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Why Is Fashion So Obsessed With Hedi Slimane?

By Vanessa Friedman

Top Photo Corporation

Seventeen months after he left his post as creative director of Saint Laurent, the former designer-turned-photographer-turned-designer-turned-etc. is once again all over the industry after an extensive “California” photography portfolio for Italian Vogue and an interview he gave (via email) to the magazine’s editor at large, Luke Leitch. 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 from i-D to WWD and multiple Vogues along the lines of “Is Hedi Ready to Return?” 

But let’s be honest, people: He’s 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’s a dysfunctional relationship neither party can quite bring itself to sever. Among all the very talented designers currently without a big job — Alber Elbaz, Stefano Pilati, Peter Copping, Bouchra Jarrar, to name a few — he has remained the most in-fashion out-of-fashion. But before this goes any further, perhaps it’s time for a reality check: to ask why we can’t 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 it’s because Slimane was so talented or so successful, and why should anyone turn their back on success? But while there’s 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 percent in the first half of 2017 (this, after they were up 25.5 percent in 2016). The industry, in other words, misses Slimane more than the consumer does. 

Meanwhile, before he left, there was griping within the house that Slimane’s insistence on ironclad control over every aspect of the brand created roadblocks to growth (there’s only so much one man can do in a day). While there are obvious reasons for this kind of spin from Saint Laurent, the company also didn’t 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 (see: Gucci, Calvin Klein, Givenchy). Which is no small thing. Except then he exited his creation, declaring that he had done what he came to do, which made it seem like the whole thing had been a conceptual experiment as opposed to a commitment to helping his customers understand how to express themselves in an ongoing way through dress. 

And while fashion then invented lots of reasons Slimane might have wanted to leave, largely centering on better and bigger jobs, none of them have come to pass. Which raises the question of whether they were rooted in our own fantasies of Hedi, rather than in reality. 

As to where those fantasies came from: Well, you always want what you cannot have, and in this period of insecurity (whither fashion? whither fashion weeks?), absolute belief in your own absolute rightness is a powerfully seductive weapon to wield. 

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 swapped 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. You know what I mean. 

And the worse he treated fashion, the more fashion tried to win his favour. It’s been almost like an extended piece of performance art, conceived to see how far he could push the industry and keep it coming back for more. 

Maybe we should just wait until Slimane stops teasing his re-entry and actually makes a return. It seems pretty clear he’s interested; otherwise, why keep agreeing it’s possible? 

Then he can be welcomed back, his work judged on its merits instead of on his personal mystique.