Image: YSL

In the spring of 2016, shortly after it was revealed that Hedi Slimane would vacate his position as creative director at Saint Laurent, the Paris-based brand wiped its Instagram clean of the largely black-and-white imagery that captured Slimane’s cult-favored offerings over the previous 4 years. The imagery – which consisted of fringed-haired models clad in skinny suits and youthful, rock-n-roller frocks, and musicians like Courtney Love and Kim Gordon – had been photographed by Slimane, himself, raising questions (on this site, at least) about whether the photos had been scrapped as a result of a behind-the-scenes legal back-and-forth. 

That would ultimately turn out to be the case. As would be revealed in connection with the two lawsuits that Slimane filed against Saint Laurent’s parent company Kering shortly after his departure (both of which centered on the terms of his employment contract, namely, the applicability of his non-compete agreement and the terms of his compensation), the parties were, in fact, clashing over the imagery. And as of this week, Slimane has been handed a win in the form of almost $700,000 in damages, according to Bloomberg, due to the fact that “Yves Saint Laurent continued to use photographs and videos [Slimane] made for past advertising campaigns without his consent.” 

The nearly quarter-of-a-million dollar figure ordered by the court is “far less than the almost $6 million Slimane was claiming,” but “brings his total courtroom winnings against Kering to more than $22 million,” the publication notes, referring to a pay-day of more than $11 million that Slimane was awarded for the final leg of his contract, and the subsequent $11.5 million sum that a Paris Commercial Court ordered Kering to pay Slimane in connection with his outstanding equity in the company. 

The headline-making legal squabbles over Slimane’s compensation and his non-compete agreement were relatively straightforward matters, save for the fact that Slimane wanted the non-compete provision in his contract with YSL to be enforced, which meant that, legally, Kering would need to compensate him for the time that he was prevented from working for a rival company; Kering had opted to waive the non-compete, thereby, prompting Slimane to take legal action. More commonly, creatives are looking to get out of their often-iron-clad non-compete agreements in order to jump ship to another brand. Nonetheless, the commercial matters proved striking, as they provided something of a rare look at the usually kept-quiet terms of employment of the highly sought-after creatives at the top of the fashion industry totem pole.

Meanwhile, the fight over the photos has proven to be a similarly intriguing one, as well, as it stands in stark contrast with a well-established industry practice when it comes to employees’ work product. In the vast majority of cases, as a condition of their employment, individuals – whether it be high-powered creative directors in fashion or inventors at leading tech companies – formally assign away their rights in the things they create during their employment (and any intellectual property rights in those creations) to their employer. This is why designers rarely (if ever) file intellectual property infringement lawsuits against their employers after the fact when archival imagery or protected designs are used.

Slimane’s designs from his time at Saint Laurent, such as the various handbags, sky-high stilettos, and sneakers, that are the subject of design patents in the U.S., were assigned to Yves Saint Laurent (as indicated by the since-issued patents). Yet, that same ownership arrangement does not appear to have been applied in the arrangement between Yves Saint Laurent and Slimane, at least not based on the fact that a panel of judges for the Paris Court of Appeal determined that Kering is on the hook for copyright infringement damages for including an array of Slimane’s imagery in its online archive. 

(Chances are, the matter may have been complicated to some extent by the fact that Slimane engaged in a regular practice of professional photography before, during, and after his tenure at Saint Laurent, with such work “running parallel to fashion,” as Matthew Schneier wrote for the New York Times back in 2017, including by way of Slimane’s photographic blog Hedi Slimane Diary, which he maintained during his four years at Saint Laurent. Although Slimane told Schneider that his work in photography and in design “are really different and clearly separate disciplines.”).

“The fact that Slimane already received a substantial remuneration for his services does not exempt YSL from paying damages for copyright infringement,” the judges stated in a June 19 decision. Bloomberg reports that “Slimane had initially been paid [a total of] almost $8 million euros to shoot the material,” but seemingly, the rights in the images, themselves, were not assigned to Saint Laurent and instead, remained with Slimane. 

In accordance with the parties’ deal, “YSL could use the [imagery and videos] for two years [after Slimane’s departure from his position with Saint Laurent],” but that any usage beyond that would need to be negotiated. The problem, according to Slimane and the court, “There were 103 instances where YSL should have paid Slimane one-year extensions to continue using the ad-campaign material,” but failed to do so. 

The court’s decision comes on the heels of Slimane being handed a loss in 2017 in connection with YSL’s right to use the imagery, prompting him to seek intervention from the Court of Appeal.  

Assuming that Kering does not attempt to overturn the $700,000 damages award, the Paris Court of Appeal’s decision may mark the end of a four-year-long, multi-case battle between Kering and Slimane, the latter of whom has since decamped to Celine, the Paris-based brand owned by rival conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and taken his easily-identifiable aesthetic – including his photography – with him.