The day before this week’s Saint Laurent show at the Palladium in LA, a customer had a question for an assistant at the brand’s Rodeo Drive store. “How impossible is tomorrow night?” He meant getting tickets for the show. “My publicist has been working on it for a month.” “There’s a waiting list,” said the assistant. “I should fire her,” said the man.
This is not the normal conversation that takes place before a fashion show. But then this was by no means a normal show. It was staged far from Saint Laurent’s regular catwalk home of Paris. It was equal parts menswear to womenswear. Its timing was out of sync with the typical show schedules. Most pressingly, it happened after weeks of swirling rumours about the future of the label and whether its creative director, Hedi Slimane, was about to quit.
The success of Saint Laurent under Slimane has been remarkable. Before he joined in 2012, the brand had struggled to get out of the red. From scratch, Slimane built a new identity centred on sharp updates of Yves Saint Laurent touchstones, such as the Le Smoking tuxedo, or the biker jacket from the Beat collection (a look which got Saint Laurent fired from his job at Dior in 1960).
Mix this with skinny jeans, fluid printed shirts and a boot with a heel, and you get the present-day Saint Laurent look for both men and women. Alongside the seasonal novelties, he has introduced a permanent collection of “transeasonal classics” — leather jackets, baseball zip-ups, denim and sneakers — that provoke demand away from the fashion show cycle. While Burberry and Tom Ford have announced plans to redraw the fashion calendar, with collections that will go on sale immediately after the show, Slimane has quietly negotiated the seasonal vagaries of the catwalk collection by producing a line that never goes out of stock.
And it’s been phenomenally successful: Slimane has doubled revenue at the Kering-owned house, from €353m in 2011 to €707m (2014). According to luxury sector analysts at Citi, Saint Laurent will post a further 20 per cent increase in sales when Kering announces its half-year results on February 19. Once considered a relatively minor player in the luxury market, Slimane has turned Saint Laurent into an industry powerhouse.
In LA on Wednesday night, discussion of Slimane’s future was not encouraged by Kering chairman and chief executive François-Henri Pinault. “Tonight is about celebrating the brand, celebrating Hedi, celebrating LA, the music, all that,” he told fashion news site WWD. “Nothing else.”
The success of Saint Laurent has infuriated members of the fashion media. Even though Slimane designed menswear for Yves Saint Laurent himself in the late 1990s, and Saint Laurent was sat front row at Slimane’s first show for Dior Homme in 2001, Slimane’s approach and aesthetic has always been accompanied by controversy. It was seen as sacrilege that the French house should have its design studio relocated to Los Angeles, 47-year-old Paris-born Slimane’s adopted home town for the past eight years. Similarly Slimane’s use of thrift and vintage as source material has led some to criticise his creative emphasis.
The truth is, customers couldn’t give a damn. One of Slimane’s canniest moves has been in realising fashion critics are no longer the middlemen between designer and consumer, another rumbling of the tectonic shift taking place in fashion. Instead, from his LA base, the creative designer has cultivated a loyal following of musicians, rock stars, actors and artists — many of whom star on his Diary blog and in the advertising campaigns he styles and shoots.
On the morning of the show, I met sisters Jennifer and Jessie Clavin of the band Bleached, who were due on stage at the Palladium afterparty at 1.30am. Over coffee they described the LA scene Slimane has drawn on for so much of his Saint Laurent mood. “It’s spread out,” said Jennifer, 28, who had dyed her hair blue that morning. “You have to make your own scene in your own area,” said 26-year-old Jessie. “There are less rules here so it’s easier to get away with things. As kids we had shows in parks because someone had a generator. You would just do it until the cops came and gave you a ticket or kicked everyone out.”
LA enjoys a rare creative freedom, an unexpected underground culture that sits alongside the tension of the city’s entertainment industry. “I love that there’s this whole Hollywood side of celebrities and plastic surgery,” said Jessie, “and then there’s our scene.” “Which is what’s cool about the show tonight,” said Jennifer. “It’s like worlds colliding.”
Slimane has always given front-row precedence to friends and kids from underground bands rather than old world media. Here in LA, he created the most welcoming atmosphere yet. As the crowd gathered a few hours later at the Palladium, Jennifer from Bleached was there alongside Justin Bieber, Sylvester Stallone, Pamela Anderson and Lady Gaga. When the show started, the crowd cheered. Fashion audiences are never this appreciative. Justin Bieber banged his legs like drums. Courtney Love chatted. Gaga stood up and gesticulated her approval as the looks came out.
It’s 50 years since Yves Saint Laurent founded Rive Gauche, the ready-to-wear line that revolutionised fashion by giving off-the-peg clothes the same attention as couture. An explosive talent, Saint Laurent was only 30 when he laid the groundwork for attainable luxury fashion. Slimane’s Palladium collection was a tribute deep in Yves, from buttoned-up tea dresses to tweed waistcoat women’s pantsuits. Many pieces were unisex. Historically, Rive Gauche was a womenswear label, and, though this show was ostensibly held as part of the AW16 menswear schedule, women’s looks took precedence.
Despite being so far away from the French capital, this was Slimane’s most Parisian collection yet. Previously, his women’s catwalk message had been skin-revealing and short. Here, flesh was covered: wide culottes were prevalent, and dresses — mostly long-sleeved — fell below the knee, covering the top of high boots. Metallics and sequins were everywhere. Afterwards, I spoke to a model, her eyes still smudged with glitter make-up. A regular on Slimane’s catwalk, she loved that this show was feminine.
In LA, Slimane evoked Saint Laurent’s style and matched it with the signatures of his own career. Tailoring was cut with precision, sometimes with an extended shoulder. It referred to his work at the house during his 1990s stint as menswear director. As always, there were killer retail pieces: a brown tweed trench, a double-breasted black coat with military buttons, a stripe rollneck knit. The guy wearing it looked totally Saint Laurent, the perfect representation of the brand today, and of its 50-year legacy. It was the first time Yves has been conjured so overtly since the label was bought by Gucci Group, an earlier incarnation of Kering, in 1999. It felt timely. Slimane took his bow in a velvet blazer and jeans. His hair was longer, and altogether more Yves-ish.
I joined Lady Gaga in the crush to go backstage. “Ohmygod what a crazy show,” she said to no one and everyone. Courtney Love pushed to the front. Sam Smith tried the same but Gaga stood her ground. Slimane doesn’t do backstage quotes. He’s done barely any interviews at Saint Laurent but he’s no recluse. We talked about the beach, about the after-party that was just starting. He seemed relaxed and happy. He should be.
With each Saint Laurent invitation comes a booklet featuring the work of a single artist, often unknown. This one contained text-based images by Mitchell Syrop. “Nice job,” read one. “Acquired taste,” another. Some were more ominous. “Not long for this world,” read the words above an image of a stretch limo. “It’s over between us,” read a spread.
There’s a full women’s show to come in Paris, next month. Then who knows what will happen. What’s clear is that Slimane has created a raft of core products — handbags, sneakers, tuxes, bikers — that will generate profit for years to come. Whether he stays and pushes the brand further is his choice. Whatever happens, Slimane is in total control.