Hedi Slimane, the influential designer who has repositioned Saint Laurent to become one of luxury fashion’s superpowers, is set to exit the storied French house after four years at its helm.
The official news came today, confirming weeks of persistent industry speculation that the designer was to depart his role as creative and image director.
“What Yves Saint Laurent has achieved over the past four years represents a unique chapter in the history of the House,” said François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and CEO of Kering in a joint statement issued by Yves Saint Laurent and Kering, the luxury group that owns the heritage brand. “I am very grateful to Hedi Slimane, and the whole Yves Saint Laurent team, for having set the path that the House has successfully embraced, and which will grant longevity to this legendary brand.”
Slimane’s uncompromising vision, driven by youth and music culture, has shaped an image-strong new era for Saint Laurent. As has his strategic approach to design, marketing and communications, building cult-like desire around collections and campaigns – all the while retaining the designer price level. Shown on gangs of young boys and girls, Slimane’s shows have flipped fashion on its head, inviting an intergenerational audience to be a part of the potent Saint Laurent world. Backed up by the ongoing Saint Laurent Music Project, it has quickly become an holistic and cross-cultural universe to be reckoned with.
So fittingly, Slimane went out with a bang. In the weeks leading up to today’s announcement we got two jaw dropping events from the designer, starting in January when Saint Laurent announced it would not be closing Paris men’s fashion week at the usual Carreau du Temple venue, a covered market in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement built in 1863, but instead weeks later at the Palladium in Los Angeles. The menswear show, which also staged the first part of the women’s FW16 ready-to-wear collection, fell in the context of a growing number of major brands altering their place on the traditional fashion week schedule.
The FW16 collection was a double barrelled celebration. Firstly, of the 50th anniversary of the Rive Gauche and the rebellious bohemian spirit that saw Yves Saint Laurent democratise the fashion industry in the 1970s and 80s. Secondly, of the West Coast youth culture that has charged Slimane’s output at the French heritage house, influenced in no small part by his having lived in LA since 2008. As has become standard for a Slimane Saint Laurent show, it felt more rock concert than catwalk, flashing lights and a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack by local outfit Bleached kicking off a night that unfolded to see the likes of Beck, Joan Jett, Allah Las and Father John Misty headline the after party to end all after parties.
Weeks later, the FW16 women’s ready-to-wear show proved polar opposite. Titled ‘La Collection de Paris’, it took place in the building that will be Saint Laurent’s new couture house – an historic hotel particular on the Rue de l’universite. It was in complete opposition to the Hollywood hedonism of the night at the Palladium, girls walking in silence under bright lights, in the tradition of couture shows right up until the 80s. Benedicte de Ginestous read the look numbers as each girl appeared, a role she fulfilled for the house’s every couture presentation from 1977-2002. The clothes themselves were a glitz-heavy 80s tribute, incredibly high shoulders and short skirts channeling the excess of the era, and displaying Slimane’s skill as a designer, accented by impeccable fit and cut. The last look was a blood red fox fur cape. Steeped at the shoulders to form a love heart, it felt like Slimane’s farewell kiss to the house.
Since taking up creative directorship in 2012, Slimane has unequivocally repositioned Saint Laurent, dividing opinion and driving skyward sales figures at the luxury heritage house founded by Yves Saint Laurent in 1961. On entering the house, he controversially ordered the cut of ‘Yves’ from the name (which was in fact prompted by a label design by Yves Saint Laurent himself), and introduced a new graphic identity and global retail concept. His collections glued together the energy of LA surf and music subcultures, the latter of which Slimane has documented for ten years with his online photo journal, Hedi Slimane Diary. Critics quickly criticised the collections for their consistency, but Slimane had his eye on the bigger picture – on building a world that is desirable and accessible. And it’s paid off: in the four years since Slimane came on at Saint Laurent, the house has more than doubled its sales revenue, grown from €353.7 million ($402.56 million) in 2011 to €973.6 million in 2015.
Slimane, who was born in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, started out as menswear director at Yves Saint Laurent in 1995 and was upped to men’s artistic director the next year (Yves Saint Laurent is said to have applauded from the front row at the show). His last collection there, Black Tie, signalled the start of Slimane’s menswear revolution, lighting the torch for the ‘skinny’ silhouette that he would later carve out at Dior Homme. Turning down an offer of creative directorship at Jil Sander in 2002, Slimane then opted to take ownership of design at Dior Homme, where he cut tailoring thin and steered men’s luxury in a new direction heavily inspired by his time photographing rock’s most hallowed musicians. That year Slimane became the first menswear designer to win the International Designer of the year at the CDFA awards in 2002. The award was presented by David Bowie who, along with the likes of Mick Jagger, Slimane dressed for his tours.
In 2008 Slimane didn’t renew his contract with Dior, instead focussing on his art and photographic output. It was a 360 degree turn when, in 2012, Slimane took creative directorship at Saint Laurent.
There is no word yet on a replacement, or on Slimane’s next move. Regardless of next steps, it’s clear that Slimane’s departure today marks the end of a game changing chapter for Saint Laurent, and indeed the industry itself. It will also no doubt further fuel the continuing discussion over the structure of fashion’s seasonal cycle today, and the designer’s role at major and heritage fashion houses.