In a time when the speed and harvest of the fashion industry has left many designers longing for quieter pastures, Hedi Slimane remains one of the most powerful of our time. In fact, to call him simply a designer would be not true; like a film auteur quietly orchestrating the entire mise-en-scène—say Truffaut or Stanely Kubric—everything we see (and don't) is well under his control. And he's been doing it for years.
Born in Paris in 1968, Slimane's creative interest began first in photography, picking up a camera before his hands turned to thread and needles in his early teens. (His first "collection" was reportedly finished by the time he turned 16.) After his studies at the École du Louvre, Slimane worked alongside Jean-Jacques Picart—the famous consultant who helped Christian Lacroix form his own Maison—on Louis Vuitton's 1996 centenarian celebration. The duo convinced the likes of Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang, Manolo Blahnik, Isaac Mizrahi, and others to reinterpret the house's monogram canvas, and the exhibition—one year a head of Marc Jacobs' appointment—is considered fundamental for the development of Louis Vuitton from a luggage and leather goods name into a fashion powerhouse.
In the '90s, Slimane joined Yves Saunt Laurent as an assistant in its marketing department. But Pierre Bergé, the house's co-founder, saw a fire in the young designer, and by 1996 Slimane was appointed ready-to-wear director of YSL's men's collections. Monsieur Yves Saint Laurent reportedly attended Slimane's debut menswear show, and others in the front row around the eponym observed him applauding enthusiastically. With Alber Elbaz helming women's, Slimane's most influential work for Yves Saint Laurent came in Fall/Winter 2000. Named Black Tie, the designer used the collection to test preview his later-signature super-skinny silhouette, which sharply contrasted the soft, baggy fit of the time and thrusted Slimane into the spotlight. Immediately after he left YSL to join Christian Dior in 2000.
During his period at Dior, Slimane realized his razor-thin aesthetic more than ever. On January 28, 2001, he staged his first official vision of this at the Galerie de Botanique in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, effectively reintroducing Dior Homme as a new brand and setting the rules for the way men should dress. Extremely thin and androgynous, the models were a reference to the underground Berlin and London subcultures that interested the designer, and the skin-tight clothes left barely any room to breathe. Back then, the world had seen nothing like it in men's fashion, and people—including Karl Lagerfeld, who went through a dramatic body transformation to fit into the pieces—were obsessed. "I had got along fine with my excess weight and I had no health problems, or—which would be worse—emotional problems," the late designer said at the time. "But I suddenly wanted to wear clothes designed by Hedi, which required me to lose at least six of my 16 stone [nearly 100 lbs]." Throughout the years the two remained close, with rumors buzzing of Slimane replacing Lagerfeld at Chanel after his passing. Such would not be the case.
Slimane launched Dior Homme's first fragrance, Higher, in 2001, and a year later he became the menswear designer to be named the CFDA International Designer of the year. It was presented by David Bowie, who had become just one of many musician-fans the designer accumulated at Dior. He also created custom pieces for the likes of Mick Jagger and Jack White to wear on tour, and invited indie rock bands to create the soundtracks for his catwalk shows. Slimane chose to depart Dior in 2006 after negotiations about launching his eponymous label failed. For the next few years, Slimane returned to photography as his central interest. He had always kept it as a hobby, famously documenting the backstage scenes of his own Dior Homme runway shows, but now it became a more dedicated craft. He launched a blog, The Diary, that same year, and published an anthology of photo books.
March 2012 marked Slimane's return to fashion, when he joined Yves Saint Laurent as creative director, overseeing the brand’s womenswear and menswear collections. His first decision to drop the "Yves" from the house's name foreshadowed four coming years of decisive—and controversial—transformation. The name change, which was a reference to 1996, when the ready-to-wear line was launched as Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, was greeted with heavy outcry and critique: media outlets of the time called it "foolish" and "disrespectful," while Sarah Andelman's Colette stocked parody tees that read "Ain't Laurent Without Yves." As far as clothing went, Slimane revived his skinny silhouette but dressed down the formality, introducing a vision more inspired by Coachella than Paris. Driven by youth culture once again, the pieces were noticeably more commercial than that of his predecessor Stefano Pilati's eveningwear, and showed close ties to LA's music scenes. Though Slimane's return collection for Saint Laurent, Spring/Summer 2013 was not well received—some called it "bizarre" whereas others linked it to Forever 21—by the end of his tenure, he grew the house's revenue more than 20 percent each year, outperforming the overall market for luxury goods despite having a significantly smaller retail network.
In his year-and-a-half thus far at Celine (sans é), the designer has entirely rebranded the French fashion house. With strikingly androgynous campaigns shot by Slimane himself and a new vision of retail and ready-to-wear, there is virtually no trace of former artistic director Phoebe Philo and the "Old Celine" aesthetic. While his first collection nearly mirrored Slimane's skinny, sexy, drug-chic work for Saint Laurent—leading many to suggest it was an unshown collection preserved in his private ateliers—Fall/Winter 2019 gives closer insight into the designer's long lead fascination. Seventies inspired bourgeois dressing debuted spectacular pleated checked skirts, and ladylike blouses were adorned with the most expansive shoulder bags.
It was a role reversal. A flip of the switch between the old and the new; the expected and the not-thought-of, that Slimane has done best in the past and continues do so today. With Celine, Slimane introduces yet another series of first (men's collection, first couture atelier, first fragrance TBD), and while many may think they've figured out his formula, he shows over and over again that even that can change.