You’ve got Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards (always), even Jimi Hendrix, all dripping in the sueded spirit of Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns, marching down the runway at Saint Laurent. And so Hedi Slimane’s categorical survey of rock and roll iconography and symbolism presses into the late 1960s; an era of rugged romance, drug-induced dandyism, and the rock star as shaman. The veracity of Slimane’s historicist stagings is challenged only by Ralph Lauren whose own attention to detail and ability to realize such romantic fantasies, beyond even the limits of camp, are unparalleled. There is no information left out as Slimane lavishes over his rock god lust. Nothing is left to the imagination. With the extraordinary set design, outrageously specific casting and the harrowing music you can only be in awe of Slimane’s commitment and talent when it comes to telling a story through clothes.
Slimane and Lauren share more in common than one might think. Both are designers who formalized their deepest aspirations and installed them into a brand that could translate it into an arsenal of luxury merchandise. Just as Lauren co-opted the American dream and claimed it for himself Slimane has ensnared rock and roll, weaving its mythology into Saint Laurent’s, extracting its codes and selling them as the classics they have become. This indulgence of rock and roll and the play off its ubiquity is not without precedent. It’s a world John Varvatos has mined and at one point inelegantly bought when he installed a retail location at the former site of CBGB (one wonders if Saint Laurent would have known better). It’s also very much the world of Anna Sui who is perhaps the godmother to Slimane’s rock redux, her signatures were unmistakable in the women’s looks Slimane showed alongside the men’s. Rock and roll is not the most original point of departure but for a brand like Saint Laurent it does make an interesting focus.
Yves Saint Laurent was a great provocateur of the bourgeoisie, an interest nurtured by a love for Schiaparelli. He stayed one step ahead of the status quo, pushing their limits of taste and respectability. At Dior he shocked his employers by designing around beatniks. In 1971 he caused a scandal for glamorizing 1940s prostitutes. He challenged comfort zones just enough to provoke and inspire and move things along. That Slimane has conquered rock and roll under the banner of the esteemed French house is notable. Rock and roll stands for subversion of mainstream Western patriarchal culture, born from the expressions of African Americans treated as second class citizens, as “others,” it has since expanded into countless genres each offering their own contrary view to the conventions of established society. It’s the natural go-to for instant cool. But with this new Saint Laurent collection, and perhaps a few others in the past, a problematic paradox has emerged. As Slimane assimilates rock’s mythology into Saint Laurent’s he has turned it into that very thing which rock chic stood in opposition against: the uniform of the haute bourgeoisie. It is the very thing which wealthy consumers, still invested in conventions of appropriateness, adopt to play the role of rebel without having to actually be one. The rock looks Slimane exploits are no more rebellious than a banker-striped suit or an embroidered polo.
What is the significance of rock and roll in fashion today? Do the youth who Slimane seems to worship with intense devotion still care about it or has it become yet another used-up cliche? Most young kids these days are listening to rap and hip hop. From Shayne Oliver to Riccardo Tisci to Rick Owens, rap and hip hop have become the leading catalyst for subversion in contemporary men’s fashion. Not unlike rock and roll, it was born from the black experience and the hardship of being dejected by society. It implies a sense of strength and resilience and as its own ecology changes (becoming significantly less homophobic and perhaps less misogynistic) it has come to represent a progressive attitude as well. Turned in on itself, subverted in the manner that Shayne Oliver and Rick Owens have carefully mastered, it goes where rock and roll cannot; tackling race, gender and class in a way that speaks to the issues of today. One wonders if Kanye West had it right when he so brashly proclaimed in a tirade against Slimane that “we culture. Rap is the new rock and roll. We the rock stars.” Perhaps rock and roll is still relevant, a number of established and promising contemporary musicians would certainly argue that it is. But if Slimane is to ever make a compelling go of it he’ll have to let go of his historicist antics and theatrical costumes and give it a more vital context. Rock is diverse and there surely are other iterations that might have a bit more urgency. It would behoove Slimane to explore them.
Last October there was a big stir caused by Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent redux. While it was widely accepted that Hedi’s knack for marketing and interpreting the times, as well as his own penchant for brooding, stylized minimalism would serve a house whose namesake had already chosen him as his successor, no one was quite expecting the new spirit, sourced direct from his stay in L.A., to be so jolting. But while reviews for the collection have been less than ideal, buyers praised it. And so the impact of Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent would remain ambivalent, at least until his marketing and product development can take effect on a fluid brand perception and the all important quarterly results.
I was meandering through Barney’s and Bergdorf yesterday. The offerings for Saint Laurent from both retailers were strong (though Barney’s had given the label a bit more floor space), focused, and were curiously distinct from anything else on the floor. This is everything a brand and a retailer can hope for, minus a brisk sell-through. It was mostly dresses, none of which were shown on the runway (I assume, even in March, that what was on the floor was Pre-Spring and the runway collection will come in a later delivery). It all had a rather sleek, very tailored, very French, very romantic, but very modern vibe: exactly the kind of thing you’d want from Slimane for Saint Laurent. There was a short red floral printed dress with a flounced hem on the rack at Bergdorf’s and it immediately summoned the nuance of ’70s era YSL and the louche, vibrant spirit of the brand that the fashion world loves, filtered of course through Slimane’s sleek, urban, and utterly contemporary vision. And it was all the better for it. And if he had put the focus on these pieces for his runway, styled them up and had shown them for what they were, he may have helped to define a newer, fresher, and more vital idea of Saint Laurent than the L.A. focused, Rachel Zoe analogous looks he pushed instead. And the critical reactions to his theatrical debut for the brand probably would have gone a lot better.
At Barney’s I met a woman trying on a houndstooth shift dress with pleated/folded shoulders with leather inserts. She had to have been in her early ’60s. It looked great on her (mind you, she was not a model nor was she ever one). She loved it because everything else looked the same to her, it was all “sleeveless dresses, everyone is trying to do Alaia, but I just want something simple and conservative, straightforward.” It was easy French chic, and who doesn’t need that? She appreciated everything Barney’s had picked up from Saint Laurent and expressed relief that she could have these pieces from the label. The one issue she had was the hem length: the dresses were all so short. She tells me “I don’t understand, who do they expect to buy these clothes? Only young people can wear clothes this short, and how can they afford these prices?” I encouraged her to get the dress though she needed to have it lengthened and taken in on the backside, which was being done as we spoke by Barney’s staff tailor, but not after warning her that next season it was going to be all babydoll dresses, plaid shirts, tight leather dresses, and grunge. Youth would prevail. Defeated by this news she simply exclaimed “Oh forget it!”
It’s not just the radical shift in proportion, from pipe-cleaner to Oxford bags. Something of greater significance seems to be changing for Hedi Slimane. Following his show, he admitted to a new mood of melancholy. The staging certainly supported such a notion. His boys—all thin as usual, some now fearfully attenuated—walked in shadows, illuminated by a pillar of fire that burned biblically at the end of the runway throughout the presentation.
Whatever the deeper symbolism, Slimane is certainly in a reflective frame of mind. He talked about a return to the couture concept with which he launched his career (phoenix to the flame?), and the precision and detailing of his clothes were a tribute to the handiwork of his atelier. Nothing displays such skills better than eveningwear; was that why Slimane’s collection was dominated by variations on Le Smoking? It made for an intriguing tip of the cap to Yves Saint Laurent, the master in whose footsteps he once followed.
Such clothes also seemed designed to appeal to Hedi’s female clientele, most obviously items like a beaded bolero, a tiny gilet with kimono sleeves, or a jacket that turned to reveal a beaded, ruched back. Perhaps that’s his way of announcing he’s ready to stretch a little. Still, there were plenty of items that were unmistakably from a man’s wardrobe: a tweed topcoat, a duffel with braided closings, a pinstriped suit, a black leather blouson. Meanwhile, the formal details—the satin waistband on a pair of trousers, pearl buttons on a shirt, the ribbons tied at the throat—were balanced by the waistband of old jeans worn as a grunge cummerbund.
by TIM BLANKS for STYLE.COM January 31, 2006
A true dialogue between designers, surely Hedi Slimane’s menswear at YSL and his debut at Dior took a cue or two from Raf Simons’ earlier seminal collections; appropriating the silm silhoutte, youth appeal, musicality, and boyish attitude. But while Simons was the first to introduce such an approach, it was Slimane who refined it and transformed it into something covetable and desirable, something that would reshape an entire decade of men’s dress, something that fashion legend is made from.