image: YSL

image: YSL

Hedi Slimane – who Kering announced in April would not be returning to the helm of Saint Laurent, after a four year tenure – certainly left YSL with quite a legacy … from the house’s dramatic increase in sales to its massive overhaul (and subsequent confusion regarding the proper usage of the house’s name). Interestingly, Slimane, who very notoriously had an active hang in everything from the house’s runway show sets to the casting of its models, also had a hand in making big names out of his most recent muses. 

Take Grace Hartzel, for instance. One of the models who walked in nearly every major show during the Fall/Winter 2015 and Spring/Summer 2016 shows and more recently as a Marc Jacobs exclusive was Grace Hartzel. The Indiana-born beauty, who was scouted in 2011, has been walking in shows since 2012.  She hit the runway for Theyskens Theory’s February 2012 show and Raf Simons’ Dior couture debut in July 2012.  

However, despite her presence on the runway between 2012 and 2014, Hartzel remained relatively unknown until March 2014, when she walked in the Saint Laurent show as an exclusive. Hartzel had walked for Saint Laurent before (think: F/W 2013 and S/S 2014), but it wasn’t until F/W 2014 that creative director Hedi Slimane took to the brand’s Twitter account to share that Hartzel was his most recent muse and Saint Laurent’s exclusive girl for the season.  She opened and closed the house’s show that season.

From there, Hartzel, who is signed with Next Model Management in New York, Paris, Milan, and London, fronted a number of Saint Laurent campaigns: Pre-Fall 2014, F/W 2014, Pre-Fall 2015, and S/S 2015 eyewear.  She has also since walked in the house’s S/S 2015 menswear and womenswear shows, and starred in one of its Music Project videos alongside musician Curtis Harding.

But let us back track again for a minute. Hartzel had an impressive career before Hedi. She walked in shows for Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture collections, for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, and Oscar de la Renta, among other big names. And yet, many people didn’t know her name, which is not uncommon for models.  From this, we can conclude that in a sea of cheek-bone bearing faces and tall, slender bodies, walking in big name shows often is not enough to garner widespread attention.  You need something else.

As we have noted in the past, Prada is consistently hailed as the house that makes models. A few examples: Daria Werbowy, who currently holds the record for opening and closing the most shows in one season (in addition to landing almost every major campaign, such as Céline (repeatedly), Salvatore Ferragamo, Balenciaga, Versace, Balmain, YSL, Dior, etc.), was the face of Prada during her debut season. 

Arizona Muse walked exclusively for Prada in September 2010 and was subsequently named the breakout star of the season; she has since appeared in a handful of Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Chloe, and Jil Sander campaigns, among others, as well as Prada’s S/S 2011 campaign.  Lindsey Wixson, who opened the F/W 2010 Miu Miu show (that’s Prada’s little sister collection) and walked for Prada beginning in S/S 2012, has gone on to land YSL, multiple Chanel, multiple Miu Miu, Versace, and Alexander McQueen campaigns.

Sasha Pivovarova, a full fledged supermodel, hardly needs an introduction. Amanda Murphy opened Prada’s F/W 2013 show.  She now resides on models.com’s Top 50 list and fronts campaigns for Prada, Celine, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bottega Veneta. 

And most recently, 17-year old Maartje Verhoef, who opened Prada’s S/S 2013 show as an exclusive, booked the corresponding Prada campaign, as well as two Valentino campaigns, was reportedly the most in demand model of the S/S 2015 fashion month, and has since opened and closed a number of major shows during the F/W 2015 fashion month.  This is just a small handful of the many Prada exclusives and doesn’t even take the male models into account, many of whom have similar post-Prada success stories

We also posited not too long ago that while it is not as influential as Prada, Saint Laurent, under the direction of Hedi Slimane may be the next house to watch in terms of making superstar models.  In case Hartzel is not enough proof, take Helena Severin, who made her catwalk debut in Saint Laurent’s F/W 2014 show, closing the show and walking as an exclusive. 

From there, she walked in Prada’s F/W 2014 and S/S 2015 mens shows, opened Christopher Kane’s F/W 2014 show, and walked in a number of other major F/W 2014 shows, including Prada, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Miu Miu, and Saint Laurent, of course, as well as the Dior, Margiela, and Valentino Fall 2015 couture shows. She also landed the Dior F/W 2014 campaign.  Not a bad run so far.

We also posited not too long ago that while it is not as influential as Prada, Saint Laurent, under the direction of Hedi Slimane was a house to watch in terms of making superstar models.  In case Hartzel is not enough proof, take Helena Severin, who made her catwalk debut in Saint Laurent’s F/W 2014 show, closing the show and walking as an exclusive. 

From there, she walked in Prada’s F/W 2014 and S/S 2015 men’s shows, opened Christopher Kane’s F/W 2014 show, and walked in a number of other major F/W 2014 shows, including Prada, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Miu Miu, and Saint Laurent, of course, as well as the Dior, Margiela, and Valentino Fall 2015 couture shows. She also landed the Dior Fall/Winter 2014 campaign.  Not a bad run so far.

The same can be said for Lili Sumner (pictured above), whose career didn’t take off until she walked as a Saint Laurent exclusive during the S/S 2014 season.  She has since walked for Marc Jacobs, Margiela, Schiaparelli Couture, Viktor & Rolf Couture, and landed spreads in various Vogues.  Last but not least (for now) is Valery Kaufman, who stars alongside Hartzel in the Spring/Summer 2015 Coach campaign.  Having made her debut in 2012, Kaufman had already opened a DKNY show, walked for Miu Miu and Prada, Celine, Dior, and a number of other major shows but didn’t start landing campaigns until after she hit the runway as a Saint Laurent girl.

So, what is it about the Slimane stamp of approval that catapults these girls – and boys, too – from models to “it” models? Well, maybe it is just that.  If sales figures for Saint Laurent are any indication, just about anything Hedi Slimane touches turns to gold.  Given seasons of negative reviews from critics, it is a bit surprisingly that Slimane’s rocker wear and sparkly minidresses are huge sellers for the brand, but they are. 

In fact, things are going so well that Saint Laurent has consistently held the title of the fastest growing brand for its parent company, Kering, which also owns Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen.  According to a February 2015 report, Kering says that Saint Laurent’s revenues have doubled in the three years since Hedi Slimane came on board as creative director.  In 2014 alone, sales rose 27 percent.  Maybe Slimane’s Midas touch (think: nearly unmatched influence) extends beyond the pin-thin trousers to the models, as well.

The fanfare that surrounds Slimane is far from surprising, as he has cultivated quite a following over the years.  Slimane, a French-born, Italian-Tunisian 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.

Slimane’s name and his career comes with high praise.  For instance, of the designer, Index mag wrote: “Hedi Slimane’s first paris collection for Dior Homme felt urgently new to everyone.  His razor-slim silhouettes, exquisite haute couture tailoring, and luxurious fabrics epitomized sophistication and sensuality.  Hidden details— like the clear sequins he sewed inside trouser pleats — delighted even jaded critics.” 

In 2006, Style.com’s Tim Blanks wrote: “Hedi Slimane’s debut collection for Dior Homme drew praise for offering a new way to be masculine.  Since then, he’s created one of the most identifiable and influential vocabularies in menswear.” 

BoF wrote some years later: “Few careers have been so closely monitored, or as widely discussed in recent years, as Hedi Slimane’s.”  There are countless other excerpts just like this from just about every major fashion publication (unless the author is Cathy Horyn, the New York Times’ longtime critic, who firmly believes Raf Simons was the one who pioneered the aforementioned change in silhouette).

Much more recently, Robin Mellery-Pratt, writing for BoF, summed up the effect of Hedi Slimane quite well.  Speaking to the designer’s success at YSL, she wrote: “Many consumers come for the so-called ‘Cult of Hedi,’ a devoted fashion tribe, which has followed Slimane throughout his career, from Yves Saint Laurent menswear to Dior Homme and back to Saint Laurent.” 

The same article quotes MyTheresa.com’s buying director, Justin O’Shea, who said: “Its Hedi’s way or the high way. He has created a movement rather than a trend. He has divided the fashion world by taking such a radical approach to his Saint Laurent and its only when you have emotions of ‘love’ or ‘hate’ that you truly create dedication and patriotism. He is a genius.”

There is something that may prevent Saint Laurent from rising up to meet the challenge posed by Prada; the one potential downside of being a model on Saint Laurent’s radar is a lack of versatility that may be what attracted YSL in the first place. It is no secret that the Saint Laurent girl or boy is skinny – not model thin, so to speak – skinny. Slimane’s models are some of the skinniest in the business, which tends to be a bit too small for an array of other houses. In fact, they, along with the clothes often make headlines.

On the heels of the brand’s January 2013 menswear show, a publications of publications commented on the “shockingly thin” models. The Guardian, for instance, wrote: “Cheekbones were hollow, shoulders were slight and legs, encased in leather or artfully ripped jeans, were shockingly twig-like.” In March, Shannon Bradley-Colleary, a body image blogger, launched a Change.org petition to convince Yves Saint Laurent’s CEO Francesca Bellettini to stop using “seemingly malnourished” models in the brand’s advertising campaigns. It gained quite a bit of traction.

The British Advertising Standards Authority received complaints stemming from Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 2014 ad campaign and its “unhealthily thin” models. The ASA subsequently gave the campaign the OK.

Is this a total deal breaker for Saint Laurent’s models? Obviously not, based on the success that a handful of Saint Laurent exclusives (including Hartzel) have had in the industry. The boys – the truly odd looking ones – will likely have a more difficult time. But even they have promise; there are some natural transitions, such as to Rick Owens, which has a penchant for unusual looking models. 

If Slimane really is this larger-than-life figure in fashion as he is made out to be, maybe a younger Miuccia Prada or truly a rival to Raf Simons, then any models that hit his runway are essentially just an extension of him and his vision.  As such, they carry with them (the exclusives, in particular) the proven sellability of the Saint Laurent brand and who wouldn’t want that on their runway, as well?