Apple’s iPhone 4 – released on 15 June 2010 – has made narcissists of us all. This 4.5” x 2.31” rectangular device in grey ceramic and soft glass, promised a hyper-connected world and, with its new front facing camera, gave us a way to put ourselves right at the centre of it. It has pixelated human emotion, delivered instant news and promoted tidy eyebrows and sleepy kittens ever since. Notifications ping, urging us to reconsider what went before.
The past is pervasive. A new selfie competes immediately with any that have been taken years before; photographs are consistently stripped of their context and reassessed as if anew. Soon, historians will have to peer at acres of hard-drives, fizzing with the heat of low-resolution JPEGs, GIFs and TIFFS and find nuance in the narrative. Watch, for example, Hedi Slimane’s autumn/winter 1998/1999 menswear show for Yves Saint Laurent on YouTube – its fuzzy gaze creates an aura of authenticity around clothes that look just as contemporary today. We suspect it is from the archive, but could be easily fooled. ‘The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious,’ the artist Hito Steyerl wrote in her 2009 essay In Defense of the Poor Image. Things of the past are today made instantly available and new.
Hedi Slimane constantly refers to himself in his work. His reprise of silhouettes, casting and music from his time as Creative Director at Saint Laurent exasperated journalists reporting on his Celine debut in October 2018. ‘Slimane doesn’t seem particularly interested in addressing the mundane issues in a woman’s life. His fashion is not here to solve your problems. Save your problems for your therapist. His designs are about his vision. They are not welcoming. They exist behind the velvet rope. They are the after after party,’ Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post.
The anticipation for Slimane’s spring/summer 2019 collection was fervid, albeit incredulous. Before him, Phoebe Philo had nurtured a cerebral pageantry that had become the go-to for affluent, transatlantic women with careers, brains, children and Isa Genzken sculptures on top of piles of glossy books. Reams of copy were produced when she left the house in 2017 after ten years at the helm. Instagram accounts were made. ‘I Miss Phoebe’, ‘RESPECT THE É’ and ‘BRING BACK PHILO’ were printed across T-shirts. Céline (note the ‘é’) and its female Creative Director were eulogised as clothes for the intelligent, ‘real’ woman who appreciates pockets in her jumpers. Any man in this post-Philo landscape would have had a hard time, let alone one whose last show featured forty-two elongated models wearing swipes of glossy red lipstick and mini sequined frocks, their sky high stilettos clacking against polished stone. Hedi’s appointment was perverse.
Weeks before the show, Slimane photographed fresh new faces with luminous teenage skin for posters that went up in big cities around the world. His lens has focused on a dawn-time, dewy after-a-night-out glamour since the early 00s. His ‘girls’ are never in bright, domestic environments full of colour and textile, as Philo’s women seemed to be. Slimane’s muses are always in stark spaces. They always look alone.
On the night of the show, I was at home watching the live stream. I opened up a group chat on my phone. ‘What do we think is going to happen?’ I asked. ‘I think we know,’ came the resounding reply. Collectively, my colleagues and I had a desire to be shocked after a season of okay clothes. We knew that Slimane was going to pick up where he’d left off at Saint Laurent two years previously, but the ninety-six looks didn’t offend me in the way they did so many others. The group chat murmured dutifully about Philo but I was attracted to Slimane’s refusal to look outside of the world he had created for himself since the mid 1990s, a world that seemed to be about dancing, drugs and decadence. The show certainly felt out of touch, but it didn’t feel undesirable. A far cry from the wokeness that even suburban titles like Vogue have commandeered; all those young, underdeveloped bodies, those white models, those small skirts and stupid 1980s hats. It was a little dated, sure, but does that make it bad?
Where Philo was supposedly reacting to women’s lives, Slimane to many felt reactionary. Vanessa Friedman at The New York Times wrote that the show was a boring retread of things that Slimane had done before. The Hollywood Reporter went so far as to ask if he was the ‘Donald Trump of fashion.’ Some reviewers referred to headline-driven politics, in particular the Kavanaugh hearing, wondering if Slimane’s skirts were yet another patriarchal abuse. The world is pretty fucked up – human rights abuses read like shopping lists, the ocean is full of plastic, no-one can seem to agree on gender dynamics – how the hell can you like something that’s so démodé, people cried with indignation. The global reaction to Slimane’s Celine was predictable disappointment. His nubile vision felt like an attack on all women.
If fashion truly is this thing that swirls and surges forth, if it changes and shapes our times, what happens when a designer stands still? Is perpetual self-homage a welcome, steady approach in uncertain times or does this dogma lead to a dead end? Staring into black mirrors we all play Narcissus, fascinated by our own faces, so can we really condemn Slimane for not evolving? Could it be that Slimane’s staunchness is the uncomfortable reflection of our own self-absorption?
At each company where he has been since he became the ready-to-wear director of men’s collections at Yves Saint Laurent in 1996, Slimane has approached his work in the same way. He references a time when youth was fetishised above all else. He adds a smack of glossy, Warholian relatability. Between 2000-2007 he created Dior Homme at Christian Dior, devising a recognisable, rigorous look for the house which has shaped so much of the standard tailoring we see today. His autumn/winter 2001 Solitaire show was fast-paced with slim black suits and white, open-collar shirts; the models came out with licks of hair blown back. Cathy Horyn remarked that: ‘Where Mr. Slimane excels is … in his ability to impart a sense that these are clothes for the here and now.’ Some fourteen years later, Slimane reflected on that time to Yahoo Style: ‘The early ‘00s were long gone and I felt disconnected to something that for me looked somehow from the past, even if I had been active, excited, and part of this movement at the time. I would now rather explore an analogue world, that could bypass the botoxed-digital revolution, an alternative aesthetic that feels emotional, moving and warm, slightly wrong or chaotic at times. Anything but a deadly digital flat screen world.’ As Armani had in the 1980s, Slimane moved suiting into a new realm. Karl Lagerfeld infamously attributed his dramatic weight-loss during the period to his desire to fit into one of Slimane’s slim fit suits. To him, the clothes were ‘right for the moment because it was of the moment.’
When Slimane joined Saint Laurent for a second time in 2012 (his first stint as director of menswear ready-to-wear ended when he left for Dior) he rolled out a much-lambasted ‘Reform Project’ of the house, most famously dropping the ‘Yves’ from the ready-to-wear label and establishing a design base in LA, 9,000km away from Rue de L’Université on Paris’ Left Bank where the brand had been based since 1961. Four years later, Slimane was out and succeeded by Anthony Vaccarello whose look borrows a lot from the glitzier end of Slimane’s. Look at Celine’s new Hedi-approved stores next to Saint Laurent’s and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the two apart – each is a mausoleum of grey marble and chrome. You can practically taste the cigarettes and champagne.
It’s rare for a designer to change how people use fashion to express themselves more than once in their career. When he was at Saint Laurent, Slimane’s concentration on the British music scene and his vampiric eye on the young paid off as sales reportedly crossed the €1 billion mark in 2016. The approachability of the boho LA-meets-Marais look, the dialled down concepts and their lack of pretension appealed to a pool much deeper than those on the front row. ‘Two years ago when Mr. Slimane departed fashion, the world was a different place. Women were different. Hell, they were different a few days ago. They have moved on. But he has not,’ Friedman griped after his first Celine show. Slimane’s glam-rock-pomp goes against the status quo of puritan modesty that has taken over much of fashion. Whilst at Saint Laurent, Slimane was criticised for making very accessible looking clothes, the kind that Zara would have on sale within three weeks. It was a look that he coined ‘post contemporary.’ As some peers were striving for futuristic fantasy, Slimane shifted the focus to quotidian simplicity – and a certain hedonism closer to the perspective of fashion in the 1980s. ‘A dress to get laid, dancing shoes, a prom suit, anything that makes someone feel good about themselves and confident, without going too deep into concepts or being dead-serious about the clothes.’
‘Post-contemporary’ meant that his second, altogether more grown-up, haute-bourgeois collection for Celine seemed, to some, like a complete volte face – the over-the-knee shearling boots, the faded jeans, the suede bombers and the pleated skirts were so deliciously 1970s, so clearly wearable yet rich-looking. Slimane, it was assumed, had come around to the critics’ way of thinking. Yet quickly images from Celine’s campaign archive between 1977-79 began to surface online: Slimane had just served the house codes with his rigorous, glossy relatability.
In revelling in his own past, Slimane is just like us: transfixed by our own mirror image, desperate to claim space in an ethereal world. Like Narcissus, he is comforted by his own reflection. ‘I always believed in repetition, pursuing endlessly the same idea. You cannot own more than one identified style and you need to evolve within the same codes. I transform and borrow constantly from my past collections, what I believe to be making sense or relevant today,’ Slimane said in 2015. Spellbound by his own likeness, he edits his past to look like his present. Silent to the rippling of critique, Slimane is consistency in a confounding age.