An Essay on Hedi Slimane and the Saint Laurent Paris Fall 2013 Collection

Saint Laurent Paris Fall 2013

If you’re looking at the above photos wondering what this mishmash of Courtney Love circa Hole attire is all about, I ask you to read on. If, conversely, you don’t care and think these gals need a hug and a five dollar bill, I feel you. And if you’ve ever wished a fashion designer would give a giant middle finger to the fashion industry, the photos above prove that it actually happened at the Saint Laurent Paris runway show yesterday.

Designer Hedi Slimane recently took over The Fashion House Formerly Known as YSL and has set about transforming it from top to bottom ever since. Though this is only his second collection, he is hinting at something old, pushing against something new, and resurrecting the ghosts of rock and roll past for a reason (I think). He’s doing it all from Los Angeles, not from Paris or New York either. And this is all very important from a contemporary design perspective.

We’re living during a time when subculture is dying, the economic divide is growing, and originality often gives way to copycatting. Retro, for instance, isn’t retro anymore. Curiosity isn’t rewarded by in-depth digging and study; it’s all just a mouse click away. If someone does something unprecedented, and that moment is chronicled, everyone else can recreate it within seconds. Does that render it obsolete? Not necessarily; it just sparks a trend faster. But is original even original anymore?

Quick history: YSL is an old-school fashion house that has long catered to the upper echelons of society in both design and price point. It’s namesake designer, Yves Saint Laurent, started the company after working at Christian Dior, where his first collection was loved by critics. He then shortened his name to Saint Laurent, modernized his designs, and his second collection was met with disapproval. He bowed out of fashion, and then returned with his own label in the 1960s. During this time he was known for being one of the first designers to champion “retro” looks from the 1920s to 1940s.

Saint Laurent Paris Fall 2013 leather

Interestingly, this is all quite similar to Slimane, who also used to work for Dior. Though he designed for Dior Homme, the menswear arm of the house, he transformed menswear as we know it with his skinny suit, which referenced styles from the 1960s and was made popular on many a music and film icon from the late 1990s to early 2000s. Slimane eventually left Dior and fashion altogether and dedicated himself to photography. His online Diary remains a stunningly beautiful archive of the last remaining vestiges of current rock and roll history. And it informs what he’s doing now.

When Slimane took the YSL reins late last year, he reversed the YSL name back to Saint Laurent Paris, and he refused to work out of Paris, choosing instead to remain at his creative studio in Los Angeles. This was an unprecedented move in the world of fashion. Though his first collection as Saint Laurent Paris hinted delicately at the West, he didn’t reinvent the YSL brand. But with this second collection, which Slimane states is firmly entrenched in California grunge (it’s hard not to miss the reference), he has reinvented a longstanding luxury fashion brand as a sort of pantheon to the lowbrow ruffian. It’s radical. And I think it speaks volumes about our current artistic culture.

Saint Laurent Paris Women's Fall 2013

In the past 24 hours following Slimane’s show, I’ve read impassioned outcries worthy of a fainting couch about how Slimane sent “crack whores” down the runway and how this was a Really Big Deal. This sentiment echoes the backlash Marc Jacobs received for his 1993 “heroin chic” grunge collection for Perry Ellis. That runway show changed the course of cultural history, though. Not only was it directly influenced by Nirvana and the music scene of Seattle, it was a young designer giving a finger to an older fashion house and having the entire young adult population already following suit. It was cool at that time to give the finger to authority and luxury. Is Slimane referencing the Jacobs grunge collection on purpose?

We seem to have reverted back to a quasi 1980s time when designer labels are king again. Besides the fact that New York City is too expensive to live in, the rise of the fashion blogger and street style photographer has given way to a “peacock” parade that entails revisiting and capturing the rampant label adornment of the 1980s. Seasoned fashion reporters such as veteran journalist Suzy Menkes are penning essays lamenting the days when only a select few were invited to shows and you wore all black and pretended like you didn’t care. I can see her point, but with the internet and more designers choosing to stream their shows online (thanks, again, Marc Jacobs), we’re all invited now. And there’s something great about the democratization of fashion.

Saint Laurent Paris men's fall 2013

But beyond that, younger people are emulating pop stars now, too, not rock and roll musicians having to scrape by in whatever t-shirt they grabbed off the floor of their beat-up van. Today’s pop stars peacock their earnings in constantly changing designer outfits or partnerships with design houses meant to continually inflate the wallets of both parties. Case in point, Beyoncé’s recent collaboration with uber-cool French designer Isabel Marant on a single pair of mega-expensive sneakers using the skins of five exotic animals. What’s the message here? We all know Bey can apparently do no wrong, but doesn’t this “fashion” choice seem sort of forced and unnecessary?

The fashion critics are clearly divided on how to review the Saint Laurent Fall 2013 collection. A few have rightly mentioned that the younger-skewing clothing probably won’t appeal to Saint Laurent’s (older? wealthier?) customer. Other critics have tiptoed around having an opinion at all for fear of… what? Not wanting to be rendered uncool and disinvited to Slimane’s next show? He famously did this to Cathy Horyn of the New York Times and has remained somewhat media shy when it comes to promoting Saint Laurent. But I think that’s his point.

This may not be the most beautiful or original collection of clothing to ever grace a runway, but I think it’s saying something. It’s tougher, harder-edged, and features copious amounts of black leather. It’s more accessible to a younger demographic. There’s minimal adornment save for tights that sparkle like diamonds (easily re-created with glue and crystals) and hair that appears messy and unwashed. There are knitted sweaters and scarves that will undoubtedly be mimicked by the high street but, also, possibly recreated by individuals with a crafty DIY hand. And there are plenty of floral baby doll dresses you can scour to find at your local Crossroads Trading Co. or Buffalo Exchange stores. This clothing is neither precious or intended for an elite few. Or is it?

There’s something childish yet assured about the Saint Laurent Fall 2013 girl and boy. The girls recall the Courtney Love era of Hole, yes, but that’s when Courtney was pre-surgery, post-Kurt, and full of pent up female rage. She was a carefully calculated mess but she didn’t give a fuck. She never would have worn a thousand dollar wedge sneaker or armfuls of Hermès bangle bracelets or cared whether she was camera-ready for The Sartorialist or not. The same can be said for Slimane’s men’s collection, which was shown in Paris in January and received none of the backlash this women’s collection is receiving. And, you know what? They’re not much different at all. Case in point, these two looks below. The one on the left is from the men’s collection, and the one on the right is from the women’s.

Saint Laurent Paris men's and women's fall 2013

Hedi Slimane is not reinventing the fashion wheel with this latest collection, so why is everyone all up in arms? If you think about it, we’ve seen it all. Fashion is fickle, yes, but is any of it ever actually new? What’s new to me is a designer choosing—in this digital age where we can work from anywhere—to make his work where and when he’s inspired, regardless if it’s a known fashion hub or not. What’s new to me is a designer brazenly choosing to reference not only his own house’s original designer but another designer, too (whether intentional or not). What’s new to me is a designer choosing to celebrate up and coming artists and musicians that aren’t household names. He did this by choosing musician Christopher Owens as his fall Saint Laurent model, singer Sky Ferreira for pre-fall, commissioning Los Angeles artist and student, Theodora Allen, to design the programs for the current collection, and using the music from San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees for the runway show.

It’s exciting to see someone mussing up the fashion feathers again, and from a new locale that clearly has a style over fashion influence. (I live in LA and can vouch for that.) But, then again, maybe this is just another ploy to get people to spend lots of money on a retro flannel shirt with an expensive tag sewn into it.

March 5, 2013