French clothing designer and photographer Hedi Slimane has turned the menswear world upside down by using rock ‘n’ roll for inspiration. He has also turned on Millennials and Gen Z to past rock ‘n’ roll greats like his friend David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, John Cale, Jane Birkin, Courtney Love, Joni Mitchell and Iggy Pop. His revolutionary, androgynous style—which rejects the idea that all male models should be hunks—is now known as “silhouette Slimane.” Our fashion fanatic, Ingrid Jensen, takes Hedi’s measure for PKM.
I grew up on a steady diet of black-and-white films. Westerns, musicals, screwball comedies, silent pictures, non-linear art-house farces: I loved them all but, specifically, I loved the costume designers. I thought that fashion design and costume design were one and the same, and that both meant a simple three-step process: somebody sketches a dress, somebody else sews it, and someone else buys it and wears it. I could do the sketching, I thought. I could do that, easy.
Slimane is the James Dean of the haute couture world.
Aged eleven, I used to call the YSL boutiques in New York City long-distance, naively nosing for a job: “I have some, um…drawings…of dresses? Can I send them to Mr. Laurent to…um.. look at?” Unbeknownst to me, Yves Saint Laurent was long dead, and due to the advent of the internet, the speed at which the fashion world moved had increased with a freneticism akin to a crack-addled nightmare. While I was bothering the salesgirls at Rive Gauche and annoying the postman with an endless succession of outgoing manila envelopes stuffed with sketches, the real change was occurring in Paris, in the 7th arrondissement headquarters of Yves Saint Laurent.
Saint Laurent Menswear Spring Summer 2016 Paris, featuring music (“Like Harry Dean Stanton” by Swimmers), staging, presentation and fashions created by Hedi Slimane:
These changes were being implemented under the skillful hands and sharp gaze of a baby-faced designer called Hedi Slimane, whom Pierre Bergé (Saint Laurent’s partner and the co-founder of his brand) had appointed director of menswear and, later, artistic director.
Slimane is the James Dean of the haute couture world. Skinny, awkward and reserved with the media, nearly always clad in a black leather jacket and jeans, he remains something of an enigma. While his contemporaries give interviews, tweet, and post constantly on Instagram, he has refrained from social media, and thereby cultivated a certain mystique. The fashion industry as it stands today is more heavily focused on what you do in what you wear, and how you do it—than what you wear. The venerated concept of style as a way of life is based on the radical idea that fashion descends, not from 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive, but from literature, music, theatre, philosophy and the small bits of radical culture and change in the pop environment that pervade every college, every small town, every city and every high school in the world. Style is glommed together from this beautiful detritus of boredom and excitement, independence and submission, and it surfaces in the dress and mood of a nation. Of this fact, Hedi Slimane is hyper aware.
Slimane, who was born in France, received his first record at age 6, a brand-new copy of David Live, featuring recordings from Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. (The album may have been universally panned, but Slimane found comfort in it.) Bowie’s glamorous androgyny allowed him to feel at ease about the idea that femininity could exist comfortably within masculinity, and vice versa. Slimane was a skinny kid, and had a hard time finding clothing that he liked that fit well. He wisely took matters into his own hands. Aged 16, he borrowed his mum’s sewing machine and began to make his own clothes: stuff that fit, stuff he liked. Clothes he couldn’t find in shops. Clothes with character.
He studied art history at the École du Louvre in Paris. Photography was his first love—stark, black-and-white images coaxed forth from vats of chemicals in acrid, cloistered dark rooms in the old time-honored way—but he soon fell into a career in fashion. He worked first for YSL menswear, then Dior Homme, sending collections down the catwalk that revolutionized men’s fashion with their blurred attitudes to gender, unusual silhouettes, and sartorial references to 1970s glam rock figureheads like Joan Jett, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Lou Reed.
“Menswear—for me, I don’t like to define it,” he explained in his heavy French accent to Tim Blanks in an interview at the time of his Dior debut. Slimane rejected the idea that all male models should be heavily muscled hunks; he chose slight, androgynous models who looked very like himself. The narrow cuts he used for menswear became instantly known as the “silhouette Slimane.” When Slimane won the CFDA award for menswear designer in 2002, his idol and friend, David Bowie (for whom he had designed stage wear) presented him with the prize.
Saint Laurent Menswear autumn/winter 2013-14 show, Slimane at his peak:
He left Dior in 2007 and moved to L.A. to work for Burger Records for five years, where he chronicled the advent of psych and post-punk as a photographer and videographer. By the time he was appointed the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent in 2012, Slimane had established himself as a designer very much in control of his own vision, and one who was capable of reversing the fortunes of ailing brands with his ruthless injections of modernity.
In an effort to keep things fresh, Slimane knocked the YVES off Yves Saint Laurent and renamed the company SAINT LAURENT PARIS, which provoked a line of T-shirts protesting, “Ain’t Laurent Unless it’s Yves.” However, Slimane was careful to reference the house’s past, and he placed the same importance on designing suits and trousers for women as Saint Laurent himself did. He cast a woman—Dutch model Saskia de Brauw—as the star in his first ad campaign for Saint Laurent menswear, another demonstration of his dislike for defining things, for assigning genders to clothes.
His penchant for casting artists and musicians as his models led to Jane Birkin, Courtney Love, Curtis Harding and members of the band Cherry Glazerr either modeling Saint Laurent in ads or on the catwalk. Slimane is also a respected photographer, working only in crisp, stark, black and white. He has photographed many of his sartorial inspirations: Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, John Cale, Eric Burdon, Joni Mitchell, Josh Homme and a host of other hallowed names.
Slimane loves rock ‘n’ roll. At Saint Laurent, it was obvious in every line, every silhouette, every fabric he chose. There’s a lot of fringe, a lot of leather, a lot of rumpled, creased white cotton shirts—you know, the kind that get tossed to the floor overnight and dusted off the next morning, trying to impress the record execs after a night of supposed debauchery and excess.
There are nods to Anita Pallenberg’s sartorial legacy in the forms of floppy wide-brimmed hats, dandyish frilled shirts left half-buttoned, cuffs undone, and little to no makeup for models bar some hasty kohl and Vaseline-slathered eyelids and lips. Brian Jones would have bought the entire 2013 spring/summer collection—or rather, Pallenberg would have bought it and worked it into his wardrobe for him. (The aforementioned collection featured a Junior Kimbrough soundtrack for the catwalk).
Style is glommed together from this beautiful detritus of boredom and excitement, independence and submission, and it surfaces in the dress and mood of a nation.
Most clothing that draws inspiration from the theatrical nature of rock ‘n’ roll falls short, ends up being pre-packaged and bland and obvious, an edited PG preview to an R-rated feature, but Slimane’s vision pushed past this and succeeded in creating clothes that were stimulating and dangerous, jackets cut sleek as sharks and suits with seams sharp as razor blades.
“Hedi’s things are the most simple but with the greatest detail…You can wear them season to season. He’s the most inventive men’s designer in the world,” Elton John enthused to a catwalk reporter from his front row seat at one of Slimane’s fashion shows many moons ago.
The followers of the inner workings of the world of high fashion are divided into two distinct camps as pertains to Slimane’s designs: those who love the nostalgic atmosphere he strives to create and those who hate his harsh lines, sky-high hemlines, shiny garments and morning-after styling. During his tenure at Saint Laurent, it often seemed that Slimane was essentially trying to re-create the atmosphere of the back room at Max’s Kansas City, if it were on a futuristic spaceship with Formica laboratory tables, glass walls, chrome and a lot of depressed rich kids instead of a lot of starving artists. No chickpeas. No feather boas. It’s punk scrubbed clean, which, in a sense, isn’t punk at all. But the suggestion of its existence was enough to send young fashion freaks to the library to do their research, only to discover a whole world of as yet unplumbed sartorial depths, ripe for re-exploration in the 21st century.
Slimane functioned as a sort of Pied Piper, directing Millennials and Gen Z to the altar of the Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. So many of the modern worshippers at the electric church of rock ‘n’ roll (myself among them) were converted by runway shows livestreamed on YouTube.
Celine-‘Teen Knight Poem’, commissioned and co-produced by Hedi Slimane, January 2021:
All art returns to fashion: writers have to consider it and describe it, painters have to portray it, and musicians—well, it doesn’t hurt in any sort of song detailing love or the possibility of physical pleasures to talk a little bit about the way we decorate our bodies. Think about the lyric “She’s my girl in the red blue-jeans,” from Gene Vincent’s “Be-bop-a-Lula,” Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” The Beatles with “Baby’s in Black,” and the wholesome thought of “sport socks and a warm sweater,” followed by insinuations of more sensuous tactile pleasures in Fat White Family’s “Touch the Leather.”
Clothes are a vital part of our day-to-day communications, whether we realize it or not. It only makes sense to sing about them. Art wields a much greater power to move us than dusty history textbooks. Fashions that promote nostalgia, like Slimane’s, often unintentionally have the effect of making the consumers of the fashions more empathetic, knowledgeable people. When you end up wearing the same styles at 17 that your parents wore at 17, generation gaps knit themselves closed (at least to a certain degree.)
He has photographed many of his sartorial inspirations: Keith Richards, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, John Cale, Eric Burdon, Joni Mitchell, Josh Homme
Slimane’s ideas pertaining to fashion are, said Burger Records co-founder Lee Ricard, “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 ‘n’ roll. There will always be disenfranchised youths trying to find their friends, trying to find their place.”
In a 2018 interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro shortly before his debut as the creative director at the fashion house Celine (a position he still holds today), Slimane said: “No matter the time in history, [the youth] are this pure energy, the exaltation of every moment and the emotion of the skin, living their lives at full speed.” It’s an excellent summation of his vision, which undoubtedly will be influencing the closely intertwined worlds, of fashion and music for years to come.