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Julia Cumming wears all clothes and accessories by Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane, Taken from the Summer 2015 issue of DazedPhotography Brianna Capozzi, fashion Emma Wyman

The inimitable legacy of Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent

Revisiting a controversial reign of magnetic personalities and self-expression – plus, see the archive of his clothes on the pages of Dazed

After a four-year transformation that’s seen skyrocketing sales and a radical overhaul of one of fashion’s most prestigious houses, Hedi Slimane has left Saint Laurent. In his time at the brand, Slimane realigned the house to the principals of its founder, who inspirationally said in 1969: “I try to translate a bodily attitude, and, in the end, a moral attitude: the freedom and open-mindedness of a woman.” It’s a chapter in the label’s story that has been marked by controversy, but which will be remembered as one of the most notable and agenda-setting periods in recent fashion history.

As for what that chapter looks like? Twist the lens one way and it’s a foot flat on the accelerator, the wildest, most ‘fuck yeah’ looks you could wish for; fashion straight out of your dreams. Focus the other way and you see that Slimane has been offering perfected versions of 20th century – and definitively Yves Saint Laurent – classics that remain at the foundation of how we dress today: the biker jacket, the parka, the silk shirt, a great fur coat and of course the iconic Le Smoking tailoring. What runs through everything is an uninhibited joy – these are looks to bolster life and emphasise one’s character.

Since re-joining in 2012 (Slimane was artistic director of men’s ready-to-wear in the late 90s, at the time Mr Saint Laurent and Mr Bergé were at the company) he has overseen everything, from the marbled boutiques to the carrier bags which are inspired by wall panelling in Yves Saint Laurent’s Rue de Babylone apartment, and the little snake chains sewn into the garments, gold for women, silver for men. The fact that if you cut them out, you wouldn’t be able to tell which is which, is a testament to the striking equality of Slimane’s vision. Menswear? Womenswear? Male? Female? We’re all a bit of both. He leaves behind a beautifully restored couture house, the 17th century L'Hôtel de Sénecterre, on Paris’ Left Bank (Rive Gauche is at the heart of the brand) and reinstated couture ateliers in Paris and Angers (the most exquisite, sequinned to the hilt eveningwear maintains the ‘Made in France’ tradition, with the incomparable feel of handwork).

Indeed the last show, AW16 Part II, ‘La Collection de Paris’, was a tribute to those ateliers; the thigh-skimming, cold-shouldered 80s couture vibe of it was pure fashion euphoria. That the models should be descending a staircase – a popular motif through art and film for aeons – and Bénédicte de Ginestous was announcing the numbers, as she did for Yves couture shows between 1977 and 2002, was almost religious.

Of course, there have been serious moments of lightning. This house might be as majestic as the leopard print it’s so associated with, but it’s also as dangerous. Yves was the first designer to propose a retro collection, in 1971, and its Paris during wartime references created a scandal among press. Reviews of Slimane’s AW13 grunge collection of babydoll dresses, army boots and flannel shirts hanging off shoulders were equally as scathing in some quarters – all you had to do was change ‘Yves’ to ‘Hedi’ in reports, and the acid-throwing trash talk was near identical.

Having been at most of Slimane’s shows for YSL, including the first tribute collection and that brilliant grunge throwdown, set to Thee Oh Sees’ “Tidal Wave”, I was perplexed at how much the naysayers missed the point. This was sheer vitality, so why the inability to decode Slimane’s heartfelt genius? Who didn’t want to be surrounded by these carefree, liberated women marching to the beat of their own drum? More worrying still, who couldn’t recognise that they were exactly that? Not only as an aspiration for themselves but their sisters, a forward-thinking society? It would be funny, years later, to see even the most acerbic of editors carrying a bag or wearing a pair of shoes by Slimane. While he’d remained consistent and unflinching in his vision, the unmistakable power of desire made their past criticisms sheepish.

“This was sheer vitality, so why the inability to decode Slimane’s heartfelt genius? Who didn’t want to be surrounded by these carefree, liberated women marching to the beat of their own drum?”

The biggest step of Slimane’s vision was rechristening the ready-to-wear to its original moniker: ‘Saint Laurent’, because that’s what it was originally called – Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. It was the first in a vision of devoted gestures. If you visit the best vintage collectors the world over, you’ll see the griffe in those 60s and 70s pieces, or better still be familiar of the famous photograph of Mr Saint Laurent and his muses Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise standing outside a boutique with the iconic typography above their heads.

And it’s an exploration of cultures that made Slimane’s project the most authentic fashion story of the past years. This was an unfolding story of magnetic, provocative personalities, art and expression – and is all there in the photographs he captured, from seasonal campaigns to the hall-of-fame Saint Laurent Music Project, starring Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson and more. The imagery has never diverted from looking at people happy and enjoying themselves, consistent in a feel of high portraiture rather than billboard tableau. 

While Yves had Marrakech, Hedi has Los Angeles with its emerging independent music scene and strong art links. Both designed from their little paradise, despite Paris being the spiritual home of construction. It was a thrill to be at February’s Los Angeles Palladium show, which was louder and longer haired and more sure of itself than ever, weeks before Lili Sumner walked in Paris a red fox cape in the shape of a heart, a kiss-off nodding to the mythic New Year’s cards Yves would meticulously inscribe.

Under Slimane, Saint Laurent has become a key marque in the Kering group, with profits rocketing to €974 million ($1.1 billion). That’s a lot of pressure for whoever’s next. But money means nothing, the real story is a legacy of expression: great music, great clothes, great times. Undoubtedly that energy will continue at Hedi Slimane Diary, the creative’s signature broadcast which pre-empted Tumblr and memes.

Like Mr Saint Laurent, Slimane changed paradigms at both Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. His work is ingrained in the fabric of society: when Hedi left Paris for LA in 2007 after revolutionising modern menswear, his skinny jeans and tight little leather jackets carried on pounding streets the world over. There’s no doubt they still will. It’s even been given a name: the Silhouette Slimane. How’s that for making a mark?