Celine by Hedi Slimane proves that not pleasing the masses can be a profit-making strategy
The story of fashion designer Hedi Slimane provides a case study on how an uncompromised artistic expression can generate profits, despite copious amounts of criticism.
Slimane is the current Creative Director at Celine and previously designed for Saint Laurent Paris. Pop stars like Big Bang would dress from head to toe in his creations for public appearances, simply because his clothes shine like no other.
K-pop superstars Big Bang dressed fully in Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane for Melon Awards. Image via Vogue Korea
His magic is in his ability to hone in on a singular point of view and execute it to perfection. This is also why he gets a fair share of criticism.
A controversial fashion career
Controversy seems to dog Hedi Slimane throughout his career. For one, he is known for public spats with respectable fashion critics like Cathy Horyn, even banning her from his shows.
He was drafted into Saint Laurent in 2012, where he famously dropped “Yves” from Yves Saint Laurent and redesigned its logo and stores. His rebranding of a beloved label rocked the fashion world with plenty of YSL fans throwing stones at him, for fixing what was not broken.
Described as “upscale Topshop” by his harshest critics, his work evolved into something unique in time. He juxtaposed velvet, sequins, bijou and all manner of black textures in slim silhouettes, season after season for his Saint Laurent shows.
If cool was a jacket in 2014, it was definitely a Saint Laurent one.
GQ’s Will Welch and Jim Moore discussing the Saint Laurent SS16 collection by Hedi Slimane. Screenshot via GQ’s YouTube channel
Abruptly, he parted ways with Saint Laurent’s holding company Kering in 2016. Why such a formidable partnership dissolved, beats me. Slimane isn’t one who aims to please, so it isn’t hard to surmise he had probably ruffled some feathers at Kering.
His stoic devotion to his vision makes him a prolific artist and oftentimes a controversial character.
Criticism was rife for his Celine work
LVMH hired him as the Creative Director of Celine in 2018, after he stopped designing clothes for two years. Critics did not hold back for his Celine debut, calling him out for presenting a “Saint Laurent 2.0”.
Comparisons of Hedi Slimane’s work from Saint Laurent and Celine by fashion critics Diet Prada
Filling the heels of Celine’s previous designer, Phoebe Philo, is no easy feat. During her time there, she gained a following of fans who venerated her minimal, sophisticated designs.
Besides removing the accent from Celine’s logo, Slimane wiped out Philo’s meticulously curated Instagram feed for Celine. Expectedly, it invoked the ire of Philo’s fans.
As somebody who loves Marie Kondo and throwing things out, I identified with Slimane’s need to start on a clean slate. However, the lacklustre designs indicated that Slimane was still reeling from the aftermath of his “divorce” with Kering.
The clothes were mostly black, without the contrast of intricately placed bling and prints I had salivated over, from his Saint Laurent days. It was apparent that the codes set by Phoebe Philo at Celine had overshadowed Slimane’s Collection 01, something that would require time for him to steer away from.
Why Slimane is great for legacy houses
A common criticism is that Slimane should create an eponymous label instead of switching up familiar codes of historic houses. His vision is well defined and takes after nobody but himself.
At Saint Laurent, Slimane proved he could transform a historic fashion house into something grander. Saint Laurent is as French as fashion gets, but the inspiration for Slimane’s designs was from Los Angeles.
His LA-inspired Parisian fashion annoyed some snobs, but the profits speaks for itself. In marrying the unexpected, he created some of the most original artworks, displayed on hangers in stores, that were sold out over and over again.
Yves Saint Laurent himself rose to fame for his groundbreaking work at Christian Dior. Had he just continued Dior’s style, he would have been forgotten about in the annals of history.
The late Karl Lagerfeld, synonymous with Chanel’s designs before he passed, also said:
“What I do Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did. I had to find my mark. I had to go from what Chanel was to what it should be, could be, what it had been to something else.”
Novelty drives the business of fashion and is ignited by letting go of what’s past. I’m glad Slimane paid no heed to popular notions of what Celine needs to be or what it used to be for his latest menswear collection.
It’s a breath of fresh air.
A colourful Celine collection for Spring-Summer 2021
Amidst a worldwide lockdown, Celine’s latest menswear collection debuted on YouTube in late 2020. This meant that everyone got a front-row ticket to the Paris Fashion Week show.
Celine SS21 menswear looks. Images via Celine
Star-studded cardigans, mirrored sweatpants and panelled satin shorts were sent down a race track turned into a runway. The old codes were rewritten with the French Tricolour.
Red, white and blue unapologetically adorned windbreakers, sneakers and bumbags, as if proclaiming France’s eventual victory over the ongoing pandemic.
Nevermind that previous collections were mostly black and brown. This was the upbeat collection the world needed in a depressing era.
Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior and Schiaparelli, reinvented fashion for their time. Slimane stands heads and shoulders amongst them, by tossing away rules that hold style back.
Fashion history is in the making here; it just doesn’t always look like history.
What we can learn from Hedi Slimane’s career
Having been a designer at the start of my career, I can understand the pressure to please everyone. The common saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth”, rings annoyingly true when designers try to get their work approved.
Design and art are ultimately subjective, and it benefits nobody if the designer’s vision is compromised.
At any point, Kering could have prevented Slimane from dropping ‘Yves’ because it was too controversial. Or worse, they could have launched a focus group or taken a company-wide vote, on how best to proceed with the brand.
Similarly, LVMH could have prevented Slimane’s erasure of the accent in Celine’s logo or him switching up the aesthetics of the house, by citing past results.
Thankfully, these luxury holding companies understand the value of design; design is not design if somebody leaves so much as an extraneous mark or seam. This approach of cutting away what’s not needed is what makes Slimane’s work stand out from the rest.
Less is more, applies both to aesthetics and opinions.
It’s a stretch to describe Slimane’s latest collections as minimal. They are stunningly simple, but not simplistic. This ethos is reflected in the furniture that sits in Celine’s stores, as well as the new logo without a cumbersome accent.
Celine’s Tokyo store. Image via The Spaces
This universe of clean lines is one Slimane meticulously articulates for his clothing to live in. Fashion is fantasy, and Celine’s fantasy is of an extraordinarily orderly and simple enclave amidst a world descending into chaos.
It is Slimane’s undemocratic fervour to unify the brand, which allows Celine’s clothes to shine. And clearly, they did on a racetrack in Marseilles, on YouTube and on Instagram, and on the racks of Celine stores around the world.
And the world will buy them over and over again.