Hedi Slimane’s carefully planned strategy at (Yves) Saint Laurent – a surprising interview!
From the moment Hedi Slimane took the creative reins at Saint Laurent in March 2012, his every move has been talked about, tweeted about, and discussed, dissected, and debated. His supporters have hailed the way he has brought a revitalized allure and skyrocketing growth (revenues have doubled during his tenure and sales were up 27% for the second quarter of 2015) to the famous Paris fashion house. His critics, on the other hand, continue to be scandalized by the way he has injected an aesthetic influenced by musical and youth subcultures into Yves Saint Laurent’s legacy (even though youth and freedom were essential elements of Yves’ own work in the sixties).
Until now, though, one voice has been missing from the discussion: that of Slimane himself. Notoriously press shy, he has given less than a handful of interviews since he started at Saint Laurent, and even those have been guarded. Now, as he prepares to reintroduce couture to the house along with a breathtaking new Paris headquarters for the fitting rooms and ateliers, he is ready to break his silence.
In this interview he opens up for the first time about his personal life: his love for Yves and Pierre Berge, the original founders of the house, now owned by the Kering Group, his attachment to L.A., his sense of being an outsider, the enduring influence of his seamstress mother, his religious faith, and the homophobia and bullying he faced during his youth.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, in his three and a half years at Saint Laurent, Slimane has completely shaken up the fashion industry, and his clothes and his methods have been copied wholesale by many other designers. This is how he did it.
Let’s start with your latest initiative: You are reintroducing couture to Saint Laurent. Why did you feel this was the right moment?
I was simply waiting for the garden of the Couture House to be completed. It took six additional months. The project was in fact ready for about a year, but I was only able to shoot the first couture campaign after the last men’s show. I had this precise idea in mind from really the beginning in 2012, and it took all those years to have all the elements ready, the House, the Ateliers, the team, and of course the Ready-to-Wear in place. The “Yves Saint Laurent” couture label prototypes were created in 2012, next to the “Saint Laurent” ready to wear labels.
Pierre Berge once said that true haute couture no longer existed because the grand social occasions that required haute couture no longer existed. How do you think couture can be relevant in the 21st Century?
Pierre talks about Society, and a certain “Art de vivre“ which does not exist anymore. I understand what he means, and we talked about it together a few times. There are probably different relevant ways to approach this idea of Couture, or “Nouvelle Couture.” In the specific case of Yves Saint Laurent, the sense of privacy prevails. Privacy seems to be the only true luxury left today.
Is it true that you will approve each couture request yourself? Will it be mostly for musicians and actors or for a wider group of clients?
By definition, this needs to be quite specific, with a sense of dedication and intimacy. They are mostly artists or people we know. To coincide with the reintroduction of couture, you have unveiled the new couture salons, housed in an historic hotel particulier on the Left Bank. This involved a painstaking renovation and presumably much expense, and it will ultimately be seen mostly by people who work at the house and a few visitors. Why was this such an important and central element in your plans?
It was actually the most significant and necessary symbol, and the first element of discussion when the group approached me in 2011.
I was convinced Yves Saint Laurent needed a new home, an historical Couture House. The original address, 5, avenue Marceau, had become the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent, and the brand had lost one of its most precious assets. Nothing until now was replacing it. Six months after I started the project, I went for a showing of 24 Rue de l’Université. The hotel particulier was in poor condition, but I fell in love with it right away. It felt right for Yves Saint Laurent, the architecture, the elegant size, the rigorous courtyard.
We were thrilled to invest a lot of our time on every single detail of this restoration project, and it took three years to complete it in depth. I was really happy to find the ateliers back in this traditional Parisian house, two floors above the fitting salons. It was also a relief to see this magnificent architecture returned to its original elegance, after two centuries of abandonment, and the House of Yves Saint Laurent settled.
Can you tell us about the building: What are the most noteworthy architectural or decorative elements?
The Couture House took three years to complete, and three years to also collect modernist Art Deco or Louis XVI furniture, both with Yves Saint Laurent’s collection and with my own.
Is it fair to say that the opening of the couture house represents the end of the first chapter in your long-term strategy to reposition Saint Laurent?
The Couture House needed to be completed so that everything else in my project would fall holistically into place. Preserving the tradition, and addressing the time we are living in: the Couture and the Ready-to-Wear, “Yves Saint Laurent” and “Saint Laurent.”
Let’s talk about that strategy, which you’ve called the “Reform Project.” What is the guiding principle behind the project?
I always start all my design projects with writing a synopsis, a perspective around the fundamentals of a House, together with my intentions or intuitions on what should be done.
I conceived a First Reform project at Dior in 2000, and called it “Dior Homme.” I found this name to replace “Christian Dior Monsieur” which was a little old fashioned, and built an aesthetic around it for seven years.
The reform project at Saint Laurent was done and written mainly for my team to understand what I had in mind for the house. Yves Saint Laurent needed at the time extensive reforms in order to progress on strong foundations.
From the project of the new Couture House, 24 rue de l’Université, to reforming the ateliers, creating a strong tailoring, which was non existent and much needed, I had to find a new sartorial factory to produce an exclusive tailoring for the house, nothing industrial, the pure tradition in tailoring.
The hand of leather accessories was heavy and had for instance to be changed in order to have a French feel. Millions of production details needed to be reviewed and corrected in order to get the right level of quality and branding, the perfect perception of what the House should produce under the Saint Laurent name.
In terms of image, the entire packaging and brand identity was reformed, together with the design of an entirely new website. The first week at Saint Laurent I also designed a completely new concept for the Saint Laurent stores, a concept I keep fine-tuning according to the evolution of the house and my perception of the moment.
Finally, my photography was a significant part of the representation of the brand, as I started to work on this idea of multiple narrative campaigns, with an editorial or documentary approach, next to institutional campaigns. The reform project is therefore about the unity and consistency of all those systemic changes that were needed to comfort the progression and accuracy of the House of Yves Saint Laurent.
One of the first things you did was to rename the ready to wear simply “Saint Laurent.” At the time, some people felt that dropping “Yves” from the label was a sign of disrespect. But in fact this was merely going back to the original branding that Yves had used when he first introduced ready-to-wear. What were the intentions behind the name change?
Historically, Yves decided with Pierre in 1966 to name his revolutionary ready-to-wear “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.“ Yves wanted a clear dichotomy with his couture, and chose Helvetica font for the new label. It was for him a distinctive sign of modernity, and a drastic change from the Couture label. In the interviews Yves gave for the launch of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, we can feel his determination to change the format and values of Ready-to-Wear Fashion next to his Haute Couture.
“Saint Laurent Rive Gauche” was an “Idea.” It was also a radical rupture. Yves wanted to dress the emerging Flower generation, which was his own generation. It was a striking period of Ready-to-Wear for both women and men.
Almost fifty years after, the necessity was for me to transpose this idea, Yves’ freedom, this age of innocence. The return to the original name would also help me to recreate a legitimate and lost balance between the Fashion and leather accessories, besides keeping women’s and men’s fashion side by side. Those were the fundamentals I needed to restore, together with the progressive allure and message of the Rive Gauche, which for me was always the true spirit of Yves and Pierre.
Another fundamental for Saint Laurent was somehow the evidence or desirability of the Fashion. Yves wanted his ready-to-wear to be wearable and laid back. I believe the restoration of the name “Saint Laurent” was the only right thing to do, despite the irrational reactions surrounding my first year, ironically a blessing in disguise that unexpectedly gave all the publicity that was needed for my project.
The retro-branding for the ready to wear meant in reality protecting and preserving the name “Yves Saint Laurent “ for Couture. Rather than “dropping the Yves” the restoration of a spirit of Couture was intended a few years down the line. “Yves Saint Laurent” will be about the ateliers, the tradition, about complete luxury. It would be back when the House of Couture would be ready for it, and the ateliers “Tailleur and Flou” stronger and reformed.
With the House now completed, the two names exist as they always did historically, next to the monogram designed by the artist Cassandre.
The project encompasses everything from the clothes to the website to the advertising campaigns. What to you were the most important building blocks and how did you go about implementing them?
Every single detail seems important. It is about consistency, an aesthetic equation that needs constantly to evolve. It is quite overwhelming to design all those elements, but if the house wants to keep a distinct voice there is no other choice.
Every single block, from design to communication, needs to stay perfectly aligned. So I implemented the changes all at the same time, really from day one. Some took less effort or time to happen, others took years, but everything was launched simultaneously. The collections, the shows were only the tip of the iceberg.
The attention to detail extends to the packaging. But I wonder how many people know that the texture of the ribbon refers to the lapels on “le smoking” or that the inset on the boxes is a reference to the Art Deco paneling in Yves Saint Laurent’s home on rue de Babylone. How important is it for people to know the backstory or is it just something that they will somehow feel?
The feel, the perception is only what matters. Symbols and semiotic are always within the packaging, the labeling, rue de l’Université, or even the collections. There is probably no need to explain them, or mention them, as long as everything is there for a reason. It all works as a construction with infinite details, references and transpositions. No need to know the backstory as long as it exists authentically, intentionally, deliberately.
I’m curious when you first formulated this strategy? Was this something that was in the back of your mind even before Saint Laurent approached you?
I did not have anything in the back of my mind until I was approached by the Kering Group. The process of conceiving a reformation for another house would have been equally scripted, precisely within the specific history and DNA of each House. It is an intuitive and holistic process.
What I cannot do or imagine is to divide the creative process of rejuvenating and consolidating a brand. The creative 360 scope is what matters. The representation of a brand needs to be one thing only or it does not really work, it is not truly believable. Again, this ends up being perception. In the end, a lack of alignment within the fundamentals does show. The public is really well informed, the understanding of fashion and image is very accurate today.
One thing that strikes me, and that many reviewers miss entirely, is that your collections not only invoke the spirit of Yves Saint Laurent but frequently make direct reference to his work: the silhouettes, the tailoring, the colors, the prints, the details… the list goes on. How consciously do you set out to reference his work?
I do it constantly, directly or indirectly. This is a different world though, and what matters is our time, this current generation. As you mention, it can be through different ideas and mediums, but Yves is always on my mind, it is a constant point of reference.
Can you talk about the influence of Pierre Berge on your life?
It is difficult to express how much I love him and admire him. I would do anything for him. I went back to design for Pierre and Yves only.
I owe him and Yves everything,
Pierre has always been who I look up to, to give me the courage, the strength I need, and I have constantly in mind the values and principles that I have learned from him. He is certainly a fatherly figure for me, a commanding authority.
The most beautiful thing about Pierre and Yves is of course the idea that their House was born out of love, the origin of the successful dynamic between the creative mind, and the business mind. Pierre completely invented this idea. Everyone else since Yves and Pierre has tried to imitate the myth of the “Fashion power couple,” but clearly being two is not enough. It is always missing the point and was never a recipe, you cannot recreate it; it was symbiotic. It was about love and complete loyalty. Nothing you can teach in a business school.
Beyond Fashion, Pierre’s societal commitment and energy is so inspiring for me. His courage and battles lately in France with gay marriage, and activism for AIDS awareness for so many years, the way he always assumes with dignity his responsibility and leads.
Let’s talk about the collections: What is the initial inspiration each season? Is it an image, the fabric, something else?
There is no rule, but it is always something current, a documentary idea, even when the movement I comment on is partly rooted in history.
Yves Saint Laurent invented the idea to play with elements or proportions of past decades in his collections (the 20s, the 30s, the 40s), but it was always in the end about his own time and a creation of its own, the attitude of the moment, the polaroid of a generation.
I design my collections and style it on my own simultaneously, so that the attitude in the clothes can be the initial inspiration. Yves was doing the same, and I presume many other couturiers.
It might seem obvious or even silly to point out, but it seems to me the shoes often dictate the attitude of your collections. Are they sometimes a starting point or when do they come into the equation?
The shoes set up the tone and attitude, they change the perception of the way one wears clothes, what we call in France “Le porté.“ It is not about length, but the juxtaposition or “décalage” of the shoes (high or low) with the rest of the proportions. The shoes, together with the hair and a precise casting, give also an idea of the time we are living in.
Were you surprised at how negatively some critics reacted to your first collection and indeed continue to react?
I completely understand the reactions. There was a particular context, like someone switching off the music at a birthday party, but I knew my project would be sensitive.I had found a balance with my life in California for many years, a certain serenity and joy.
However, really early on, my project was surrounded by heavy politics and conflicts of interests. It all started before my first show, out of endless speculations. The tone was set no matter what I would design the first season.
I needed to keep a distance with all the outside commotion that felt unrelated to me and my intentions for the house. The discussions about the name change was, for instance, were misleading and oblivious to the history of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.
The question for me was never criticism, but rather personal considerations and agendas. This is a completely different subject. Everyone was entitled to their opinions and uproar if there were no ulterior or personal motives. I knew my project was not going to be consensual in any way. Consensual at Yves Saint Laurent would probably make no sense.
I wouldn’t pretend to be someone I am not. I trust all designers are different. It is just about being sincere. Remote and in a quiet environment is closer to my nature.
There is another thing, which is always a debate, it relates to the conventions, and archaic perception of Fashion designers.
Designers or creative directors in the current fashion industry have one foot in the studio, the other in the store, and both eyes on the stock exchange. The “controlling” cliché is maybe convenient but misleading. It is never about control, but about consistency, and there is simply no way around it within a global institutional house. There is no choice. Creative, strategy and management are now interconnected, and there is a lot at stake, including the image of an institution, thousand of employees and the responsibility toward shareholders.
In the end, the first collection was simply an introduction to certain codes.
I approached a laid back “psychedelic rock” silhouette that would emerge later, quite strongly today in music, and generally in fashion. I designed an indie wardrobe, reintroducing natural suede, long bohemian dresses with a vintage feel etc.
This was not in fashion at the time, neither was this attitude and “nonchalance,” or my arty casting. So all of these factors were arguably in the picture during the launch of my first collection. The distance, the perception, the new exoticism of California, as a transposition from Morocco, had also a lot to do with it. My new approach was about realism, and what was around me, but miles away from the prevailing conceptual and immaculate approach of woman’s fashion in 2012.
By now it is obvious that your tenure at Saint Laurent has been a complete success in terms of sales, influence, and acclaim. But at the time did the criticism make you second guess yourself? What gave you the strength to stick to your course?
Quite the contrary, my determination was only stronger. If there is no reaction, it means nobody cares. If nobody cares, then we have a problem.
I always kept Pierre in mind. How to sail in a middle of a storm and keep your route? Pierre always knew how to do that, and how to stay firm on his principles and not compromise the sincerity of his message, no matter what it takes, even if you are initially misunderstood.
Besides, criticism and polemic somehow allowed me to simply go straight to the point, take the highway. If you have a lot against you, you have nothing to lose, and you win your freedom. It was obviously never about the perception anyone could have of me. It was about Yves and Pierre, it was about the house and only the house, giving the house of Yves Saint Laurent a perspective, a strategy, and a progression. This is the promise I had made, and I had to keep my word, whatever it meant for me.
Do you see any irony in – or indeed take any comfort from – the fact that Yves Saint Laurent himself incited enormous controversy at the beginning of his career?
I presume a little bit of both. Fashion without controversy probably feels like nonsense. Not that controversy is provocation. I have never been interested by provocation, only the nature of what I do seems sometimes to bring controversy. However, you need a discussion, a debate of ideas, it is healthy. Change is the essence of fashion.
What do you think of the state of fashion journalism in general? Has it been strengthened or weakened by the digital revolution?
It has certainly been challenged by the digital revolution, just like the rest of the Fashion industry. I have always been comfortable with the Internet, and was interested by the idea it was giving new means to speak your voice.
I do read the newspapers online everyday, and as a reader, I expect the absolute and rigorous truth, a professional sense of accuracy, and total independence.This is a wonderful responsibility and a great privilege for a writer.
Which fashion writers or publications do you follow or admire?
I see interesting writers appearing all the time. I like the concept of blogs, and the multiplicity of voices, the global discussion. The way it has forced the establishment to change its perspective. The evolution is exciting, even if designers end up extremely exposed, always on the hot seat. There is naturally the question of the independence of the blogs, who finances them, are they free from the power of advertising, or any other sort of conflicting situation.
It seems to me that most of the critical reaction was provoked by the fact that your first collection represented a break from conceptual fashion, which had dominated the runways for the previous decade. Change always tends to incite controversy. Why did you feel this was the moment for a new direction in fashion?
I can only speak for myself, and there are many different perceptions of what is current in fashion. I was just doing other creative projects for many years other than design, and I observed fashion shifting toward a sense of abstraction. There was also simultaneously this global evolution toward “Everything contemporary.“
The digital shift in architecture that occurred in the early ‘00s, but also in furniture design, illustrator or 3D fashion design, the explosion of the contemporary art scene and collector frenzy started to feel generic. I lost interest for everything “contemporary” or vaguely conceptual-related around 2007 (which does not mean I don’t follow interesting things happening along those lines today, it is a general concern).
I felt there was a need to move forward to something “post-contemporary,” so to speak, escaping a picture-perfect-puritan area. Something like what came after the influence of Space Age in the late 60s. The shift was rather on the street, a gap of generations.
My change of perspective happened through photography at first, going back to a sense of reality, unprocessed, and developed to all things designed and/or artistic.
Everything around us looked like it was coming out of a freezer. 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 analog 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.
Each of your runway shows has a distinct mood, but your designs can also be said to evolve from season to season rather than representing a complete 180-degree turn every six months. That’s apparent in the permanent collection but also in the way the wearer can combine items from one runway collection with items from the next. The clothes aren’t instantly obsolete. How important is that to you?
It is the idea of the effect of time, the affective quality of the clothes, the storytelling side of it for each person that wears them, and keeps them over a period of time.
Next to this idea, I am attached to a “lightness” in the definition of fashion, a certain hedonism, maybe closer to the perspective of fashion in the 70s and 80s. 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.
Finally, I design individual and customized accent pieces, closer to the costumes produced for musicians within the tradition of stage wear. The last men’s and cruise collection are a good example of this. Those pieces are limited editions but still within the spirit of my indie wardrobe.
Do you think your background in menswear, which at its core revolves around the interpretation of iconic items, has influenced your approach to womenswear?
Possibly. Menswear is about perfecting the same pieces over and over again. It is a personal taste for classic or what you call iconic items.
At the time of my first collection, in the only interview I did with Olivier Lalanne at French Vogue, I was mentioning the idea that the press questioned, during my first two shows, “Le vestiaire,” the wardrobe (I named it the “permanent collection“). I wanted to design, next to or within the show collections, an evolving wardrobe of simple and really well made items for both men and women, most of the time unisex pieces. Arguably, simplicity is not an easy thing to achieve, in any creative field.
In that respect, I felt a distance with my early days in design, as I was now in a different place, with the idea of perfecting something apparently simple with a sense of credibility, authenticity and longevity. There was besides no difference with what Pierre had told me when I came back in 2012: “Remember Yves sent a peacoat on his first passage for his first runway, not an evening gown.”
One of the things that sets you apart is the perfection of each individual garment, the almost magnetic sense of desirability your clothes inspire when you see them in a store. I think how often other designers get it wrong, by having the wrong fit or the wrong fabric or adding too many details or too few. It seems to me that, when you design an army parka for example, you are seeking to find the essence and the ideal form of that item. Can you talk about that process? Does it involve a lot of hit and miss, with multiple samples and so on, or does it come together quickly? Can you give an example of how a specific garment came together?
This is a long process in fittings, editing ideas, and looking for that sense of effortless and organic feel. This is also constantly training the ateliers, and factories, for the hand, the finishes. Avoiding unnecessary detail, an awkward pocket, no conceptual proportions or construction, simplifying with the best quality possible.
There is also the reconstitution of authentic fabrics, produced where they are historically meant to come from, developing an expertise and uncompromising precision around those items.
There is the fine line for anything to feel authentic. This is for me the most important inner quality in design, probably informed by photography.
A designer leather or suede jacket for instance is difficult to wear unless it feels it has always been there, believable, and authentic enough.
It takes also forever to make the clothes look like they have always belonged, the credibility of it all. It is an expertise that you keep pushing. You try until it feels just right, and will age accordingly, looking better with time, and looking like you own the clothes you wear. This principle of authenticity applies to everything.
Any piece has to feel real, from an evening gown that needs a perfect luxury and couture execution, to a leather jacket or a pair of denim that can’t feel “designed.“ It is not about “high and low,” but a certain “noblesse” in everything if the execution feels just right.
There is also another element of edge. The issue of “good taste” versus a hint of “vulgarity” or a hint of “risqué.” I never felt comfortable with the frigid and conservative idea of “good taste.”
Fabric must be integral to this. Do you use a lot of the original fabrics Yves Saint Laurent used? How about original military fabrics? Are they exact replicas or updated versions? And are you opposed to the “hi tech” fabrics that exist today?
I am extremely specific on materials in general and spend a lot of time developing new finishes. I have been around fabrics since I was a kid, so this is an element I feel comfortable with. A lot of the mills Yves worked with at the time have sadly disappeared.
Most of the fabrics at Saint Laurent are exclusive and reconstitutions of traditional materials. I also developed all the classic fabrics of the current Saint Laurent permanent items.
“Le smoking ” for instance now has its “grain de poudre,” updated, with the nervous look of a 1930s tux. Military fabrics for instance are real army fabrics from Army mills. It is expertise after expertise, and what a fabric is supposed to be with regard to the authentic function of the clothes.
You’re based in Los Angeles. What draws you to the city on a personal level?
Los Angeles has been my home for almost eight years now. I trust I cannot live anywhere else at this point. However, I am extremely attached to Paris, this is where I was raised and born. From California, I look at Paris with nostalgia, I feel probably more French here than in France, and I watch constantly French movies, and listen to French music. The influence of California is now at so many levels besides the entertainment industry. In fashion, the perception towards the city seems to have changed recently in a positive way.
How does being based there benefit you professionally?
I presume the distance, and the configuration of the city, gives you the possibility to focus entirely outside distractions, and therefore to develop your creativity. I do work constantly here, more than I used to do in Paris, but there is also here that lack of social pressure. Los Angeles is about making things. Being here helps me tremendously.
What is your daily routine in L.A.? I ask not be nosy (okay, maybe a little) but because I think that today a creative director of a major house has to be like an athlete, constantly in training, and the way you arrange your life is a crucial component of the work.
I start the day reviewing emails from the Paris studio. I mostly take care of store design, visual merchandising, advertising, press matters in the morning. I have fittings almost everyday, from mid-morning till evening.
At night I see concerts, or work on music related things, sometimes on photo shoots, although I tend now to shoot only on the weekends. There is no time off really; it is an ongoing creative process.
How is the studio set up in L.A.? Do you work with a lot of assistants or a small team?
The team here is quite small. Around 15 people now, but half of them are image-related and photography assistants. The other half is fabrics and studio. The team at Saint Laurent in Paris and Los Angeles is quite extraordinary. I don’t have first assistants or stylists, so it is quite a lot of work to design six full collections, accessories, store design, shoot all the campaigns etc.
How is the process of making the samples and doing the fittings coordinated between L.A. and Paris? Does it involve a lot of Skype-ing? Frequent visits from the Paris teams?
It is extremely organized, and everything is planned precisely six months ahead of time. The schedule is tight, and I’m strictly following it, as I need to make sure my team is never behind deadlines. There is no Skype-ing at all actually, but frequent visits from the Paris team, development by development. It is more efficient and faster then it would be in Paris because of the discipline we all have.
How closely do you work with [Kering CEO] Francois-Henri Pinault?
I see François-Henri Pinault a couple of times a season, in Paris or LA, and naturally at the shows.
I wonder if you’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider. And by basing yourself for periods of your professional career in Berlin and now Los Angeles, you are conscious or unconsciously creating a situation where you are a stranger, a kind of man who fell to earth, to quote the David Bowie movie. In other words, the sense of being an outsider is somehow fundamental to your creativity. Anything in that?
I was by nature a lonely kid and it stuck with me until now. So possibly, I stayed where I was supposed to be, observing form the outside. This is presumably how photography attracted me. There was always the camera and the lens in between, I did not have to engage or to expose myself, I felt protected, and this is pretty much how I communicated since I did not speak much. The photograph was a language of its own, and I could express feelings and emotions through it.
What influence did your parents have on your future path?
I received a conservative education. My mother had a significant influence. She worked as a seamstress when she came from Italy to Paris, in the early ‘60s. Her uncle was a tailor, and her aunt taught her how to sew and cut without pattern. My mother was really gifted and used to take me around as a kid to buy fabrics.
When I started this project at Saint Laurent, my mother, now 82, was really happy to see me perpetuating a sort of family tradition. Sadly, she cannot make clothes anymore, and I trust she was happy I could somehow do it for her.
My parents taught me values, ethics and a sense of duty. My mother also raised me as a Christian, and even if I never talk about it, my faith, which was never imposed upon me, is really important in my life. It is present in the way I do things, or care about things. It gives me a sense of comfort, and strength.
Another person that was influential in my family was my uncle. He was eccentric, living in Geneva where I spent a lot of my teenage summers with both my beloved cousins. This is somehow where I was first introduced to Fashion and luxury within an artistic and bohemian environment.
You’ve talked about seeing the cover of Bowie’s David Live album when you were six and the effect it had on you. Why do you think music continues to have such an important influence on your life and your designs?
Since I was a child, music was everything to me. Just like zillions of children and teenagers it was a refuge, and it is still the case today.
It will always have a predominant influence in everything I do, starting with photography. For decades, I have always been surrounded by different generations of musicians.As for design, I discovered fashion through album covers, and music magazines, Rock and Folk in France, or Best, or NME.
I think it’s possible to see elements of your Dior Homme designs in your collections for Saint Laurent. There are parallels for example between your Spring 2016 men’s collection for Saint Laurent and your Spring 2005 collection for Dior Homme. Is that just an ingrained part of your aesthetic or do you consciously use some elements of your past while rejecting others?
I constantly use my own vocabulary. Since my years at Dior, and starting with the “Glam rock” collection in 2005, I started to doubt coordination and the conceptual formalism I was into for seven years. Following my photography, and rock portrait photography in particular, I was looking for imperfections, flaws or vulnerabilities translated into an “analog” design. The styling principles were about realism, and quirky wit. I was trying to escape a contrived aestheticism, and rather insist on personal style.
The magpie styling for the Glam show, referring to the strong indie rock scene emerging in London, was precisely my personal style and organic to the generation I was depicting. The characters in my show were all authentic individuals, and mostly musicians of the English scene, street cast with a strong personal sense of style. The street was somehow informing the fashion, and I transposed this effortless wardrobe, within the rules of couture, the savoir-faire of the Parisian ateliers. The clothes were a “trompe l’oeil” of iconic street pieces, now impeccably made.
You needed to be up close to understand most of it was embroidered by hand, or extremely luxurious, but without the gloss, the perception of new. Think about Georges Brummel, and effortlessness, or the Duke of Wellington, and the relation to the new. The necessity of the quality or sophistication of the execution was everything to those iconic street items.
I resumed this idea at Saint Laurent, starting with the men’s and women’s Grunge collections. Again, this current interpretation of grunge was relating to a present musical movement, and the attitude of this generation rather than historicism. A shift was probably needed at the time to question a predictable perception of luxury, and move forward with a laid back effortless approach of couture. I also always knew that I would balance the sense of hyperrealism at Saint Laurent with the perspective of the couture to come. It was going back precisely to the message of Yves, when he launched “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,“ providing this is 50 years after, and the street is different.
You cast your runway shows and your ad campaigns yourself. What draws your eye to one person and not another?
I always designed or thought of a photograph with someone specific in mind. I always pursue the same character—a specific energy, creativity, individuality—it is never quite about classic beauty, although I understand the appeal, it is not something that moves me. I always look for singular characters, a sense of reality, mostly strong personalities, sometimes melancholy, or when it comes to design, a certain personal style.
Since my years at Saint Laurent in the ‘90s, later at Dior in the ‘00s, and the last eight years in America, I ended up creating a sort of community between all those artistic characters, where often friendships flourished between them, or led to creative collaborations on their part. They understand the project and become the project. It belongs to them and they make something of their own out of it. You just start something when you find them, but what it triggers is what they will grow into. This is what matters in the end.
What do you say to people who say that you are too obsessed with a certain skinny ideal of youth?
There is always a part of what you do that refers to your childhood, or youth. I was precisely just like any of these guys I photograph, or that walk my shows. Jackets were always a little too big for me. Many in high school, or in my family, were attempting to make me feel I was half a man because I was lean, and not an athletic build. They were bullying me for some time, so that I might feel uncomfortable with myself, insinuating skinny was “queer.” There was certainly something homophobic and derogative about those remarks. I was eating quite much, doing a lot of sport, but when I was 15, 16, or 17, that was simply the way I was built.
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.
There is that idea of androgyny, which is associated to my silhouette and design since the late ‘90s, and I presume a reflection of how I was, and how I looked growing up, the lack of gender definition. I could recognize it and feel a connection at the time with “The Thin White Duke“ character of Bowie. This is pretty much the origin of everything I did in design after that, a boy or a girl with the same silhouette.
Your runway shows are almost like rock concerts, with dramatic staging and songs you commission specifically for the occasion. How important is the show in the overall strategy? Is it one more element or is it the thing that drives everything else?
It is not at all a strategy, but simply how I conceive live performance. Besides, I never changed this, I started to show in the late ‘90s, from Yves Saint Laurent to Dior, and the stage performance is something that was always part of my work, a research of its own, informing the fashion design. Same goes for my street casting and commissioned soundtracks that I produce. I always wanted every single element of a fashion show to be a creative process of its own. These original soundtracks from the last 15 years end up being the first track of an upcoming album for lots of the bands I worked with.
Will the runway always be a central element? Why, in the digital age, is a live show still so necessary?
I still find it a necessity, let alone for a house such as Yves Saint Laurent. It is still a catalyzer, a moment of focus, a sort of liturgy. Social media gave a different perspective on shows, and a global appeal.
You must have noticed how influential you’ve been. Your designs are not only copied on other runways but other houses have adopted versions of your whole strategy. Are you flattered? Amused?
Each brand, each designer, has their own history and DNA, which is precious, distinct, and inimitable. It is about understanding what it is, working within it, bringing your own sensibility to it, protecting its authenticity without swapping an identity for another.
This holistic project only reflects my own convictions, personal style and dedicated strategy to the house of Yves Saint Laurent. It is part of me. The historical fundamentals are besides irreplaceable.
How would you describe the state of fashion in general in 2015?
The audience has changed and increased with social media, which is now the main support for fashion and a direct connection. The Internet completely took over the industry. Your audience owns your communication.
On a different note, the acceleration of fashion, and growing number of collections, is still an unresolved issue.The fashion industry has not caught up to the current pace of social media.
What keeps you motivated? Haven’t you achieved everything you set out to do at Saint Laurent?
I don’t believe you ever finally achieve everything. You never finish the race. It is an ongoing experiment. What motivates me is discovery. Searching for new music, unspoiled talents, and the excitement of youth. At Saint Laurent, there are some satisfactions, but everything is always so fragile, and perpetually in motion.
The new couture house was much needed and it is there now to preserve Yves Saint Laurent. Another positive sign is the recent success of the historical Factory of Angers (it is located 300 miles from Paris), which has been producing “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche” dresses since the 70s and stayed within the brand. As of this summer, this factory of 100 employees, with precious skilled French technique and tradition, now has positive economic growth.
What we wanted with my team, when we started in 2012, was to involve those talented women and men in the creative process and the development of the collections. Previously, they were left a little aside and were taking care of production only.
I feel a responsibility to the factory, together with the couture house, the ateliers and the design studio and if the success of the collections ends up translating into the success for them, it means a lot to me.
The exclusive interview first appeared on Yahoo Style Q&A by Dirk Standen / Photos by Y.R.
Adapted and edited by CPP-LUXURY.COM