A significant round of fashion musical chairs is underway as Peter Copping is out at Nina Ricci; Carven’s Guillaume Henry is leaving the Paris-based design house and is headed to Nina Ricci; Oscar de la Renta subsequently named Copping the man for the job (just days before the death of the house’s iconic founder); and the rumors that were swirling that John Galliano had landed a position at Maison Martin Margiela were finally confirmed, as well.
While such job switch-ups are not terribly uncommon in fashion, very few are as exciting as the Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons placements of a couple years ago, and the designers’ subsequent debuts, which garnered the following headlines: “Paris Face-off: Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons in the Spotlight,” “Battle of the Champions: Slimane v. Simons,” “Dior Duels with YSL at Paris Fashion Week,” “Paris Fashion Week’s biggest face-off between Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane.” Here’s a bit of the background …
March 2012: A month after Kering’s announcement that Stefano Pilati had shown his final collection as creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, (he joined the YSL team in 2000 and in 2004, replaced Tom Ford as director), the house announced that Hedi Slimane would be Pilati’s successor. An excerpt from the statement read: “Slimane will assume total creative responsibility for the brand image and all its collections.”
Slimane, a Parisian-born designer, was named menswear director at Yves Saint Laurent in 1996, before being promoted to men’s artistic director the following year. He left the house in 2000 for Dior Homme, where he became legendary during his 7-year tenure for “radically reshaping the silhouette of men’s fashion,” says i-D. In 2006, Slimane, who was succeeded by Kris Van Assche in March 2007, did not renew his contract at Dior and spent the next five years residing in Los Angeles and pursuing photography, before re-joining Yves Saint Laurent in March 2012.
In the meantime, in March 2011, following John Galliano’s sudden and shocking dismissal from Christian Dior on the heels of his very public anti-Semitic rants, Slimane was linked with the job of Dior’s new creative director. He had never formally designed womenswear before, but, nonetheless, according to many sources, he, along with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, Haider Ackermann, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, and Marc Jacobs (who was still at Louis Vuitton at the time), was being considered for the job.
It actually was not until a bit later, September even, that Raf Simons’s name first entered into the public rumor mill as a possible replacement for Galliano. At the time, he was splitting time as creative director between Milan-based brand, Jil Sander and his eponymous menswear label, which is based in Antwerp. His name reportedly entered into conversation after talks between Louis Vuitton director Marc Jacobs and fellow LVMH-owned brand Dior broke down, supposedly due to Jacobs’ salary demands and his desire to take his entire design team at Louis Vuitton to Dior.
Fast forward to February 2012: We learn that Jil Sander is returning to her eponymous brand (again) to take over the role of creative director, thereby, replacing Raf Simons. Two months later (after a year-long search), it was confirmed that Simons had taken over as the new creative director of Dior and would show his first collection during the couture collections in July. After a year of rumors, speculation and many false appointment proclamations, it felt a bit like the fashion equivalent of the final stages of selecting the Pope.
Of finding a successor for John Galliano, who enjoyed a Dior tenure that spanned from October 1996 to March 2011, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault said, “I didn’t want to rush. It was really a question of choosing the best person for the job. The greatest talent of the moment for Dior, the greatest house in the world.”
October 2012: What exactly made the appointments and subsequent ready-to-wear debuts of Slimane and Simons so enthralling? Certainly there were the factors of suspense and uncertainty regarding who would step into the respective roles of director at two of the most celebrated houses in Paris, as well as a great sense of impending change.
As renowned fashion critic Diane Pernet put it, “When two relatively young yet seasoned and successful talents appear on the scene like this, there’s a sense that they could depose the grey-haired masters who have dominated the industry for so many decades.” And not only are Simons and Slimane relatively young, they are unconventional. Slimane had just come off of a sabbatical of sorts in Los Angeles, re-branded the name of the iconic house’s ready-to-wear collection, and moved the design studio to Los Angeles.
He would go on to make important editors stand, while young rocker-types scored the best seats at Saint Laurent shows, and would fail to invite other editors and critics (most notably, the New York Times’ former fashion director and critic, Cathy Horyn). He staged rants (think: My Own Times, his open letter to Horyn), and was just generally rather difficult with the press in general. Up until this point, Simons, on the other hand, was known for his penchant for outsiders, the avant-garde, and the interzone. He had, after all, chosen for many seasons to show his garments on skinny, pale street casted Antwerp teens, as opposed to the agency-represented models other houses were using.
But there was something else at play, something many have become distinctly attuned to thanks largely to Ms. Horyn, in particular: some underlying rivalry between the two designers, which many attribute to the press. Regardless, a sense of urgency and of taking sides of sorts was in the air. Vanessa Friedman, then writing for the Financial Times, put it well, stating, “This Paris Fashion Week is being framed, broadly, as a face-off between Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent.” To an extent it makes sense.
The designers, who were both 44 years old at the time, both started in menswear. Simons had gained formal experience at Jil Sander, and until his YSL debut (actually, it was probably Saint Laurent by that point), Slimane lacked any. They both were (and continue to be) somewhat radical in terms of who they design for and the manner in which they show it. They take inspiration from youth culture and the streets, a bit of a far cry from the polished gentlemen that other big houses cite as muses. And then there is the skinny silhouette.
Both designers have been credited with pioneering “the skinny, wasted youth silhouette” that essentially changed the course of men’s fashion. Some, like Cathy Horyn, say that it was Simons who introduced the look. In fact, it was in her 2004 review of Simons that she penned the statements she deems to have landed her on Slimane’s blacklist.
Reflecting on the review almost ten years later, Horyn said, “Essentially I wrote that without Mr. Simons’s template of slim tailoring and street casting, there would not have been a Hedi Slimane – just as there would never have been a Raf Simons without Helmut Lang … Mr. Slimane insisted that he was the first to show the skinny suit.” Others, such as Julien Neuville, writing for BOF, suggest that “it was undoubtedly Slimane’s reign at Dior Homme that made [said silhouette] a commercial success, bringing it into the fashion mainstream.”
This was underlying the designers’ October 2012 ready-to-wear debuts; as you likely know, Simons made his official Dior debut several months prior, showing his first-ever couture collection during the Autumn/Winter 2012 couture shows in Paris, in what Vogue labeled “one of the most talked-about debuts in fashion history,” the one “show that the fashion world has waited with absolute bated breath to see.”
This otherworldly depiction of Simons likely didn’t help, especially when coupled with the media’s depiction of Slimane as a diva, of sorts. Leading up to the show, “constant emails from the [YSL] PR team were sent to the media explaining the brand’s name change from Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent and requesting only certain images of the designer be used to illustrate any features on the brand.” Moreover, the PR team reportedly asked editors, namely, BOF’s Imran Ahmed, to amend tweets and features related to the brand which with the team was reportedly unhappy.
All the while, Pierre Bergé, the late YSL’s partner, praised Slimane. In his first post-appointment statement, he told the New York Times: “It’s a great problem, very complicated, to recreate the work of a genius. Like trying to rewrite Faulkner. To put your stamp on the name of Yves Saint Laurent requires someone who has talent, conviction, rigor, a demanding nature and a great sense of color.” This made for tension that was nothing if not palpable on the eve of the designers’ Spring/Summer shows.
A legitimate inquiry: Who, if anyone, can live up to the suspense, the fanfare that we saw in the combination of Simons and Slimane? A month after the Spring/Summer 2013 shows came the news that Nicolas Ghesquière, who had truly cultivated Balenciaga into a critically acclaimed modern house in his 15-year tenure, would depart. A year and a day later, he publicly welcomed as the creative director of Louis Vuitton.
And in the meantime, shortly after Ghesquière announced his plans to leave Balenciaga, Alexander Wang was named as his successor. Wang’s debut for Balenciaga came in February 2013 at Balenciaga’s historic salon on the Avenue George V; Ghesquière’s for Louis Vuitton in March 2014. They were both highly anticipated events, especially given the legal drama that still surrounds Ghesquière’s departure from Balenciaga.
Maybe if these two had made their respective debuts in the same season, they could have rivaled Simons and Slimane, Ghesquière is, after all, “unarguably one of the biggest talents in fashion,” as British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has said and with which I think we can all firmly agree.
Judging by his undeniable talent, as well as his band of followers, well wishers, and not-so-well wishers, if anyone can step up to the plate here, so to speak, and have us waiting on baited breath for his debut, it is certainly John Galliano. Don’t you think so?
*This article was initially published in October 2014.