurry of breathless headlines along the lines of "Is Hedi ready to return?"

But he has been saying this since he left Saint Laurent, most often in the context of his photography being published in a fashion magazine.

He said it, for example, in The New York Times early this year, when another portfolio was published in V Magazine.

It is a dysfunctional relationship neither party can quite bring itself to sever.

Among all the talented designers now without a big job - Alber Elbaz, Stefano Pilati, Peter Copping, Bouchra Jarrar, to name a few - he has remained the most in the spotlight.

But before this goes any further, perhaps it is time for a reality check - to ask why fashionistas cannot quite let go (nor, apparently, can he), and whether it is time to put the myth in perspective.

It would be easy, in answer to the first question, to say that since Slimane was so talented, why should anyone turn his back on success?

But while there is no question that he pressed the reset button on Saint Laurent, making it relevant again and supercharging its sales figures, it is also worth pointing out that his departure has not hurt the house or its image.

In the most recent financial reports from Saint Laurent's parent company Kering, sales at the brand rose 28.5 per cent in the first half of this year - after they were up 25.5 per cent last year.

The industry, in other words, misses Slimane more than the consumer does.

Meanwhile, before he left, there was griping within the house that his insistence on ironclad control over every aspect of the brand created roadblocks to growth.

The company also did not seem to fight too hard to keep him.

And while he brought a new silhouette to menswear during his time at Dior Homme (another brand he left, back in 2007) - narrow and sharp - he never really changed how women dressed.

Rather, his greatest contribution during his Saint Laurent tenure was arguably to change how brands were conceived, starting the vogue for handing full creative control to a designer. And while fashion then invented lots of reasons Slimane might have wanted to leave, largely centring on better and bigger jobs, none of them has come to pass.

Slimane was a genius at appearing to reject the industry while never actually turning his back on it.

He refused to give interviews, but invited journalists backstage after shows to pay their respects. He insisted on moving the Saint Laurent design studio to Los Angeles, but he also created a new maison in Paris.

He swopped elegance for grunge on the runway, but actually merchandised his collections to the hilt, so there was plenty for everyone hidden under the post-angst aesthetic.

He has left fashion - but not fashion magazines.

Maybe fashionistas should just wait until Slimane stops teasing his re-entry and actually makes a return. Then, he can be welcomed back, his work judged on its merits instead of on his personal mystique.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Fashion's obsession with Hedi Slimane'. Print Edition | Subscribe