By Eric Wilson New York Times
Hedi Slimane could write a book on how to lose friends and still influence people. It has been a year since Mr. Slimane, who made his name designing skinny suits for skinny men more than a decade ago, took over as the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, in what has proved to be the most contentious undertaking of a brand reinvention in recent memory. Every week there is a new uproar, from spats with critics to the relocation of his studio.
The latest, though hardly the biggest, is a series of advertisements in which Mr. Slimane has cast unwholesome rock stars like Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson to represent what was once the most revered fashion house in Paris, synonymous with Catherine Deneuve and Betty Catroux. One image shows Ms. Love, in a spotted fur coat, crawling on the floor. Another is a close-up of Mr. Manson’s brooding face opposite the new name Mr. Slimane has put on the label, “Saint Laurent Paris.”
“Hedi wants to shock,” said Pierre Bergé, the former partner of Mr. Saint Laurent and Mr. Slimane’s biggest champion. Dismissing the criticism that has shadowed the designer’s every move, Mr. Bergé, who no longer has a financial stake in the company but has been front and center for both of Mr. Slimane’s women’s shows, described him as the one true heir to the legacy of Saint Laurent. It is a house, he noted, that has long thrived on creating great controversy, as well as great fashion.
“When you are an artist,” Mr. Bergé said, “you are obliged to shock.”
This, more than anything, Mr. Slimane has done well.
Since he replaced the designer Stefano Pilati in a creative takeover that bordered on a coup, Mr. Slimane, 44, has introduced a vision for Saint Laurent that has been so divisive among critics and retailers that no one can quite be sure whether, in hindsight, it will be seen as brilliant or absurd. Reviews of his first two women’s collections, luxe boho and floppy hats for spring and baby-doll grunge dresses for fall, have ranged from the underwhelming to the scathing. Meanwhile, much of the news coverage about the designer, an elusive figure at best, has centered on his antagonistic relations with newspaper critics and magazine editors, banning some journalists from the shows and challenging the tone of coverage.
Yet store buyers have fallen all over themselves to be the first to stock Mr. Slimane’s designs, which they say have been selling briskly this spring, despite some problems with deliveries.
“We would have liked to have had it sooner,” said one retail chief, who declined to be named because Saint Laurent is a potentially lucrative business.
Barneys New York had sold 60 percent of its spring order at full price as of last week, including a $14,000 dress. Jeffrey New York also sold out of several key looks. Bergdorf Goodman is building special departments for Saint Laurent in its men’s and women’s stores, which are expected to be completed this month.
PPR, the luxury conglomerate that owns Saint Laurent, wants to make it as big as its Gucci business. To that end, the company plans to open new flagships designed by Mr. Slimane next month in Paris, on the Avenue Montaigne, and in New York, at 80 Greene Street.
In assessing whether his first year has been a success, there is little doubt that people are talking about Saint Laurent, even without the participation of Mr. Slimane in the conversation. Since joining the company, he has taken a provocative stance against the fashion system. He has made few comments to reporters, only to acknowledge that his ideas are indeed rooted in music and to rebut criticism that he was being disrespectful when he dropped the word “Yves” from the label, one of his first moves that gave offense.
When Mr. Slimane returned to Paris, he faced a frosty reception from an industry that has devalued the role of the star designer. Many editors resisted what they saw as diva behavior, like giving only standing tickets to some esteemed guests, from a designer who was still untested in women’s wear.
At his second women’s show last month, a fall collection that closely resembled Courtney Love’s “kinderwhore” style of baby-doll dresses from the ’90s, some guests openly laughed, dismissing the grunge-era looks as worthy of Topshop, not Saint Laurent.
In the Saint Laurent showroom, the runway clothes appear well made and priced for a luxury customer. So, from PPR's perspective, Mr. Slimane is doing exactly what the company wants, engaging in the commercial side of the business, including store design, and communicating directly with younger customers online.
The remaining question is whether customers will see things differently than the critics.
So what if the reviews were dreadful?