Women’s Wear Daily reported this morning that Hedi Slimane, the former men’s designer at Christian Dior who has spent the last several years on walkabout, pursuing an interest in photography, had agreed to be the new creative director at Yves Saint Laurent. I am not generally a close follower of fashion-industry news, but six years ago I wrote a Profile of Slimane, and so have been curious to see where he might turn up again. Reticent, exacting, somehow simultaneously doleful and sweet, he seemed very careful about how he came across, and only slightly less careful about trying to convey that he didn’t care how he came across. It was clear that his reappearance on the fashion scene wouldn’t be improvised.
By coming to Y.S.L., Slimane, who is forty-three, goes back to where he started in the business fifteen years ago, as the very young, and green, designer of the menswear line, which, to quote from the Profile,
was moribund at the time. “Milan was menswear, and French houses were not interested in men’s fashion,” Slimane 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 [the C.E.O. of Yves Saint Laurent, and Saint Laurent’s longtime companion] took the chance I thought I was extremely blessed. I remember sitting down in his stunning office on the Avenue Marceau, totally petrified. It didn’t last more than ten minutes. I just went straight to the atelier a couple of days later, walking on tiptoes, and designed my first collection.”
It took him a few seasons to start doing things the way he wanted to. By 1998, he was attracting acclaim. Then, in 1999, Gucci took over Y.S.L., which meant that Slimane would have a new boss: Tom Ford, the creative director at Gucci, who insisted that Slimane report to him. “It was a totally new idea to me, this story of ‘reporting,’ ” Slimane told me. (His English is good but not perfect.) “I might have never heard the word ‘reporting’ before. Reporting to Tom was not going to happen.” Bergé objected to the arrangement, too. “I was absolutely against it,” he told me. “Tom Ford is not my cup of tea. I don’t respect him, not at all. He is not a designer. He is a marketing man.” After meeting with Ford at the Ritz (“The situation became unpleasant,” Slimane said), Slimane resigned….
In 2001, he presented his first Dior collection, in Paris, a day after Ford showed his first for Y.S.L. When Saint Laurent himself, who had skipped Ford’s show, not only attended Slimane’s but led a standing ovation, fashion people, eager Kremlinologists all, deemed it a volcanic incident, right up there with Khrushchev and the shoe.
Bergé, who is retired, reportedly was also not fond of Ford’s successor, the outgoing Y.S.L. creative director Stefano Pilati. Bergé told me in 2006:
People now in men’s fashion design just do it for the runway and their press. With Hedi, it’s completely different. He has a wonderful sense of the clothes. He has a wonderful technique. For Hedi, the idea of the customer, that is very important. Other designers know nothing about the customer. They have scorn. I don’t respect many fashion designers, but I respect Hedi very much. He has a wonderful culture. He knows our time. He’s a guy of our time. He doesn’t think about yesterday or tomorrow. Fashion is a fragile moment between the past and future. And Hedi has that point of view. He is a guy from today. He’s very sensible about many aspects of the creation of today: music, architecture, photographs, many, many things. Fashion is just the result. You have to understand what is important of your time in every aspect of your creation. And also to understand what is the social life of today. Not just high-class men. But men on the street. People in the street decide about themselves. They don’t need to have a designer tell them what to do. That time is over.