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Aug / Sep 2011
Rebel with Applause

WRITER: Sara White Wilson / IMAGES: Hedi Slimane Anthology of a Decade 2000 - 2010, JRP-Ringier, courtesy of Gallery Almine Rech

Hedi Slimane is arguably one of the 21st century’s most influential fashion designers, responsible for transforming the male silhouette while at Dior Homme. Bespoke speaks to the French-Tunisian about his current forays in fashion, photography, and art.


Held in dark and industrial underground nightclubs on the evenings of its bi-annual ready-to-wear men’s fashion shows in Paris, a Dior Homme afterparty is an intoxicating scene of extremes: young male models with an uncommon aesthetic wander around, dancing and partying in a decadent atmosphere of rock and roll splendour. There is a positive sort of boredom, anger and nonchalance in the air; one that defines youth – basic, raw and kinetic.

Hedi Slimane, the man who, during his seven years at Dior Homme, revolutionised the most stolid of all clothing categories, menswear, managed to instil a DNA in the brand that has remained long after his departure in 2007. Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, who was overweight for years, lost almost forty kilograms in order to entirely change his body’s morphology. The reason?  “I suddenly wanted to dress differently, to wear clothes designed by Hedi Slimane.”

Slimane tailored the trousers and jackets shorter, tighter and with a geometric purity that consolidated and then shifted the direction of men’s fashion, bringing it forward leaps and bounds. This is what Slimane does best. He synthesises time, place and culture with originality and dynamism. And, it’s not just done in the cutting of cloth.

“I believe the current time, the culture defines fashion, including menswear,” explains Slimane. “Technically, the fit, or what you call the cut, and what I would describe rather as an ‘allure’, reflects menswear - it is a ‘motion’ definition. Fashion defines, codifies, or reflects the way we behave with each other.”

After firstly serving as the collections and art director at Yves Saint Laurent from 1997 to 1999, then taking the helm of men’s apparel for Christian Dior and achieving something ineffably iconic in that role, Slimane was clearly poised to begin his own label and/or take on any leading design house to rule the fashion field. There has even been recent speculation that he would replace John Galliano at Christian Dior. Instead, he focused on the image – photography, in particular – as well as art installation and video that has resulted in no less than 12 solo international exhibitions and seven publications since 2003. Multifaceted to say the least, he has collaborated with famed filmmaker Gus Van Sant as an artist, designed the album covers for Lady Gaga, Phoenix and Daft Punk, and dressed David Bowie and Mick Jagger for the stage.

‘Anthology of a Decade’, published this year by JRP Ringier and edited by Lionel Bovier, is a diary of Slimane’s photographic eye in black and white. Portraiture, still life, urban detail and landscapes capture youth, style, sub-culture and mood. The limited edition box set is comprised of four volumes; each documents, with a subtle and central focus, the psychological space of young men in the United States, Berlin, Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively.

Slimane’s references are classical yet the images stand alone, pure. Informal portraits of models Slimane had scouted on the street for Dior Homme, taken during castings or backstage, present austere and strange beauties with a lost look, a natural air both innocent and fallen. They resemble sketches of young aristocrats in the era of German Romanticism, or the likeness in ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ by Oscar Wilde. His Saint-Cyr series, photographs of a young French military cadet in full uniform, likewise recalls a literary character, Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’. Portraits of rock stars, such as his muse Pete Doherty, are like those of 19th century dandies, yet entirely deconstructed. “This is about making a sophisticated ritual out of any single second of existence.”

It is the incarnation of youth culture that most fascinates Hedi Slimane; he sees and documents the rawness and layered complexity in youth and the urge to act beyond convention, the powerful mixture of self-consciousness and rebellion that others tend to overlook. Youth’s charm, when everything and nothing is at stake, is Slimane’s creative resource that he employs without exploitation, respectful of its fragility, vulnerability, grace and vibrancy.

Referencing risks taken in his own career, Slimane insists, “I never saw risks but I always thought I should try something, and defend my ideas, consistently. I always have a curious and positive approach to things that emerge; I need to experiment with change, and try to avoid any preconceived idea about the relevance of the present versus the past. It has always been simply intuitive and certainly passionate. I also never listened to anything around me, but kept following my path, regardless.”

Slimane has a sense of where elemental creativity is brewing. His path seems consistently in anticipation of the zeitgeist, a term defined by a German Romanticist thinker who found a German translation, literally, ‘spirit of the time’ for the Latin term genius seculi, or ‘guardian spirit of the age’. Slimane recounts: “I usually ended up in places at a moment where things did not happen yet, and was caught into them when they where about to happen… It was the case in Berlin at the end of last decade. I remember quite clearly how no one in the fashion industry wanted to hear about Berlin, as I tried for a couple years to share my creative interests for the city. Then, the same happened in London, when in 2003, a new indie scene started to emerge. I published those books about it, and it only started to transform into a zeitgeist or something like this in 2005. Now, in the case of Los Angeles, it is just like those other cities before, totally random, and out of personal interest, and feel. It is a territory of exploration where many creative fields collide… an interesting ground for contemporary culture right now.”  

There does seem to only be a ‘now’ for Slimane; this is, perhaps, the secret to his ongoing creative vitality. This ‘now’ also defines the intersection of the movement of fashion and the distillation of it in image – or rather a “movement definition” as he formerly described.
Perhaps the reason Karl Lagerfeld responded so viscerally to Slimane’s designs, while at Dior Homme, is because Lagerfeld’s approach is also deeply connected to a process in which fashion design and photography are nearly inseparable – Lagerfeld exhibits photographic work and captures Chanel advertisements himself, taking the lens to his own designs.

“It is just exploring both sides of fashion, really.” Slimane elucidates the process, “It is about a holistic perception, and description, of it. Photography was always a privileged medium of spreading an idea of fashion, just like gazettes and catalogues were doing for the last two centuries. The design process is a direct approach”. Slimane speaks of the way he used the medium while designing and, may yet use it again, if he decides to return to design: “I applied photography techniques to my fittings, and in particular the basics of photography: light versus shadow, black and white, composition, depth of field. Photography helped me finally to define the proportions that later became well known in men’s fashion.”  

He is still in the process of defining. “I assume menswear designers need to always pursue a sense of progress, knowing the tradition by heart in order to define new or other perspectives, without preconceived ideas.” Slimane remains rooted in the process of conceiving with originality and refinement based on the music, the modes and the moment.

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