Hedi Slimane’s Dangerous Legacy - ShoesandDrama.com
Ted Baker KSA

Hedi Slimane’s Dangerous Legacy



Hedi Slimane at the Saint Laurent spring 2013 show.

And so the worst-kept secret in fashion has been confirmed: Hedi Slimane, the creative and image director of Yves Saint Laurent, has left the brand. Given the strength of the rumors of his departure that have been circulating since January, this may go down as the most anticlimactic fashion announcement ever made.

But despite the fact that it happened on April Fools’ Day (a coincidence that probably escaped no one), the news has serious implications. Mr. Slimane is the fourth designer at a major fashion house to recently leave his post after less than five years. Last July, Alexander Wang left Balenciaga after three years; in October, Raf Simons left Christian Dior after the same amount of time; and in February, Stefano Pilati left Zegna. Mr. Slimane has been at the helm of YSL since 2012.

Mr. Slimane accomplished a lot in that time, transforming the brand’s reputation as well as its financial fortunes. Saint Laurent is now the fastest-growing line in the luxury portfolio of its parent company, Kering, reporting slightly less than 1 billion euros, or about $1.14 billion, in revenue for 2015, up 38 percent from 2014. Saint Laurent now accounts for 12 percent of sales by Kering’s luxury brands and 8 percent of the group’s total sales.

To do so, Mr. Slimane also created a model of an all-powerful aesthetic mastermind that has since been adopted by Alessandro Michele at Gucci and has become the dream of many designers. But the idea that the brand’s transformation is complete, as the news release suggests (to be specific, the statement characterized Mr. Slimane’s stay as “a four-year mission, which has led to the complete repositioning of the brand”), and can simply be handed over to another designer, is a troubling one.

Yet this seems to have become the conventional wisdom of the industry. Gildo Zegna, chief executive of the Italian men’s wear label Ermenegildo Zegna, said something very similar when Mr. Pilati left: “We wanted to develop a strong point of view in fashion, and for Zegna to be a show not to be missed in Milan. We have reached this objective faster than expected.” On to the next! At a lunch to start Milan Fashion Week in February, I sat next to François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Kering, and asked him about such abbreviated relationships, as one does when faced with that kind of opportunity. He shrugged and said, “That is the normal life cycle of modern luxury.”

Let’s hope that isn’t true.

Fashion has been infected by the contemporary disease of short-termism. And this means “fashion” writ large: not only executives on the corporate side, who in public companies necessarily have to think in reporting quarters, but also the members of the design side, which is not exempt here. There is a tendency to blame corporate “moneymen” for the evils of a system that is crushing the poor creative flower of a designer, wringing all the invention out of him or her, but it is increasingly clear that that is an antiquated idea.

Mr. Simons left; he was not forced out. Mr. Slimane, with his insistence on total control and refusal to live in Paris, instead remaining in Los Angeles and making the brand come to him, is no one’s idea of a pushover. The talk surrounding his contract negotiations centered on speculation about what he wanted (supposedly more money), not what he was being required to do.


The relationship horizon line on both sides seems to be shrinking. Indeed, in multiple conversations with fashion chief executives since all this began, the answer that keeps coming up when they are asked why they don’t give designers longer contracts — five years, seven years (the average length of a creative director contract currently is three) — is that the designers won’t sign them; that the designers want the freedom to renegotiate (or leave). You can understand it, to a certain extent: If designers’ work increases sales at a global mega-brand to a meaningful level, they want their salaries to reflect the success. One executive told me designers he spoke to would be happy to sign one-year contracts if they could.

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Compare this to the length of time founders such as Yves Saint Laurent himself was at his house (40 years), or Valentino Garavani (48 years), or Hubert de Givenchy (43 years). One of the reasons those brands had worth even after their founders retired — the reasons they were valuable enough to be bought by conglomerates and private equity firms such as their current owners, Kering, the Qatari investment firm Mayhoola, and Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton respectively — was that their good will and aesthetic equity had been defined and built over decades. That is what was purchased, as much as the names themselves. Because that is what attracts not just one generation of shoppers, but the next and the next.

Creating an image for a brand and truly embedding it in the life of a consumer takes investment not just in renovation but in the relationship — between brand and individual, and designer and brand. After all, the products themselves require investment. They are not cheap. Consumers have to believe they will hold their meaning over time. And the meaning is created by the designer.

Modern luxury theory has it that the brand has to be greater than any individual, but we should not forget that brands are given their personality and their depth by the people who make them. They aren’t caretakers; they are content creators (and not in the social media meaning of the word). Comme des Garçons is Comme des Garçons because of its founder and designer, Rei Kawakubo; Ralph Lauren because of Ralph Lauren; Giorgio Armani because of Giorgio Armani; Chanel because of Coco Chanel and now the designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Indeed, though the latter did not create the style of the maison he took on in 1983, he has worked within its vernacular for over 30 years. As a result, it is still clear what the brand stands for, and you can buy into that value system or use it to telegraph your own. Similarly, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative directors of Valentino since 2008, have succeeded in establishing a modern character for the company that speaks to the legacy of its founder, rooted as it is in beauty and decoration, while also giving it a resonance in contemporary culture by combining a certain rigor of line with elaborate craftsmanship. But it has evolved over seasons — their first few shows looked very different — and if they had departed after Year 3, their contribution would have had very little impact. It would have been a blip, rather than an identity.

If the value system a brand represents changes, and changes very dramatically, as it did at YSL under Mr. Slimane, who crushed its botoxed Le Smokings under a highly merchandised California youthquake truck, it: a) takes a while for the world to adjust (remember the initial shock! horror! at his grunge grrls on the runway in Season 2); and b) can give consumers whiplash if it then segues into something else entirely.

As to what might lie ahead, at least for YSL, rumors are centered on Anthony Vaccarello, a young Belgian-Italian designer whose last show was very 1980s rocker — in part because it doesn’t seem a huge departure from the Slimane aesthetic, though it is more aggressively sexy and less holistic. Kering said it would make an announcement “in due course.”

Mr. Slimane has been, characteristically, silent about his plans. There was talk he might go to Dior, which is still searching for a designer, but it is even more likely he will segue into the art world. His creative universe has always seemed more like performance art than simply clothing.

This week, two new ad campaigns, shot by Mr. Slimane, were previewed by YSL: one featuring Jane Birkin in a Smoking suit, and one featuring Cara Delevingne in looks from Mr. Slimane’s last show. There will be a bridge period where, at least from the outside, everything will look very much the same. And it’s hard to imagine that given the cost of Mr. Slimane’s reinvention, which extended beyond the runway to stores, furniture for the stores and a new hôtel particulier in Paris, Kering would be prepared to do the same for whoever comes next.

Ideally, that person would stay longer than three years. But a certain precedent has been set. The unsettling prospect of a fashion world of free agents, more than any single look, may be the legacy of Mr. Slimane. And it’s unclear where in that scenario any long-term profits lie.

An ad featuring Jane Birkin, part of a new Saint Laurent campaign.

Source: nytimes.com