Hedi Slimane: 'Maybe I have to start designing again'
Hedi Slimane has transformed menswear and been lauded for his photography. But that's just the start for rock'n'roll's favourite designer
The Guardian, Monday 21 March 2011
Hedi Slimane: 'I do it if it's fun. If it's not fun I give up and do something else.' Photograph: YP
Hedi Slimane won't talk about fashion. Specifically, he is not to be asked when he will make his return to fashion design. Slimane's assistant has insisted as much via email, and she is telling me again as we walk down a Brussels backstreet to meet him. "He gets asked every day," she says. "Every day."
This represents something of a conundrum for the journalist dispatched to interview arguably the most influential fashion designer of the 21st century. The man who, during his seven years at Dior Homme, created a seismic shift in the most staid of all clothing categories, menswear. Slimane is said to have transformed the male silhouette. He produced jackets that were cut short, with narrow, square shoulders, and teamed them with very skinny trousers – exquisitely made, super-tight tailoring that was designed with rock stars in mind, but was greeted with so many standing ovations on the catwalk that pretty soon everyone from Versace to Topman referenced Dior Homme in their collections.
Slimane cast his shows by what he called "boy safari"; picking boys without modelling experience off the street. He favoured tall, thin, androgynous-looking teenagers, many from London. "I wanted the clothes to be about the boys," he will explain. "They even had their own name embroidered in the clothes. It was really always a tribute to them."
By the mid-90s, Slimane's lean look had completely upended fashion's traditional, chiselled version of male beauty. Waifs were everywhere; the odder-looking the better. The world's largest mannequin company, Rootstein, was compelled to roll out a dummy with a 35in chest and a 27in waist – 12 inches smaller than the average British man. One newspaper talked importantly about the spread of "manorexia". "No one wanted the big guys; it was all skinny androgyny," complained David Gandy, the well-built male model whose name was made more recently, smouldering away in the back of a boat in a pair of tight white Dolce & Gabanna pants. "People would look at me very strangely at castings. They'd say unbelievable, stupid things. You're too big! You're too good-looking."
Slimane's insouciant rock'n'roll take on suits, jeans and tuxedos was first influenced, then adopted by the resurgent indie music scene of the day: Franz Ferdinand, Razorlight and Pete Doherty. Especially Doherty. And the designer embraced the scene like a 16-year-old fan, attending gigs as often as he could and getting little-known bands such as These New Puritans to soundtrack his shows. "He turned up to a Dirty Pretty Things show with loads of free clothes," recalls Carl Barât, Doherty's sometime bandmate, referring to his post-Libertines project. "Then he started photographing all our gear. Our guitars, our jackets, our shoes . . . It was pretty odd. Hedi's very sweet, though." Not everyone agreed. "I've never met [Slimane], but I just think it's wrong," Jarvis Cocker said at the time. "The thing I like about music is that people make it up for themselves, and that extends to what they look like as well. So it's a very personal thing. Then someone comes along and goes: 'Oh, yeah, skinny trousers, de-de-de-de, that'll be £800, please.'"
Today, the music scene may have changed but the influence of Slimane's monochrome palate shows little sign of fading to grey, four years after he turned his back on fashion. Skinny black jeans are still everywhere, while a skinny black suit worn with a skinny black tie is still the default man-at-a-special-occasion uniform – even James Corden squeezed into one for 2010's Brits. But Slimane, who has no training in fashion and whose career path surprised even his best friends, never set out to be become the century's most influential designer. "It's just like if I would have done cooking in my house and then I ended up as a cook in a restaurant, then I opened a restaurant randomly," he says in his heavily accented English. "I do it if it's fun. If it's not fun I give up and do something else."
Fun right now for Slimane, is photography. He always wanted to be a professional photographer – now he is one. And very successfully so. Famous names, from Gore Vidal to Lady Gaga, have commissioned Slimane photo shoots, while European arthouse publishers have put out hefty collections of his work since 2001. He shoots for dozens of fashion magazines: Vogue, VMan and so on. Even during the mutual love-in with the indie rock scene, he never stopped snapping. London Birth of a Cult was 200-plus pages devoted entirely to a sweaty Pete Doherty, while Hedi Slimane: Anthology of A Decade is 10 years of his favourite photographs and is due to be published soon. Before that there was Hedi Slimane: Berlin.
The day we meet in Brussels, it's the opening of Fragments Americana, a group art show Slimane has put together featuring his pictures and work by the film-maker Gus Van Sant and the sculptor/architect Oscar Tuazon. The following night in Paris there's the opening of a show he has curated, California Dreamin – Myths and Legends of Los Angeles, featuring modern and contemporary west coast artists such as John Baldessari and Edward Ruscha.
"I love California," Slimane says, who, after time in Paris and Berlin, now lives in the Hollywood hills. "It has such a strong contribution to the history of culture, and popular culture. For better and worse, of course. Even the worst can be interesting to some degree sometimes for somebody creative." (Slimane's English isn't flawless. He once told a journalist that he stayed so thin because he ate "baby food" but he meant "comfort food", leading to the oft-repeated and not entirely unbelievable notion of him subsisting on Cow & Gate Yummy Harvest Chicken.) Yet he seems so European, such an aesthete – doesn't he find California a little, well, shallow? "There is that scene!" he says. "But there was so many things born there of counter culture. So many political movements. Skate starting there. The surf culture is very connected to California, of course. The hippies."
Slimane meets me in a bar. Profiles of him seldom fail to mention the fact he doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs, as though this was somehow the most unusual thing in the world. But here he is, arranged in a booth, a glass of Belgian beer before him. "Oh, it's nothing," he says, when I comment on this. (It will remain untouched all through our interview.) He looks remarkable. He is 42, but ageless (he doesn't drink, smoke etc), with deep baby eyes and boyish features. His hair, once memorably described as "a bit of an event", soars upwards in a sort of sawn-off pompadour. He is dressed casually, but immaculately. That's to say, like Hedi Slimane – jeans and a baseball jacket, but not in the same way Chris Evans dresses in jeans and a baseball jacket. He is courteous and polite, and good fun – not attributes you always associate with people connected with fashion.
Of course, Slimane will talk about fashion. It's as much a part of his make-up as the architecture or graphic design or any of the other areas he brings his spare, sleek vision to. "I'm going to design again, but I come back when it's the right project, so I keep my passion for it intact," he says. The day after we meet, John Galliano is arrested for his antisemitic rant in Paris. Within days he's sacked as the head designer at Dior. One paper suggests Slimane is 9/4 favourite to succeed him. Slimane suggests not. "I really love to design but when it's a big luxury house there is so much things around the design. Like the global branding, like the window displays. Oh, it's so much. You just have to be happy doing it. If you're not, you're really miserable. And I have no intention to be miserable. I miss the fabrics and I miss the atelier. But if I really miss it that much, I would have started again already."
Instead he designs collections in his head. "I listen to a track and I have the whole show after one song. I think about the characters, the allure, the walk, the proportion, the hair – it just makes sense from one song." When he does return to fashion his aesthetic is unlikely to have changed much. "I'm always suspicious of people who change too many times," he says. I've always been very repetitive. Which was a problem, because with seasons people always want, 'OK, what's new?' But the truth is, nothing is new."
And Slimane is nothing if not single-minded: everything bearing his name – from show invitations to photography books to his online diary uses the same Helvetica typeface. His assistant dresses in the given Slimane style. When he was living in Paris without a driving licence, his driver wore Dior Homme. ("It would be a bit strange for him to show up in a funny suit," Slimane explained.) A Berlin gallery owner has recalled Slimane turning up to stage an exhibition carrying a box of his own lightbulbs – he wanted to make sure he got the right sort of white light.
I ask him if he knows where such precise aesthetics come from, thinking he won't really have an answer. "No, I know where it comes from," he says, explaining that when he was 15, a friend gave him a book on the Russian avant-garde. "Alexander Rodchenko, suprematism and all that. A lot of graphic design and a lot of propaganda references. When you are a kid, it kind of leaves a print. It's strong, this impression, like music." Even earlier, when he was six, his sister's best friend used to entertain him with her impressions of David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Slimane got hold of Bowie's 1974 album David Live. The cover features the androgynous, skin-and-bones singer in an angular, narrow, cropped suit. Next he bought Angie by the Rolling Stones and a Vegas-period Elvis single, both with similarly dramatic covers. Stagewear became synonymous with menswear. "It was the only connection I knew with men's representation, even masculinity. David Bowie, for me, was the butchest guy in town. Jagger was like a truck driver." Thirty-odd years later Slimane designed stagewear for both. (A 2002 New Yorker profile of Jagger records the singer in Toronto trying on some black satin pants Slimane has sent over from Paris. "They're a bit, a bit – for want of a better word – feminine," Jagger says. It also notes the then-59-year-old singer's waist size: 29 inches.)
Slimane's father is Tunisian, a former lightweight boxer who became an accountant. His mother is an Italian seamstress. When Slimane was a teenager she tried to dress him in clothes that she had made. She didn't get very far. He puts his head on the table. "She made flared jeans with the matching denim jacket! Sleeveless. All denim! Already, at that time, I was, like: 'I don't think so.' I would have thrown them back in her face! It's heartbreaking now." So he started designing clothes for himself. At the same time, he developed a passion for photography, staring in the windows along Boulevard Beaumarchais, Paris's famous camera street. He took an evening class in photography at school. "I was in love with my teacher. So that was that, really." Still, surely photography can't pay as well as being head designer at a label? "It can do," grins Slimane.
And besides, he is proud to have documented the British music scene at an exciting time. "I think it was really a golden age in London. It was the first decade of the millennium, the first decade of social networking, of blogging, which was a huge factor in the mobilisation of guitar bands. We are too close to it, but it was historical." And his passion for Pete Doherty remains undiminished. "I think he had a huge influence on youth, globally. His way of doing things was really romantic." He didn't mind that Doherty was off his head all the time? "No, no, no. He was always adorable."
Now California is his latest thing. He takes his camera off to Laguna Beach and San Clemente, soaking up the Americana. "It is totally preserved and it's very authentic – as opposed to New York. I find it very dead [there] now." I tell him it's difficult to picture him in shorts. "Now that is something you would never see! There is no way you would confuse me with one of the surfers."
Later that evening, at the opening of his exhibition, he has swapped his baseball jacket for a leather jacket, and his skinny jeans for another pair of skinny jeans. "I have a lot of my old stuff," he says. "That's why maybe I have to start designing again. 'Cos I have not so much to wear any more."
In 2001 Hedi Slimane's first paris collection for Dior Homme felt urgently new to everyone. His razor-slim silhouettes, exquisite haute couture tailoring, and luxurious fabrics epitomized sophistication and sensuality. Hidden details— like the clear sequins he sewed inside trouser pleats — delighted even jaded critics.
Two more inventive collections have followed. For Spring/Summer, 2002, Slimane showed very low-slung pants and white button-down shirts embroidered with red-sequined "love wounds." For his most recent show, he reinterpreted the tuxedo with triple lapels and embellished elegant shirts and jackets with heraldic crests. After three pitch-perfect collections, Slimane is now rightfully considered Men's Fashion's most important new voice.
Klaus Biesenbach is chief curator of New York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center — which has recently formed an intriguing partnership with MoMA. He founded and still directs the Kunst-Werke contemporary arts complex in Berlin, where Hedi also keeps a shoebox-sized studio/apartment.
KLAUS: In Paris you’re surrounded by so many people, and you drive around with a crew. But in Berlin I see you dragging your stuff to the neighborhood laundromat in plastic bags. How do you survive that jump? I mean, what is it that you like about Berlin?
HEDI: Berlin is an open space for me — I don’t feel like I need to make any effort when I am here. I take the overnight train from Paris, and I arrive really early in the morning, when the city is only slightly awake and silent. The train going from west to east creates a sort of urban intimacy. It’s a very pleasant, slow journey.
KLAUS: Not needing to make an effort doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing. What do you really appreciate about the city?
HEDI: Well, I don’t know many people in Berlin. In addition, I don’t speak German. So my rapport with the city is quite easy and immediate, without any particular expectations. It’s almost as if I were autistic.
KLAUS: So you go there to escape — Berlin is your countryside.
HEDI: Yes, my friend Jean Jacques Picart always jokes that the Kunst-Werke is my country house! When I arrive here, I feel like my time is really my own.
KLAUS: You actually prefer the city to the beach or the mountains?
HEDI: When people say they’ve found an incredible, empty beach with no one around, I understand why they’re excited. But to me, the idea of a holiday by myself on a beach — I’d have a nervous breakdown! I need to have lots of things around to observe. I don’t necessarily need to interact with people — in fact, I usually don’t — but I need to see people interacting.
KLAUS: Do you like Berlin because it’s a young, wild, improvised, vacant space?
HEDI: It offers a totally different perspective from Paris. Berlin is constantly being reinvented. It draws a very individualistic crowd. Also, it doesn’t seem like anyone there was actually born a Berliner, so that makes me feel at ease. It has a particular mood that the East Village had in the mid and late ’80s. Of course, there’s a very strong youth culture in Berlin, which is totally nonexistent in Paris. There’s a feeling of activism, and yet there’s also a side that appears disenchanted. I find all of that attractive.
KLAUS: What is your ambition?
HEDI: I don’t really have one, I’m afraid. Everything I’ve done is part of a chain reaction. But I’m naturally determined, so I guess you could say that my ambition is just to make the next day interesting. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to meet people with whom I have a good understanding. So another ambition is to meet the people with whom I might develop future projects. Things arrive by accident. I really believe that.
KLAUS: Who got you started in fashion?
HEDI: Actually, Jean Jacques Picart pushed me.
KLAUS: How did he know you would be a great designer?
HEDI: It’s not for me to say. I was twenty-three, and I was a little bit lost, doing things like street casting, anything. I was all over the map. He’s been involved with fashion for so many years. He did the same with Christian Lacroix — he started Lacroix.
KLAUS: He just had the instinct?
HEDI: Some people care about you, and are really able to see you, and other people will never see you, even if you’re standing in front of them and waving. It’s like I said about ambition — who you meet next is so important. That’s how ideas get translated into a project. What makes it wonderful is that you never know what will happen next.
KLAUS: Did you grow up in Paris?
HEDI: Yes, I was born and raised there. I didn’t leave much when I was growing up, so I think that’s what makes it difficult for me to spend more than a few days outside of a big city now. I get really nervous.
KLAUS: Which area did you grow up in?
HEDI: Near Buttes Chaumont, a small garden that was built at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a beautiful garden, even if it is a bit kitschy.
KLAUS: Do you have any fashion background in your family?
HEDI: Not fashion, but mother’s family had a lot of tailors. She’s Italian.
KLAUS: And your father — isn’t he Tunisian?
HEDI: Yes he is, and I actually feel closer to those roots, somehow.
KLAUS: What do they think of all of the attention you’ve been getting since you started at Dior?
HEDI: My parents are very discreet. They’re more concerned about how I’m doing, and if I’m working too hard.
KLAUS: You said that you like to observe. Is that why you take a lot of photographs?
HEDI: Since I was eleven, I’ve always carried a camera with me. I’m always taking pictures for my archives.
KLAUS: Are they part of your design process?
HEDI: It depends. When I work on collections, I always photograph more. I’m trying to get a sense of composition and proportion within the frame. That’s very important in terms of the construction of the clothes.
KLAUS: What is most inspiring for you in terms of your design — is it color, architecture, people walking around?
HEDI: Oh, anything. It’s difficult to say, because I don’t like to start with a narrative, the way some designers do. I don’t like focusing on themes at all.
KLAUS: Are you thinking of Yves Saint Laurent?
HEDI: Totally. He would work like that, going from a Russian collection to a Chinese one ...
KLAUS: So when you talk about composition, are you coming from a formal point of view?
HEDI: Strictly formal. For me, most of the composition comes from the atelier. In order to design, I have to be inside the workroom. I need technical people around. I need to build the clothes.
KLAUS: What do you mean by technical people?
HEDI: I have a very traditional haute couture studio. So there is a Premier d’Atelier, who is the head of the studio. There’s a Seconde d’Atelier, who goes between the Premier d’Atelier and the seamstresses and pattern makers. There are three tailors, etc. I didn’t build my studio from my old team at Saint Laurent, because I didn’t want any references from the past. The only person I brought from Saint Laurent is the Premier d’Atelier — but he came from Haute Couture, not Men’s. I had never worked with him before.
KLAUS: When you started at Dior Homme, didn’t you redesign the whole atelier, from the furniture to the layout of the floors?
HEDI: We had no choice but to build the whole thing. When I arrived at Dior, there was only a little atelier for the store, but no bureau d’études for studying new ideas and proportions. I started by designing the studio, which had to be ethereal, almost without physicality, because the collection changes every season. I’d rather not see the space at all.
KLAUS: So when you went to Dior, you started from scratch in every way.
HEDI: Yes. Building the space, and inside it, the team.
KLAUS: Your process seems quite structured. Do you go to the atelier for eight or twelve hours every day?
HEDI: Yes. I could easily stay away a for a while, but I prefer to be there to keep things moving.
KLAUS: So you don’t show up three weeks before you need to finish a collection, work day and night until it’s done, then spend the rest of the time traveling around the world?
HEDI: No, I don’t like that. Other people work that way, but I’d have the collection prepared a month before the show if I could. I prefer not to change things at the last minute.
KLAUS: Can you describe your relationship to your team? It sounds like a family, or a soccer team, where everybody has an integral role.
HEDI: Yes, totally. Christian Dior is quite a big corporation, and within it Dior Homme is really small. That gives us the feeling of being a very tight group, which is so important. Since the beginning, everybody has been really involved and committed, so you just feel that spirit.
KLAUS: You must be a very disciplined worker.
HEDI: I have requirements — not just for myself, but for my team as well. I don’t want to rush the studio just because I’m not ready. I start up again right away after I’ve done a show, because the team needs a regular schedule.
KLAUS: People ask me how you can be in Berlin so often.
HEDI: I’m not here that often. I wish I were, because I’m more comfortable here than in Paris. A good rhythm for me would be four days in Berlin, every two weeks. I only regret that I can’t — I’m always stuck in Paris.
KLAUS: A few years ago, Paris didn’t have any exciting young designers or artists. Now there’s a whole new generation — people like yourself and the artists Pierre Huyghe and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. There’s a lot of hope and expectation invested in the new Palais de Tokyo art center. Would you say it’s an exciting city again?
HEDI: It’s hard for me to say. I feel a little bit constrained there at the moment. I find the whole situation a bit upsetting and heavy.
KLAUS: Because you’re becoming more famous?
HEDI: No, it’s the work. So much work. It’s sad, but I don’t really go out in Paris anymore. But I’m not sure new things are emerging there anyway. Paris is about being established. If you want to be able to push new ideas in Paris, there’s only one way to do it — use your position within the establishment as a tool. That’s why I like working collaboratively.
KLAUS: Paris rewards success and makes it official early. In New York you have to fight longer. And Berlin is kind of against individual success anyway!
HEDI: It takes a while in Paris too. And you don’t get success from the French anyway. They’re more influenced by the opinions of people in other countries. My first press came from America. It wasn’t until the French press saw that there was interest coming from somewhere else that they started to pay attention.
KLAUS: What do you think of New York these days?
HEDI: I think New York will be more interesting in the next few years than it has been recently. New York was in a vertigo of success and money during the late ’90s, and consequently there was a lot of inauthenticity in people’s creative processes. People were not true to themselves. They were jaded. Everything looked formulaic. Since September 11th, it’s a different world. I think the way people relate to each other has changed a lot. It feels more like the city that I remember from ten years ago. There’s more doubt, and that means, eventually, a place for more creativity.
KLAUS: Could you envision living there?
HEDI: I love New York. But I’m not the sort of person who could design the clothes in Manhattan, then send them to Paris just before the shows. I joined Dior because of its proximity to the whole tradition of couture, which you can only have in Paris. There would be no authenticity anywhere else.
KLAUS: Have you seen anything inspiring coming from New York yet? Any new music or new films?
HEDI: I don’t really think that way. Unless it’s something really striking, I usually integrate and move on. It’s always hard to mention any one film or band. I find that sort of thinking restrictive.
KLAUS: Well, do you have a favorite movie?
HEDI: No. There are lots of movies that I like very much, such as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. That’s a movie that impressed me as a kid.
HEDI: I suppose David Bowie had a lot to do with it.
KLAUS: I like that movie too, because anyone who makes art sometimes feels like they’ve fallen down in one place and landed somewhere else. The movie reminds me of Pasolini’s Teorema, where a young man, played by Terrence Stamp, comes to visit a conservative Italian family, causing every person in the household to question who they are, and why.
HEDI: In Teorema, the Terrence Stamp character changes a whole family — his arrival is totally cataclysmic to them. Whereas in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Bowie character doesn’t make a difference. He can’t connect.
KLAUS. Do you want to make a difference?
HEDI: What do you mean?
KLAUS: In terms of your art, are you trying to create beauty, or clearness, or truth?
HEDI: As an objective? Not so much. I’m quite day to day.
KLAUS: You’re not a missionary for minimalism, or beauty?
HEDI: No, no. In fact, I’m always thinking that something will come along to destroy whatever credo I have. I’m most interested in that moment when my entire perspective changes, and I have to reconsider everything.
Last edited by Bernadette; 13-10-2013 at 06:54 AM.