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Saint Laurent SS16
Saint Laurent SS16Photography Virginia Arcaro

Ten moments that defined Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent

As the designer departs the house, we look back at the choices, controversies and conquests that marked his tenure

This morning, news broke that Hedi Slimane has stepped down as creative director at Saint Laurent after three and a half years in the position – a time which saw him transform the house beyond all recognition. It’s not the first time he’s defined a look that has a ripple effect far beyond the catwalk; he’s credited with ushering in a new age of masculinity during his 2000-2007 tenure at Dior Homme – something embodied by his slim-hipped, young and androgynous street-cast models. Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounded his work at the house, his time at the helm has been an exciting one to watch unfold. So, in light of his just-announced departure, we take a look back at ten of his defining moments as the creative director of the iconic house.

TAKING THE ‘YVES’ OUT OF SAINT LAURENT

In June 2012, just a month after his appointment, Slimane announced that he was changing the brand’s name from Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent Paris, a move which sparked controversy as well as a now-ubiquitous parody t-shirt “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves”. Though impassioned, this rage was largely misinformed: the brand’s new name was inspired by the one that Yves used – Saint Laurent Rive Gauche – when he established the label in 1966. Responding to the furore in an interview with Vanity Fair, Slimane said, “It is interesting to see how much reaction this ‘retro branding’ has created. Clearly, this period of the history of the house was not well-known, which I trust was a surprise for Pierre Bergé (Yves Saint Laurent’s former romantic and business partner).”

CAUSING CONTROVERSY WITH HIS FIRST COLLECTION

After stepping down from his position as artistic director of men’s collections at YSL in 2001 in order to pursue photography in Los Angeles, anticipation for his return ran high. Slimane’s debut was a reflection of everything he had been living and breathing in LA, squeezed through the Saint Laurent prism. The designer stuck to his signature, with skinny tailoring worn by even skinnier models, for which he had become famed back in his Dior Homme days. Critics and YSL fans alike panned the collection, with legendary fashion critic Cathy Horyn writing that “the clothes held considerably less value than a box of Saint Laurent labels” in her review for The New York Times. In what has become one of the most legendary spats in fashion history, Slimane retorted in an open letter posted via his Twitter account in which he describe Horyn as a “schoolyard bully” and said “she will never get a seat at Saint Laurent”.

CHOOSING A GIRL TO BE THE STAR OF HIS FIRST MENSWEAR CAMPAIGN

Referencing the brand’s androgynous history, the star of Slimane’s inaugural menswear campaign was female – Dutch beauty Saskia de Brauw. Shot by the designer himself, de Brauw cut a sharp figure in the label’s whip-thin tailoring. But the androgyny went further than the campaign – the collection itself (from the clothes to the shoes and accessories) were available for men and women alike. While playing with gender tropes has become more common in today’s fashion industry, back in 2013 it was relatively unchartered territory, particularly for a brand of SL’s stature.

CASTING MUSICAL ICONS IN HIS CAMPAIGNS

It’s nothing new to cast a celebrity as the face of a brand, but it was the ‘who’, not the ‘what’, that Slimane did so well. Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Joni Mitchell – all of them verified cultural icons and creative iconoclasts. Like the designer, these figures are outsiders and ones who have challenged or redefined their various fields. By casting them in his campaigns, Slimane was not only paying homage to his heroes but aligning his fashion design with and his photography which centred around musical subcultures. Love, Manson and the rest of his campaign stars were the natural ambassadors for his music-inspired clothes.

DOUBLING THE HOUSE’S REVENUE

According to Kering (the luxury conglomerate that owns the brand), sales doubled to a staggering $800 million during the designer’s tenure. As well as crafting a new look for the house, he succeeded in creating something both aspirational and commercially viable. Party of this was the wearability of his designs, many of which resembled luxurious spins on recognisable style staples such as plaid shirts, leather jackets, skinny jeans and Chelsea boots. But it was more than that; Slimane’s vision for Saint Laurent was all-encompassing, artistic and musical – it had a strong identity that people resonated with and bought into.

CASTING EMERGING TALENTS IN HIS CAMPAIGNS AND SHOWS

From iconic celebrities to a new generation of rock stars – including Staz Lindes, Julia Cumming, and the entire Burger Records set – Saint Laurent under Slimane became the place to spot emerging talents from the world of indie rock. Many of his muses featured on his photographic blog “Hedi Slimane Diary” and became unofficial brand ambassadors in the context of his runway shows and ad campaigns. The shows themselves often resembled concerts more than fashion presentations with live music and people sitting on the floor. Throughout his time at the house, he demonstrated an authentic connection with the generation of young creatives that inspired him.

GIVING ‘THAT’ INTERVIEW

One of fashion’s greatest enigmas, Slimane rarely spoke to the press throughout his tenure at Saint Laurent. However in August 2015, he gave one tell-all interview with Yahoo Style in which he discussed his relationship with Pierre Bergé, the importance of music, the bullying he was subject to as a child and the origins of his skinny aesthetic. “They were bullying me for some time, so that I might feel uncomfortable with myself, insinuating skinny was queer...,” he said, recalling his experiences. “I would turn to my music heroes, and this was comforting. They looked the same and I wanted to do everything to be like them, and not hide myself in baggy clothes to avoid negative comments. David Bowie, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Mick Jones, Paul Weller, I felt connected to their allure, aesthetic and style.”

DITCHING PARIS FOR LA

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yves’ first-ever Rive Gauche collection – the collection which ushered in ready-to-wear as we know it today – Slimane took his AW16 menswear show on tour, staging it at the iconic Hollywood Palladium in his City of Angels, LA. The show, which saw 93 looks come down the runway, demonstrated the similarities between similar Hedi and Yves’ respective visions for the house: it was packed with celebrities and pioneering in the way fashion is presented. Later that night at the after-party, which saw multiple bands play, 70s rock sensation Joan Jett reportedly stood up and exclaimed, “Thank you Hedi, for making such beautiful clothes!” which was met with cheers and applause.

WHEN HE REINSTATED THE HOUSE’S HAUTE COUTURE LINE

By the end of his design career, Yves spent all of his time solely focussing on couture. But this side of the house departed with the founding designer and hasn’t been revived some 13 years ago. Opening the brand’s couture house on Paris’s Left Bank – he has injected a sense of the Rive Gauche into the traditional practice of couture. Last month, he ditched ready-to-wear to show his final collection which comprised of all-couture looks. Inspired by the fashion and glamour of the 80s, the collection was presented to a select portion of the fashion press inside a tradition haute couture salon. Slimane eschewed the pulsating band music that usually accompanies his shows for silence and the voice of narrator Bénédicte de Ginestous, who announced each model’s exit – as he did at every one of Yves Saint Laurent’s shows between 1977 and 2002.

DEPARTING THE HOUSE

Today, on April 1 2016, Kering and Yves Saint Laurent issued a joint statement saying that Slimane’s contract would not be renewed, following months of rumours.  “What Yves Saint Laurent has achieved over the past four years represents a unique chapter in the history of the house,” announced Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault. “I am very grateful to Hedi Slimane, and the whole Yves Saint Laurent team, for having set the path that the house has successfully embraced, and which will grant longevity to this legendary brand.” While the designer is yet to issue a statement of his own, he did tweet a picture Pierre Bergé. Slimane’s successor has not been announced, though Versus Versace’s creative director and Donatella’s protégé Anthony Vaccarello is hotly tipped to step into the breach. What we do know, however, is that Slimane has left an indelible mark on this storied house.