In de­fence of Hedi Sli­mane

The cre­ative head at Ce­line is in­tro­duc­ing menswear to the Parisian la­bel for the very first time and is rad­i­cally over­haul­ing its wom­enswear col­lec­tion too - but at what cost?

Gulf Business - - FEATURES - VARUN GODINHO

How the cre­ative head is over­haul­ing Ce­line

THIS IS ONE OF THOSE caus­tic up­heavals where an in­com­ing cre­ative di­rec­tor de­cides not to just re­write the brand's foun­da­tional codes, but com­pletely rip up the house rule­book.

That's al­most ex­pected from Hedi Sli­mane, the po­lar­is­ing 50-year-old ex-Dior Homme, ex-Yves Saint Lau­rent and now over­all cre­ative head at Parisian la­bel Ce­line, who has never re­ally tried to cul­ti­vate an im­age of a con­form­ist.

But given the rad­i­cal plans that par­ent com­pany LVMH had for Ce­line, the ap­point­ment of an an­ti­hero like Sli­mane was nec­es­sary.

Sli­mane has a highly ac­com­plished ca­reer. Be­tween 2000 and 2007 as cre­ative di­rec­tor at LVMH's Dior Homme, his trade­mark skinny suits were such a rage that Karl Lager­feld re­port­edly shed 92 pounds just so that he could wear one. Sli­mane shifted the vi­sion of the ideal male physique from Ado­nis to an­drog­y­nous, which is why it wasn't un­com­mon back then for Madonna to be wear­ing a Dior Homme cre­ation.

In 2007, seem­ingly jaded by the fash­ion world, he quit and went to LA where he worked as a pho­tog­ra­pher for five years. But by 2012, Yves Saint Lau­rent of­fered him a chance to reprise his stand­ing in the fash­ion world by ap­point­ing him the cre­ative di­rec­tor of both the menswear and wom­enswear divi­sion.

For many, Sli­mane al­though supremely tal­ented, bor­dered on in­suf­fer­able when it came to deal­ing with fash­ion's vet­er­ans. He would fa­mously rel­e­gate key me­dia ac­cus­tomed to be­ing seated at the front row to the sec­ond and the third row and even once re­port­edly told Kanye West in 2013 that if the mu­sic mogul wanted to at­tend his show, he couldn't at­tend any other show.

What­ever you think of Sli­mane's man­age­ment style, you can't quar­rel with the

While Sli­mane has se­verely an­tag­o­nized Philophiles, he has an equally devoted fol­low­ing of liberal cre­atives types that will de­vour what­ever he cre­ates

fact that dur­ing his stint, YSL's prof­its tripled be­tween 2011 and 2014 and it went from a EUR 400m com­pany to a EUR 1bn ($1.15bn) jug­ger­naut by the time he left in 2016.

That's the kind of suc­cess that doesn't go un­no­ticed. When LVMH boss Bernard Ar­nault hired Sli­mane in Jan­uary this year to lead Ce­line, he vested him with sweep­ing pow­ers. He was ap­pointed the artis­tic, cre­ative and im­age di­rec­tor giv­ing him com­plete control over not only the fash­ion depart­ment, but also over the store de­signs, ad cam­paigns and even the logo. Ce­line's rev­enues were al­ready hov­er­ing around the EUR 1bn mark by the time Sli­mane came on board, but Arault now has to con­sid­er­ably raise those fig­ures.

Sli­mane was tasked with in­tro­duc­ing menswear for the very first time into the 73-year-old Parisian brand's arse­nal. The brief also in­cluded in­fus­ing the brand with a rock 'n' roll aes­thetic, in other words to make it more ap­peal­ing to mil­len­ni­als.

But to do that would be to alien­ate a fiercely loyal tribe of fol­low­ers that swore by the work of Ce­line's for­mer cre­ative di­rec­tor Phoebe Philo. Philo was the cre­ative head at the brand for a decade start­ing in 2008 un­til Sli­mane was ap­pointed. Her im­age of wom­enswear was one of that was suited best to work­ing

women. Her loy­al­ists were so fiercely pro­tec­tive of Philo and her work that they were known as Philophiles.

The tastes of mil­len­ni­als are more abra­sive and don’t vibe har­mo­niously with the im­age that Phil­io­philes were ac­cus­tomed to over the last decade. Sli­mane was go­ing to take a sledge­ham­mer through Philo’s work.

In Septem­ber at the Spring Sum­mer 2019 show, it be­came clear ex­actly what that vi­sion was for the brand. As the Fi­nan­cial Times out­lined, it was all about "groupie boy tai­lor­ing and bro­ken bal­le­rina dresses in which a 17-year-old girl might walk the streets". As for the menswear, it wasn’t un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory – think cropped tuxedo, white shirt, black skinny tie, monk strap shoes and pointy ox­fords.

The ra­bid crit­i­cism from some quar­ters that fol­lowed wasn’t un­ex­pected. While he has se­verely an­tag­o­nised Philophiles, to Sli­mane’s credit he has an equally devoted fol­low­ing of rest­less liberal cre­ative types around the world. Sli­mane and LVMH are bet­ting that the com­mer­cial might of his fol­low­ing is enough to risk for­ever sev­er­ing the um­bil­i­cal cord with the Philophiles. The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter even went on to ask if Hedi Sli­mane was the Don­ald Trump of fash­ion. But if there’s only one thing that you should know about Sli­mane by now it is this: He is critic-proof.

The fash­ion hon­cho has ex­cised the ac­cent from the first “e” in the brand name, a prac­tice of re­brand­ing that he seems to have per­fected from chang­ing Yves Saint Lau­rent to Saint Lau­rent. His fo­cus ar­eas apart from ex­pand­ing on the menswear line are also to de­velop the fra­grances and ac­ces­sories di­vi­sions at Ce­line.

The front row of a fash­ion show, a space par­tic­u­larly tightly con­trolled by Sli­mane, is a healthy in­di­ca­tor of not just the brand’s cu­ri­ous fans, but also its most ar­dent be­liev­ers. In the case of the re­cent SS19 show at the Hô­tel des In­valides in Paris’ sev­enth ar­rondisse­ment, the front row in­cluded Lady Gaga, Karl Lager­feld, Vir­gil Abloh, Mark Ron­son and Alexa Chung, among oth­ers.

But cer­tainly the most im­por­tant was the pres­ence en masse of the fash­ion world’s first fam­ily – the Ar­naults – rep­re­sented by He­lene, Del­phine, Fred­eric, and Alexan­dre. And, of course, Bernard him­self. That’s as much of a seal of ap­proval that Sli­mane will ever need.

Stephen Gan, Lady Gaga, Karl Lager­feld

He­lene Ar­nault, Bernard Ar­nault, Del­phine Ar­nault

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