In the first warm flush of a somber Parisian summer, Hedi Slimane, the creative director at the house of Saint Laurent, stands in a bunker-like studio at the Grand Palais and watches a familiar process start anew. It is the final evening of men’s Fashion Week, and Slimane, who may be the most scrutinized and controversial designer working today, is preparing to unveil his spring 2014 men’s collection. Few could keep cool under the pressure: Slimane’s previous Paris shows have been alternately called “genius” and “disrespectful,” and each season brings the hope that he will top what came before. Yet tonight he’s surprisingly, almost impossibly, calm. He wanders through the room with his hands in his pockets, making shy conversation with his friends backstage. He asks some bystanders about their recent travel. While hairdressers circulate with combs and makeup artists fuss with brushes, Slimane casts his eyes through the hall with the interest of a dispassionate observer. “I set it up before,” he explains; now the machine just has to be put into motion. Men’s fashion is his native element, and, unlike the strict, formally demanding women’s shows, it welcomes some swerves from the runway norms. “It’s more of an open field,” he says, rocking slowly from one hip to the other, his only hint of nervous energy. “The questions of ‘What is beauty? What is luxury?’—you can challenge those ideas without it being a big issue.”
The scene backstage straddles two continents and several worlds. Slimane pauses to talk with the young French actor Pierre Niney, who’s been filming a biopic about Yves Saint Laurent with the director Jalil Lespert. Then he speaks with his models—or “boys,” as they’re known in the business—most of whom aren’t models at all. When he’s in L.A., where he spends most of his time, Slimane recruits in the wild, like a Hollywood talent scout, looking for young men who have the slender Slimane proportions and, even more important, a certain nonchalance of manner. He likes musicians because they know how to move onstage. When Slimane first approached the twins Fletcher and Wyatt Shears [pictured below], who have a band in L.A. called the Garden, they were confused. “We didn’t even know what Saint Laurent was at the time,” Fletch tells me. But he had a habit of wearing red lipstick onstage (it’s his thing), and Slimane loved that distinctive touch. “We’re like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” They Googled. Then they flew across the pond. This summer’s show was the second they have modeled for.
Slimane has bright-blue eyes and a thin aquiline nose, suggestive of Mozart in the famous late-life portrait by Joseph Lange. He wears his chestnut-colored hair with a modest degree of shagginess, parted on the side and sweeping down over his forehead. He’s polite to the point of solicitousness. “Did you take some Coca-Cola?” he inquires of one of the boys shortly before the show begins.
“You should keep your sugar up.”
At 7:50 p.m., there is a signal, and the boys move briskly to the racks, where they strip down to black Saint Laurent trunks. Clustering around them are the lovely, long-haired young women of Saint Laurent, dressed uniformly but unidentically; the women are tying ties, pulling cuffs under sleeves, knotting bandannas. “Can you head over there?” someone calls to the boys in English. They line up, and the crew steps back, hands on chins, knuckles on lips, assessing their handiwork like parents sending their kids off to prom.
Outside, in the hall of the Grand Palais, I find my assigned seat in the front, near the foot of the runway, not between two fashion doyennes but between the French electronica star Nicolas Godin, of Air, and Dean Spunt, from the experimental L.A. punk group No Age. (The latter created sound installations for Slimane’s “California Song” exhibition at the MOCA Pacific Design Center, in 2011.) The hall is lit crosswise with gentle fuchsia light. It centers on a towering, angular arch with a reflective metallic surface which Slimane designed himself.
The room goes dark. Music by the Bay Area rocker Sam Flax throbs over the sound system, loud and steely and unexpectedly clublike in the vaulted room. (Slimane brings in his own sound managers, from music festivals.) Metal columns on the edges of the runway begin telescoping upward—an idea that Slimane had one day while watching the radio antenna on his Rolls-Royce rise. Soon they mark the runway edges like palms on North Beverly Drive. At the top of each antenna is a light panel, sparkling and roiling in coordinated patterns. Then a boy appears, seemingly conjured by the music, wearing the first pieces of the collection. A young Frenchwoman nearby drops her jaw with wild delight—and stays that way, gaping, for a long time.
In the past few years, Slimane’s work has transfixed many observers of the fashion world. Recall the “skinny suit,” which seemed to define the trajectory of men’s—and women’s—silhouettes in the new millennium? It was, by most accounts, Slimane’s invention. You know the cover of Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, framing the singer in an angular blonde bob—perhaps the most recognizable album art of the decade? Slimane took that photograph and designed the cover. Remember the “faux hawk”? That distinctive pyramid of hair, madly popular in the 2000s and still proudly worn by untold numbers of British men, is attributed to Slimane as well. (His own coif has clearly moved on.) The list continues. These days, Slimane maintains a large Twitter following and a highly regarded photography site, on which he features his unorthodox fashion shots and documents his rock-inflected L.A. life with images of concerts and rodeos and surfers on the California coast. The invitation to his show was a smartly bound book of colorful abstract prints by the American artist Matt Connors. Slimane seems to take fashion not as an end point but as an access point for general creativity.
Not everyone appreciates his approach. Although he has been called “the single most influential men’s designer this century,” criticism has nagged at him almost since the start. At Dior, his forms were said to favor “manorexia.” When he left Dior in 2007—and seemingly the fashion industry as well—to work on photography, that was seen as controversial, too. Since he took the helm of Yves Saint Laurent in March 2012, nearly every decision he’s made has been subject to intense debate. “The disconnect with the Saint Laurent customer seemed at times alarmingly wide,” one journalist wrote after his second show, which was heavily inspired by the age of Nirvana. “In California, where Slimane lives and to where he has moved the design studio, nineties grunge is a deeply felt part of everyday folklore; but in Paris, it is an abstract concept.”
Perhaps most contentious have been the changes he’s brought to the tone of Saint Laurent, a house that in recent years has embodied soigné elegance and Right Bank luxe. Under Tom Ford, who took over Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear collections in 2000, it had a svelte, slinky reverence; Stefano Pilati, who assumed the role in 2004 and led the house till last year, offered an intellectualized approach with a couture polish. Slimane’s hiring left all that behind.
There was, for example, his choice to set up a studio in Los Angeles, where he was living—a move that some saw as a rebuff to the ascendancy of French design. Then there was the name: Slimane redubbed the house Saint Laurent Paris, rendered in a clean Helvetica-like typeface, and required everyone who referenced the brand to do the same. Finally, there is the fashion itself. His first women’s collection—his first expressly designed for women—for spring 2013 reached back to late-sixties, early-seventies L.A., with broad-brimmed Janis Joplin–style hats, fringed suede, billowing chiffon sleeves, cropped jackets, and skinny black trousers. To promote his grunge second collection for fall 2013—his knowing take on plaid shirts, baby-doll dresses, men’s overcoats, fishnets, and slouchy sweaters—he launched something called the Saint Laurent Music Project, which featured his black-and-white photos of musicians with vintage allure, such as Kim Gordon, Marilyn Manson, and Courtney Love. With a few dark strokes, the Saint Laurent woman had been reimagined.
“I was intrigued by what Hedi was doing,” explains Gordon, who first met Slimane one spring at Cannes and found they shared a love for Laurel Canyon style. “He said, ‘Pick out what you would feel comfortable wearing.’ ” Courtney Love couldn’t resist him either. “When Hedi’s collection came out, I was blown away. I was so happy,” she says. “They were such rock clothes. Everything seemed like it was mine.” Even as the moods of his collections change, Slimane’s style is unmistakable, based in precisely tailored garments in an almost photographic black-and-white palette. His aesthetic has been called androgynous, but a more exact term may be ambi-sexual: Like a pair of classic Wayfarer sunglasses, many of his clothes look equally natural on both genders. When women started buying Slimane’s Saint Laurent men’s ankle boots last year, he began selling the same shoes in female sizes. And when he showed resort this summer, he had the men’s spring 2014 collection placed alongside women’s resort 2014, stressing their interchangeability.
Is this really so different from the work of Yves Saint Laurent—the designer who first taught the world that stylish urban women could look great in a safari jacket or a well-cut tuxedo? Thanks to the efforts of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime lover and professional partner, and Philippe Mugnier (who helped care for the designer in his final years), the life’s work of Yves Saint Laurent is now preserved in an archive of some 5,000 garments, 35,000 accessories, and 55,000 sketches at the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent on Avenue Marceau. A look through this trove indicates what’s frequently forgotten: Saint Laurent, like Slimane, was preternaturally attuned to the street style and eerie cultural echoes of his era. At Dior, where he, too, had an early stint, Saint Laurent designed a rebellious Beatnik-inspired collection; during the riotous Paris summer of 1968—the season when Slimane was born—he channeled the mood of the time with fringed boots and duffle coats. In 1971, the year The Sorrow and the Pity came out, he designed a provocative forties-inspired collection inviting France to contemplate its compromised wartime past. And in 1976, as Russomania engulfed Europe and America alike, Saint Laurent unveiled his famous Russian collection. No wonder Slimane sees his work at the house not as reinvention but as restoration of this original tradition.
“Yves had great admiration for Hedi,” Bergé told me recently. “In the fashion world, where frivolity is a must, it’s the opposite with Hedi—seriousness, integrity, honesty, and style.” Betty Catroux, the lithe Left Bank model who was Yves Saint Laurent’s close friend and muse, told me she feels more herself in Slimane’s clothes than she ever has. “Hedi saved my life because I don’t feel like a girl and I don’t feel like a boy. Since he’s been there, I’ve felt so good in my skin. He’s made for me,” she said recently in her well-appointed Paris flat, wearing new Saint Laurent head to toe: black tinted glasses, black shirt, black jeans, and polished oxfords. “He feels his times so well. I felt it with Yves, and I feel it with Hedi.” She added, “I’m very intimidated by Hedi. Saint Laurent had the same vices as I had, and you can’t be intimidated by someone who has the same defects. For me, Hedi has no defects. . . . He comes from another planet—the good one.”
Working without the customary first assistant, Slimane launched a “permanent collection”—a camel trench, a tuxedo-inspired jacket, black and white crepe-de-Chine blouses, a line of classic duffel bags—to serve as a baseline for Saint Laurent’s aesthetic and a standard stock for its stores. Then, with the same hands-on brio, he started personally redesigning all the major Saint Laurent shops, one by one, to capture that sensibility: From New York to Paris to Shanghai, each shop is distinct, but they share a cool, elegant layout and several signature materials, like black-and-white marble and nickel-plated brass.
According to Slimane, renaming the house Saint Laurent Paris was similarly meant to unify these ready-to-wear operations and to bring them in line with the house’s roots: The shops launched as Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and started going by the designer’s name only in the nineties. Slimane wants to reserve the YSL branding for a potential return of the house’s couture branch, which went dormant in the founder’s final years..
“We needed someone who understood the brand, who knew what the brand was in the sixties and seventies, but to use that in a very modern, new way,” says François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, which owns Saint Laurent. “And I really must say, Hedi is the only one capable of that. His understanding comes with a very strong, very clear vision.”
Many of the details on which Slimane spends his time aren’t apparent on the runway. From where I sat at the men’s show, for instance, it was impossible to see amid the uncharacteristic splashes of color—the yellow-and-black striped shirts, the bright-red pants, the pink boots—that an apparently straightforward black jacket was actually made from a black-on-black leopard-print silk: an allusion to one of Yves Saint Laurent’s old patterns. It was not apparent that nearly all of Slimane’s women’s shoes are based on the profiles of two signature YSL models: the Paris, a classic high heel, and the Janis, a platform. Nor was it possible to deduce that the casual-seeming red bandannas around models’ necks were woven from couture-quality cashmere and silk.
Slimane does not like many of the fabrics available to designers today—he thinks they’re cheap and generic and don’t sit right—so he often commissions his own, harking back to the specialty weaves of the sixties and seventies. He believes strongly in the “patina” of wear. (For this reason, he never allows a new men’s shoe on the runway.) Many people were aghast, a few months ago, when it was reported that a nineties-inspired baby-doll dress from Slimane’s fall women’s line retailed for $68,000. Few realized that the price was a function of the hundreds of hours of tailoring involved. “What people didn’t see in the grunge was that literally 40 percent of the pieces were handmade in the old atelier,” Slimane says, done to the highest haute-couture standards. Partly, the idea was to remove the sheen of preciousness. But it was also to dignify street style with the craft that old-world techniques can allow.
After the men’s show, a line of well-wishers snakes behind the stage to compliment Slimane on his collection. At one point, I trip on the back of the set and nearly pitch headlong into a petite blonde American standing nearby—the singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira, who appeared in Slimane’s pre-fall campaign. “Sky! How are you?” Slimane says. He gestures toward a well-dressed, earnest-looking guy nearby. “Beck, my friend Sky.” Slimane is in a warm mood; he starts talking about John Hughes, the cinematic bard of the eighties teen dramedy and an initial inspiration for the show. “The last time I saw Sixteen Candles, I realized that there was a similar car in it, about the same year, in fact,” he said of his Rolls. A few moments later, No Age, the two-man band, approaches: “Hey, man. Congratulations.”
Slimane grins, delighted. “This is like a whole California moment,” he says. “We should have come on a chartered plane.”
The first time Slimane visited Los Angeles, he didn’t like it. But the city grew on him over subsequent visits, and by the late nineties, it was his creative idyll. Many fashion-world observers say a trace of California style started showing up in Slimane’s work during his first collections at Saint Laurent. He suggests this is a case of critics’ reading his biography rather than looking at the clothes. “Most of the Dior collections were designed from Los Angeles,” he says: From those early years, every time he had to start a collection he would head to L.A. Much of what’s thought of as Slimane’s French-period work was conjured in the L.A. landscape.
In his youth, Slimane entertained thoughts of becoming a journalist, and he still has a reporter’s eye for cultural news. As a result, he tends to gravitate toward milieus that combine a vibrant avant-garde with layers of history. For a while, in the early 2000s, he was in love with Berlin and would spend the workweek in Paris and most weekends there. But then the city started to get overgentrified and culturally shellacked (too much like Paris, he felt), and the scene faded.
Slimane moved to Los Angeles on leaving Dior, ostensibly to focus on his photography, and when he agreed to take the helm at Saint Laurent last year, it was with the clear understanding that he would move his head of operations to the West Coast. Today, he works from a spare, light-filled, unmarked modern building in the flatlands of West Hollywood. There’s a pleasant patio, with picnic tables where affiliated artists often work; inside, the studio is painted pristine white and is largely empty—save a work table, clothing racks, and a magnetic board where he hangs printouts of work in progress and mug shot–like portraits of potential models. L.A. has suited him perfectly, he says. Rather than tiring of the scene, he’s come, over the years, to love it more and more.
One fragrant night in late spring, Slimane picked me up in his Rolls-Royce for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s opening of Le nozze di Figaro. He did not have a license before moving to L.A., but the Southern California road has recently become one of his greatest pleasures. He is wearing slim black Saint Laurent jeans, a closely tailored jacket (also black), a delicately striped shirt, and round sunglasses from his unisex line. The car is a triple black Rolls-Royce Corniche from the seventies that he’s updated with more modern dashboard equipment and a better stereo. “I don’t like contemporary car design, which I think shows too much the line of the computer,” he explains.
The Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills where we go for dinner is nearly empty, and the waitstaff is gathered in a loose ring around our table, eager to see whether Slimane enjoys the steak he’s ordered. (He eats about half.) We talk about what he’s trying to do with the house, the importance for him of photography and music. “It’s an idea of style, of colors, or proportions.”
Soon we realize that we’re running late. “I apologize for the speed of it all,” Slimane says. “But this opera. . . .” He leaves his car with the valet—parking is a pain downtown—and we climb into the large black SUV nearby in which Slimane’s driver is waiting. Slimane gazes out the window, at the sidewalk and pedestrians; I ask him what he looks for when he selects models. “Some kind of character,” he says, “rather than extremely pleasant physical beauty, which is not something I’m really interested in.”
We arrive at Walt Disney Concert Hall with two minutes to spare. Slimane likes opera—he went constantly for a few years, starting when he was nineteen—and Le nozze di Figaro is his second-favorite. (He prefers only Così fan tutte.) And this opening is especially important because his friend the couturier Azzedine Alaïa designed the costumes: stylish and modern. “Look!” Slimane says, pointing to a couple of seats near the front, where Alaïa is sitting. He grins affectionately. “He looks nervous,” he says.
Slimane lives in a 1961 house designed by the architect Rex Lotery and located in Trousdale Estates, a verdant expanse in northeastern Beverly Hills that once sheltered Ray Charles and Elvis and now houses artists such as Ed Ruscha. Slimane likes the work of Lotery, who is more under-the-radar than many of the iconic L.A. modernists, and whose style, at once casual and precise, seems to share something with his own.
Since Slimane bought the house in 2009, he has been working hard to restore it to its original early-sixties condition. He undid some renovations that he found misguided. He furnished the rooms with vintage tables and chairs. (Many are the work of European modernists, whom he’d begun collecting in Paris.) When we arrive, someone—it is not clear who—has started a fire in the home’s walk-around hearth. A few candles, well placed, are flickering on the tables. The whole house has the air of a dream realized, from the lush, big-leafed plants bordering the lawn to the pristine night-light pool to the single-story interior, elegantly leveled (a step up here, a couple of steps down there). We sit down by the fire, and Slimane produces a good red wine, from France, and a little silver cup of imported chocolate, which neither of us eats. He begins explaining why the criticism of his work does not rankle him too much. “It’s hardly a contest of popularity. I defend my ideas. I might be wrong, but I can’t hesitate. It’s not about pleasing,” he says. A singer-songwriter is crooning softly over the stereo.
We take a tour of his art collection—an arch term, considering that some of the works are by local artists he considers friends. There’s a black-on-black canvas by Mark Hagen, a Rashid Johnson, a Bruce Conner from the early seventies. As we pass through the rooms, I’m struck by an organizing intelligence so distinct it’s almost palpable. In the living room, art and color-theory books: Jasper Johns, Josef Albers, Joseph Beuys. In the small working studio near the back of the house—Slimane generally designs at home in the morning and then heads into the Saint Laurent office for business midday—pencils and paper on a simple table by the window. Slimane’s music room has a turntable, a neat stack of vintage LPs. (Dylan is on the top.) The bedroom is small and sparsely appointed, with what appears to be a fur bedspread. It is the home of somebody who has the uncanny capacity to shape an aesthetic from every channel through which style can be expressed.
“I like to pursue organically one single idea. How many styles can you have?” he says. “Singers—there’s a tessitura to each one: The first second you hear the voice. So: How to progress without being repetitive? That’s a question I find very interesting.”
Slimane grew up in the Buttes Chaumont neighborhood of Paris but used to spend hours in the Louvre, before it got redone. “I wasn’t the most sociable child,” he says wryly. His first great passion was for French history, especially of the eighteenth century. “I was reading history books all the time,” he tells me. Later, he became an equally attentive student of art. His parents, a Tunisian accountant and an Italian seamstress, supported his various fascinations. When he was a teenager, he fell in love with Russian Constructivism, and with the work of Aleksandr Rodchenko in particular—those flat, energetic compositions seemed to redefine, for him, what it was possible to do with color and geometry. As he grew older, he joined the rigorous preparation track for Paris’s elite L’Institut d’Études Politiques, better known as Sciences Po. This was when his focus as a student began failing him. He was eighteen, and he started going out into Paris’s night life.
Slimane comes from a family of tailors. In addition to his mother, who taught him to sew, he had a great-uncle, in Italy, whom he never met, and an uncle who were men’s clothiers. When he began going to clubs, he found that no garments he could afford properly fit his skinny frame, and so he started making his own.
That simple habit of creation—not a kid’s bedazzlement with a world of glamour and camera flashes—was his entrée to fashion, and it has arguably colored his priorities ever since. “It’s not like, ‘This season I’m going to do rock music and next season something else.’ This is his world,” Emmanuelle Alt, the editor of French Vogue, explains. She and Slimane, roughly the same age, have been close friends since meeting at a dinner party one evening. (“It was a coup de foudre, like with a boyfriend, except friends.”) “He’s very interested in the reality of a scene,” she went on. “Any girl of 20 years old can completely relate.”
Slimane never made it to Sciences Po. But in the early nineties, after a course of study at the École du Louvre, he landed an apprenticeship with Martin Margiela, and his career as a designer took off quickly from there. In 1996, when he was 28, he visited what was then the headquarters of Yves Saint Laurent, on the Right Bank. (“I was petrified,” he recalls.) Pierre Bergé hired him to direct the men’s ready-to-wear collection; he worked under the house’s founder himself. Four years later, he left YSL to become the creative director of menswear at Dior.
It was at Dior that Slimane found his signature. It was also where he started connecting with many of the art- and music-world figures who make up his circle. He earned a reputation designing stagewear for such pioneers of stylish androgyny as Mick Jagger and Daft Punk. “That’s one of the reasons Dior Homme was so popular,” Courtney Love says. “First the power lesbians were wearing it. Then chicks like me started collecting it really fiendishly, almost like Prada cigarette pants. I’ll never forget Michael Stipe pulling out this Dior Homme suit when R.E.M. was still together, and he’s like, ‘I just indulged—you have to see this.’ I put it on, and it was so beautiful.”
When Slimane left Dior, in 2007, and moved to L.A., he assumed he was leaving fashion permanently. “L.A., it’s much more his world,” Alt says. “Freedom, skateboarders, the beach. If you’re that interested in music, Paris is not the right city for you.”
“The first election”—of Obama, in 2008—“was a big part of me moving,” Slimane says over breakfast one morning at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I thought it was a very promising time for America—I’ve always been more interested in politics in the U.S. than in France.”
When Slimane returned to Yves Saint Laurent last year, it wasn’t because he wanted to rejoin the fashion world. (He didn’t.) It was because he wanted to rejoin YSL. But he would do it, he decided, not as a Parisian fashion guy but as a California artist. Because he moves increasingly with L.A. rockers, he has a sense of the new vanguard of style. (“Many of the cult figures in men’s fashion were musicians,” he observes.) And because he has one foot in the art world, he’s able to approach style in its purest form: not as a thing to be sold in department stores but as an original art, a process of experimentation with color and materials, focused through his own camera lens. Traditionally, designers are not supposed to look directly at a model or client during a fitting; they study the clothes only in the mirror, a method of stepping away from the material—the way a playwright might watch rehearsals from the back row. (Christian Dior famously used a long wand to gesture during fittings, the better to get farther away still.) Slimane says he thinks of his camera today as a couturier’s mirror. His hope is, ultimately, not so much to invent fashion as to capture life.
The morning after the men’s runway show, I meet Slimane at the eighteenth-century building where he’s constructing a new Paris studio and atelier for Saint Laurent—part of his plan to return the house’s heart to the Left Bank and revive its couture operation. Slimane loves the building, but he hates the way that it was renovated. For one thing, there are weird floors: modern tile in the main salon, brand-new hardwood everywhere else. For another, the detailing is lousy: There’s embarrassing faux-marbling on the molding, and the doorknobs are all contemporary. Then there are the fireplaces, nineteenth-century models unsuited to the rest of the room. Slimane wants to replace them with period-appropriate hearths, but because the updated fireplaces are considered nineteenth-century artifacts, one of his architects explains, the local government has placed red tape around their removal. Slimane shakes his head.
The stately three-story building with large windows will house the receiving studio and tailoring room. (Across the street, on the Rue de l’Université, is a Sciences Po campus—the irony is not lost on Slimane.) When I arrive, he has just had chandeliers hung in the receiving room, which has an arcing balcony above the large stone courtyard. The chandeliers are dummies—he does not yet have the right period antiques—but he wants to see how they look as visitors enter. As with the chassis of his Rolls-Royce or the shoulder width of a suit, it is crucial to get the proportions right.
When Slimane is at work like this—on the trail of the real thing—his demeanor changes. He is no longer shy, deferential, and gentle; he’s confident, unwavering, wry. “Are there any questions?” he asks his architects. After pausing to wince at an electrical-outlet panel that someone planted in the middle of the floor (“They must have been drinking or something”), Slimane steps gingerly out onto the balcony and proudly surveys his work in progress. If he does everything right, he explains, this atelier will have a sense of the old Parisian “ritual,” a line of continuity back to the past.
“There is that balance I want to find between the contemporary world—my studio in Los Angeles—and Paris—the church, pure tradition,” he explains. “The fashion is about both influences.” He pauses. “It’s the moment juxtaposed with tradition. That’s the house.”