Hedi Slimane Looks Back at His Menswear Revolution

True fashion moments are rare. It’s been a decade since the first of them this century began, a hallowed âge d’or of menswear when scalpel-cut suits, torn jeans, and scrawny rock ‘n’ roll teens set the agenda. This was the era Hedi Slimane ruled.

Times have changed since then. And like so many other gifted designers—Helmut, Jil, Martin—the former Yves Saint Laurent and Dior Homme maestro can no longer be found at the men’s houses he built. Slimane’s departure from Dior Homme has left a void that can still be felt in the industry. While awaiting his hypothetical, hoped-for return to fashion, his disconsolate following can find solace in Anthology of a Decade 2000–2010, a forthcoming photography book that documents his epochs in design and photography.

In a Hint exclusive, Slimane looks back at those years, remembering his seminal Yves Saint Laurent days, the trauma upon leaving the house, his best and worst souvenirs from Dior, his relationship with the then-fledgling—and some now-defunct—London rock bands, the influence he’s exerted on other designers, and of course, the skinny models he’s discovered on street-casting adventures…

Let’s time travel back to the beginning. We’re in the mid-nineties and you’ve just been promoted to Yves Saint Laurent’s menswear designer. What was going through your mind?
I was extremely naive, and at the same time very grounded. I wanted not to disappoint Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who had trusted me. There were around 30 collections to watch, each season from all the license agreements around the world. Mind you this was a different time for luxury houses, with tons of licenses, a legacy from the early 80s. I found the only way to make YSL menswear relevant again, in the manner of the late ’60s, when Yves was designing, was to go back to hardcore luxury, focusing on Rive Gauche, the house line, and move from menswear to men’s fashion. It was a new area in Paris, and no couture house at the time had even thought about the potential of men’s fashion, not only in terms of image, but in terms of business. It was therefore a commitment, and a daily battle to bring the attention back to Paris and to the old gems of couture, the beauty of our tradition and craftsmanship.

Who were your first big supporters, the people who believed in you right from the start?
Pierre Bergé was the biggest supporter, together with Yves Saint Laurent, who was always very kind and in very good spirits. It was a little complicated for the house at the time, because officially Yves Saint Laurent was supposed to design every collection, including men’s. Also, after my first presentation, without telling me, Pierre Bergé literally pushed me onto the runway—if you could call it a runway, there were only 20 attendees. It was very moving. I will never forget it, and can never thank him enough. Betty Catroux, Yves’s best friend, was another big supporter. She still is, as a matter of fact. The UK press was also quite ahead of the game. They maybe had a clear understanding of what I had in mind.

What are your lasting memories of your YSL days?
It was the age of innocence. So much was impossible in menswear at the time, at a Paris couture house in particular. It was therefore totally exciting to be clueless about it, and push the boundaries without looking back a second. I was totally free, although technically the first collections for Rive Gauche were more like a studio thing. The taste was Yves and Pierre’s. I started to really pursue my own design the last two seasons. I developed an obsession about male debutants and defining a balance of a couture tradition transposed within the sartorial tradition, but within a hedonistic youth context. It was impossible at the time for someone young and lean to find a jacket that would fit, and that would not be too much of an uber-design or conceptual statement. The ’90s were still into this obsolete ’80s idea of les createurs, as opposed to les couturiers. The only options were either sportswear or designer clothes à la Japonaise. I was trying this idea of colliding two worlds, like society-couture-glamour-luxury making out with youth culture. Those two worlds had obviously nothing in common, to say the least, and that was the whole point. I wanted to escape any sort of caricature or cliche, like the silver spoon or rebellious youth. I thought the truth, the relevance, the modernity—a suspicious concept—was somewhere in between. Of course this idea—to sum up, my daily tux jacket with a pair of skinny jeans, among many of my style ideas—was later heavily appropriated by the industry. But in the late 90s it was totally a new thing, since no men’s fashion was coming out of couture, which was still stuck in duty free and licensing. And the design coming out of the shows at the time were a bit light in craftsmanship, a little cheaply made. I guess this was my definition of what men’s fashion could be in a couture house. I was and have always been a couturier, not a designer. I was into the long tradition and fashion heritage that I turned inside out and gave to a younger audience as an hedonistic playground, dressing indie kids like young princes.

Was leaving YSL painful? Was it something you hesitated doing?
Leaving YSL was actually totally traumatizing at the time. It felt like someone had sold the family house with us in it. I knew right away, and despite the offers, that I had to go after my last show there. I just loved the traditional house, with the original cast, the magic, warmth, authenticity, the beyond French “tragi-comedy” of it, and the Parisian grandeur of Avenue Marceau. There is nothing like it anywhere. It is like saying that Elizabeth Taylor was the last of the real movie stars. Yves Saint Laurent was, as a couture house, the last true house. Magic. I just could not cope with seeing all that go.

You moved to Dior Homme after leaving YSL. Did you feel particularly close to Christian Dior’s aesthetic?
Not at all. I was not at all into the Dior aesthetic, which felt a little bourgeois and conventional for my taste, to say the least. I went to Dior for a reason, which might seem irrational. Christian Dior was the closest thing to Yves Saint Laurent. It was the house where he started, together with some of his closest studio team, in particular the honorable Anne Marie Munoz, who used to talk to me about the Yves look for hours, for example the Yves shoulder, whispering in the studio with Yves next door. And it was just a walk down the street from Avenue Marceau to Avenue Montaigne, from one couture house to another. To many, it seemed like the most random choice. It did not make sense at all for any of my friends, who were horrified, but I intimately felt this was the right thing to do, the most natural thing to do. So, there I was at Dior. No one there had any idea of what menswear could be. I started right way to tell them that Christian Dior Monsieur, the name of the brand in 2000, had to go. I proposed a new idea, a new masculine idea, which I called Dior Homme. I started to design the couture salons of Dior Homme, since clearly I was pushing this idea of couture for men, as opposed to made-to-measure tailoring, that I had invented at YSL. I designed silk black robes and decided on my house models. They were those lean figures, despite harsh criticism and sarcasm, that would become a standard in the industry. I always thought it was like a crusade to do menswear when nobody cared about it at the time. It was irrelevant as fashion, and my whole point was to change this perception and push it as much as I could, no matter the consequences for me. So the birth of Dior Homme was a nightmare, because of the pressure. I felt reassured when Pierre Bergé told me Yves wanted to come to support me for my first show. It was symbolic, the first and last time he reappeared at Dior.

At what point did you realize you’d started a menswear revolution at Dior Homme?
It was always a struggle when I was there. The press was often oblique or controversial, and I always felt quite remote in some way. I actually could not have cared less, but I had to protect my team from all this. I always assumed we were not seeing the same thing, most of the traditional press and I, that we were living in different worlds. It was a total pain for me. I also remember the summer ’04 collection, with its nonchalant skinny jeans with suspended jackets. Beck had done the music for the show, and the boys were not even groomed. Most of the critics were about how it would be impossible for anyone to wear those jeans. But that show ended up changing the way guys dressed for the next ten years, and influenced the entire fast-fashion business. I mean, everything during the Dior years was like this—too skinny, too ambiguous, too hedonistic, too feminine. It was like a generation gap. This was certainly true musically, a strong focus for me, which is always a mirror of the time, where youth is concerned, and the evolution of its wardrobe. This translates into fashion for a decade. Therefore, it was only when I left Dior that I could forget about the noise and see my principles, or style, translated to the street. The Internet of course had given it a global scope. Funnily enough, the industry, acting as if I would never return to design, took over my principles, from Burberry’s promotion of Brit bands to Topman and Oxford Street, and even Balmain discovering stage-wear, glam-rock jackets or tux jackets worn with skinny jeans. It was of course a good outcome. I did not really have to design for a few years, since my design was still around, and still the subject of interpretation and appropriation.

How do you go about scouting for models, or as you call it, boy safaris? Did they take you seriously at first? Do you still go on boy safaris?
The boy safari thing was an expression my team used at the time of Dior Homme. We might have used it twice, maximum. God knows how it ended up randomly in the New Yorker, and lately in the Guardian. One of those things, I guess. There was also a rumor about baby food. Regardless, I really started street-casting seriously when I was about 18. But even before then I remember sitting down in the subway in Paris, going to high school as a teenager, and always finding the perfect subject right in front of me, or next to me. I always had an idea of what they were about, how they would be on camera, or what they should really look like if I could photograph or dress them. I guess I was seeing a sort of grace or beauty they were not aware of. This weird behavior was always there in me. Also, at the time of YSL, and particularly Dior, I could organically find one of my future models in a crowd. I still cast constantly for photographs, boys and girls. This is always more interesting to me, as I find it totally preserved. For instance, I’m just finishing a special L.A. issue of Man About Town, and most of the characters were street-cast. I’m really attached to all the characters I found over decades. I designed entirely for them, with them in mind. There would be no photographs or fashion without them. They are the only thing that matters. The rest, I guess, is irrelevant.

We’ve been told you were less concerned about a person’s resume when you were hiring staff than their personality. Is that true? What personality traits did you look for?
This is true for everything. Not only in my studio, but in general. I don’t care at all about background. I prefer no background at all, in fact, meaning no format, or automatism, but a free personality, a certain freshness. I usually like to feel a certain emotion, or somehow a flaw, an authenticity.

You’ve shown a taste for edgy rock bands. Are you still in touch with any of the bands you put in the limelight?
I am with most of them. It is also interesting for me to see how they evolve. I’m sad and nostalgic when they split. The Rakes, for instance, were an extraordinary band. Littl’ans, with Andrew and Ronnie, were so talented. I really cherished those moments and souvenirs. I only have my photographs of them now, and a few melancholy tracks. 

Your runway shows were always theatrical events, and we heard it wasn’t easy for you to get permission to use fire in one of your shows. For you, what are your most memorable mise en scènes?
The synchronized drum session was sort of epic. Ten full drum kits on top of stage scaffolding towers, seven meters above the runway. Those drummers were mostly from all the bands that were emerging at the time. Razorlight had composed a song for the show called In the Morning. Johnny, the lead singer, told me some months later that he would use the track for his album. In the Morning became number one in England, as a reduced four-minute track. The Black Tie show with fire was also interesting to design. I was seeing Dior Homme as a holistic project, where music, set design and street casting would organically respond to a collection that was about only one aspect, one element.

Looking back, which collections did you like the most? And the least?
I am not fond of my first collection at Dior. The premier d’atelier was a nightmare and did not get it right. I changed the second season, but it really started to feel right technically, in the proportions, in the fourth season. YSL was even more difficult. The first seasons did not have much to do with me, but were a slow progression to avoid any unnecessary discussion within the house. I only started to really design the last year—maybe three seasons, but not more. The last YSL collection was obviously the most significant season since I knew I was leaving. It became something like a lexicon. The principles of the skinny jeans actually started in ’99, in the Black Tie YSL collection. On the other hand, at Dior I was mostly attached to the London years, and the glam-rock collection of January ’04. An entire generation of musicians was in the show, either playing, or on the runway. They were still totally unknown, but they were about to take over. It would become the London scene, which I defined in a special issue of the newspaper Liberation in May ’04. That show was therefore a moment in time, in music and fashion, not only men’s fashion as this collection was one of the most influential Dior Homme collections in womenswear as well. There was something like freedom in it, an ease. I don’t think I could ever do a show like that now, unless a movement in music shows up this decade.

How did people react when you left Dior Homme to pursue a career in the arts? Did you receive desperate fan letters?
I never left to pursue a career in the arts, or any other career in fact, which did not have any appeal for me at all, but to stay free and passionate about what I was doing. I left to focus on my own work, and to go back to photography for a few years. The reaction was of course terrible. No one could understand why I would leave Dior at that moment and let anyone else use my style like a free commodity. But this was the right thing to do for me, the most healthy thing to do. I felt so relieved and happy about it, and it just shows how detached I was during these years. I started to go very often to the U.S., and California in particular. I always felt something about America and decided in 2010 to settle in Los Angeles.

How did the art world greet you? What are your big forthcoming projects (in the arts)?
I never did think about the art world. I just worked on so many commissions, books, or exhibitions, but those years have never been about performance or demonstration, but about study and experimentation. It felt like going back to university somehow, learning and absorbing the world around me—to produce for me, rather than for others. Sometimes you have to pull back and create a discerning distance before expanding your ideas again.

You told me many years ago that you didn’t really archive clothes. Do you still own many Dior items? How do you dress today?
No, I don’t. It is quite sad in a way, but I guess I did that on purpose, not to get attached. I had just a few clothes, but a lot have disappeared over the years, lost or stolen. I still own some suits, and I keep wearing them. They actually look better now. I always like when clothes age. I also wear vintage clothes, which I sometimes have to correct. L.A. is pretty good for vintage. 

Tell us about your new book, Anthology of a Decade 2000–2010? What’s the message you want to convey?
It is totally archival, more like a documentary—pure, straight records. It is a time capsule of the decade in music, and style. It is a perspective on youth, something like a portrait of a generation from the inside. It is in four volumes, four cycles and four cities that I have documented and experimented with in those ten years. The one on Paris is not sensu stricto a fashion book, although it is also about Dior, the street casting, musicians, all the characters I worked with. London is of course a record of the rebirth of punk rock in the UK. Berlin is a perspective on both East and West Berlin. The U.S. book sums up mostly the last cycle, the years after design, and is mostly about California. 

Most of the models you photographed during that decade were skinny and streetwise. Are you now interested in different types of models?
I’m interested in anyone, really. Even if I’m consistent with a certain physique, I do sometimes, above all in U.S., photograph girls or guys a little more physical, or classic in proportions. This is never about beauty per se, or some sort of aesthetic, but about a character that moves me and that silently belongs to the same world. I photograph a lot of older men as well, mostly creative minds, artists or writers, and it is precisely the same thing for me. This diary format gives the idea of a ritual, a repetitive process where one subject follows another subject, and where they all belong equally.