Hedi Slimane

[I met Hedi Slimane at the Dior Homme offices in Paris for The Guardian in the late spring of 2001. The offices were extraordinary, designed by Slimane, all gloss grey walls leading to near empty rooms and a speaker system cutting through the length of the offices. Slimane’s autonomy at Dior Homme was simply shown by him being housed in a separate building from the headquarters of Christian Dior. This was his world.

Slimane had already shown his first collection for Dior Homme, and was about to show his second. The first collection was about to go into stores. It was a rapturous time. Slimane’s first collection set the tone of tailoring and shape, with stiff shortened tuxedos worn by slender models, but it was long before the skinny jeans which cemented the label’s look.

After everything that happened at Dior Homme, it’s easy to forget the situation in which Slimane set up the house from scratch. He was witness to a major shift between the old and the new in French fashion. Before Dior Homme, Slimane had been menswear designer at Yves Saint Laurent, where he had begun to make his name. He was there when Tom Ford and Gucci Group bought the Yves Saint Laurent brand. Slimane left, and missed a season. He then set up the menswear label at Dior, where previously there had only been tailoring licenses most often found in Duty Free stores.

Yves Saint Laurent himself had begun his career designing with Christian Dior. On Dior’s death in 1957, Saint Laurent became the designer at Dior, aged only 21. He lasted there until 1960, when he was forced out, his designs too radical for Dior’s owner. Saint Laurent went on to set up his own house, from where fashion developed in the second half of the twentieth century. That Slimane was going from Saint Laurent to Dior, and that Yves Saint Laurent himself had attended the first Dior Homme show, seemed a moment of great significance to me.

Listening back to this tape, it’s amazing to hear how far fashion has come in the decade or so since. It’s remarkable to hear Slimane defend his idea of a slender male, as if the beefcake of late-20th century menswear was still prevalent. At one point we talk about Balenciaga as if it were still a radical project [Gucci Group had yet to buy that label]. At one point, I ask Slimane about womenswear, and he says that he will do it “if I go on designing”. I’m sure he meant nothing more than a passing comment, but it seems even then that he had the drive to design, but also the ability, as we eventually saw, to just stop.

I’ve tried to keep Slimane’s language as true to how he said it. The tape was quite muffled, and so sometimes I’ve opted to take out sentences, rather than put words in his mouth.]

[CP]How are you feeling

[HS] Oh I’m fine.

How far are you, what stage are you at with the

With the next collection? It’s finished, it’s just a few elements. Sometimes when I see some pieces it just makes me want to do some others.

That’s quite quick

In fact I like to design quite early, because the problem with these clothes is it takes quite a while to have it, afterwards to build the clothes and to make it right in terms of volumes etcetera, so the sketches have to be given quite early. After the show [his first Dior Homme show, called Solitaire] I started right away, voilà, so. I’m just waiting for the collection to arrive basically.

Is that quite unusual? 

I don’t, people work very difficulty, some like to work in emergency, which for me is not really the case. And I like also not to think too much twice about an idea, I just like to stick with my first idea, and so voilà. but i suppose it depends on the season, need a bit more time some seasons, some not so much.

Because it seemed to happen quite smoothly that you built this studio and put together the first Dior Homme collection, is that because you had it designed a long time before the show?

Sometimes it’s not designed designed [as in, it’s not physically designed], but it’s still in your head conceptually, the frame [framework]. I’m starting always with the concept that I chose for Dior [originally], further on that same idea, pursue an idea, a concept.

So instead of being like, what’s my theme, like some houses are

I never have that. I don’t go through thematic, any narration, I can’t have that, I don’t know how to do that.

Do you see the Solitaire collection as a new start or a continuation of what you were doing at Saint Laurent?

It was a new start. [He pauses]. It was both of them. OK. In some, a projection of a certain ideas of masculinity it certainly was a continuation because that particular side of what I’m doing, I’m not going to change my man between seasons or even if I go from a house to another. Or if I was doing my own line, you pursue a certain philosophy in that manner, I suppose, I don’t know.

Then you have the history of the house that’s completely different, in that sense when I arrived at Dior, I just tried to figure out what was the particular temps and esprit of this particular house, which is very different from Saint Laurent. Which had some consequences on the fashion, so there was a continuity in an certain almost politic part of it on menswear, then there was the way I was doing clothes also. You know the way everything is built here, my atelier is a different atelier to the one I had at Saint Laurent.

What’s the difference in mood between Dior Homme and Saint Laurent?

You mean conceptually?

Yeah

I think it’s very much, there is always an air that is around a house. I think it’s full of a certain exoticism at Saint Laurent, it goes with certain ideas, Dior it’s totally French, most of all Parisian spirit, and that has a certain meaning on the way you would build the clothes, maybe much more constructed, much more graphic, you can translate that to this cultural environment of what you’re doing, knowing that it’s not 1947 [the year of Christian Dior’s famous New Look], and that it’s menswear not womenswear.

Was there any menswear at all before at dior of any quality? There’s always been the licenses

Actually the licenses were bought back a few years ago for women and men. Only a few few licenses left, compared to the house that I was working with before which was like, it was a tremendous problem. It [the past menswear] had a relevance for a certain type of clientele I suppose which is not conceptually the people that we appeal to now so. For me, there was nothing I could start from, except for as I told you, only l’esprit of Dior, the only thing that I have, which makes it a very white space for me to, a very open field

You seem very lucky in that a lot of designers that go to a house they never find their own voice within the framework, but both times in the places you’ve worked you seem to

But I made sure when I came to Dior contractually that I would work on the “couture de marque” [the brand image] as well as on the line. I’m interested in trying to see how you can change the perception of the house. Everybody has an idea of what Dior should be. Same with when I was working at Saint Laurent. Everybody had an idea of what Saint Laurent was. So you have to make your own idea, and try to defend your own idea. And try to see if people like the idea or adjust to the idea. It’s not so much that I was lucky but that I tried to make sure that I have this possibility.

So you wouldn’t work if

No

If it had been

No no. I really wanted to design my own space and transfer certain codes of Dior into it, more the ones my team and I are about, which is the idea we had of Dior anyway, all these elements part of the project to give a vocabulary to the house. All these elements were planned already. Which maybe some other designers don’t push, there are some designers who are interested in designing the line and this is it. And this is why also I like to have a certain, to concentrate on the house, if I had another line, then maybe I just wanted to design. I don’t [wouldn’t] have the possibility try to work in-depth, work on the whole environment.

It’s interesting because there are other houses that have the same kind of thing of being not just a clothes but the whole environment of the store or the vision of it, but they’re labels that wouldn’t expect to get the same standards of tailoring or couture, you’re unique in that way

That is because I don’t know I think you have to sort of there is a certain way you should work in a house of couture that is much more traditional and much more focused on a collection, and maybe sometimes there the effect that where maybe there would be, at the end what‘s important is how it’s going to be worn, how its perceived, but at the same time it’s about being careful to have a very proximate, intimate rapport, and a very very respectful of certain traditions in a way. It’s between those two things. I think its a different way for, I think there’s a time for everything, maybe also what you were talking about is a little bit, maybe one day, you still want to see the same thing all over the place, I suppose there is a balance to find

That happened in the 90s

The whole globalisation thing, which had a sense economically, a real social phenomenon, but anther social phenomenon would be to recover certain individuality, certain proximity, and maybe it has something to do with la definition de luxela redefinition de luxe, what is lux today, really difficult to tell, is it about labels or logos and spread it out, or is it about the way you address people, the way you would care about them, the way that you would care about the clothes

Have you got an idea of how you want Dior Homme to expand? will it be able to still maintain the kind of couture element to it

Hopefully yes. This is a very crucial point, how can you keep that philosophy without, you have to expand, absolutely. It’s natural for a house like Dior to expand, I don’t know it’s really the way you would conceive. We don’t even have any stores for men which is a luck [lucky], while not at the same time. It means I can work conceptually on a very focused idea, I suppose in a way we can think about this space we will always keep in mind the couture element that is about the different service, different approach

I read a thing that said your mother used to make her own clothes. 

Yeah, and mine too by the way

Is that why you’re so interested in things being hand-done

I suppose so yeah, I sort of like that very much

When did you start

Start to do my own clothes

Yeah

I started when I was 16, because when I was a kid she was doing clothes for me and when you’re a kid you just want to wear the same clothes as your friends, which is not exactly the ones your mum would do. I would feel different now, I was stupid then, I was a  kid. And then when you are 15, 16 maybe you just want to look a bit different, it was a really good moment for me to discover that I had the chance to sort of buy fabric, then I did this til I was 19, then I sort of stopped,

What were the clothes like, were they?

ha I didn’t keep anything I’m afraid [laughing]. Well I did suits jackets I remember,

So you were always interested in tailoring

Yeah always very much. always interested. I remember there were like full-legged pants, proportion-wise not so different from what I am doing somehow.

You stopped making them at 19

When I was 19 yeah. 19 I just didn’t want to do that any more, I was doing this course, really interesting but really boring, it was not what I wanted to do. It was really interesting but it was not my thing, and then i stopped because, then I did history of art.

You quite aware of that, that a few years ago you probably wouldn’t… That you’re from a different generation of designers in terms of, the menswear designers of before were much designing for much more bulky and muscly men, like Gaultier, Versace,

Which is still is a little problem though because I’m wondering if people recovered from that yet, obviously they didn’t, they always have a very difficult perception of the sort of character that I have in my shows, physical they always have this way to characterise, which for me is a little bit. When you’re not into big muscles, it doesn’t describe men’s character. Muscles doesn’t mean masculinity to me, long hair will not define your sexuality etcetera, work more into the things that are not that simple and then you’re more free for whatever comes up.

It seems by the way that everyone asks but menswear has reached a stage where it had grown as much a it could in that framework of muscle

Don’t you still feel it’s a muscle major moment?

[I start laughing] I mean

No? In real life it’s not, but on catwalk it’s still

Catwalk yes but menswear has moved so slowly, I think you’re not going to change it that quickly but that’s also in women’s the turnover of new labels is much quicker where a new label in menswear is a big event so it’s not that easy to influence it

Yeah absolutely. Meanwhile I still have to deal with those prejudices. It’s a pain to have to insist that those elements do not mean anything today. They are completely archaic. For me it has nothing to do with, I don’t know if there is a generational thing, but I believe there is something like that, in countries where you have a very strong youth culture you understand the discrepancy of values and the meaning of masculinity, the projections they have of themselves, their lovers or girlfriends have of themselves, its really really different, much more at ease, not assuming that have to be strong, moments were they are not [strong], still be masculine and be skinny, they have no meaning of any kind.

Surely the fact that LVMH are putting money into your project, they are aware that there’s a whole area of menswear that’s not yet been filled, and that menswear could go onto the same level, not the same level as womenswear but could step up in terms of

Yeah it’s quite recently, you could not characterise French fashion from being very daring about menswear and considerate of menswear, it has been Duty Free business for all these years. They would not even think that fashion had anything to do with menswear. They would consider that fashion has to do with gay culture and its really difficult to make people understand that fashion can be a real man’s thing, and you can also try to enlarge the frame a bit, find some windows, and also appeal to a different generation. For them it’s like there [already] is a market

It’s true about the Duty Free because I was walking around the area, and going past Balenciaga and first you see the menswear windows [at the time Ghesquiere was not in charge of the menswear, it was still an old suiting business] and then you see Nicolas’ womenswear and its 

Yeah it’s true, it’s a very good example and it’s A+B of how menswear in France we are so backward, when in Italy it’s and that’s why even American fashion, and on a creative side British fashion too. at the end of the day the people owning the companies just want clothes to look like them. They don’t really see the world. So i suppose there was [A phone is ringing somewhere. Hedi begins to speak French, and excuses himself and goes to take the call. I turn the tape off, then begin again when he returns]

Last year, when you didn’t show for a season, it was almost as if you and Raf were doing a kind of protest.

Yeah but there is a little story. I met him, I didn’t know him before, only just to say hello, and I got to have dinner with him, when I was in the middle of all my trouble at Saint Laurent and  when he was thinking of stopping. So throughout the dinner he told me about him stopping and I told him about my situation at Saint Laurent. We said maybe we should come with banners, do like a little demonstration. Fashion on strike. Voilà, we didn’t do it. But um. It was. Yeah it was really strange coincidence, then we came back the same season.

When the troubles were happening at Saint Laurent, did you think you wouldn’t design again?

I just thought I would miss a season which was very awkward, I like it [designing] very much, obviously. It’s really difficult when you cannot work for any legal reasons. Things were really tough for me at the beginning of Saint Laurent, the house was a shadow of what it had been. You had to go slowly and the last two seasons I started really to go on the track that I had in mind, it felt like not being able to go on,

Because you hadn’t finished what you wanted to do at Saint Laurent

Yes I had not finished at all. I was just starting. It was something that was changing, the distribution was different, the customer had changed, the age, and everything. So it was a cultural revolution had happened. It was a little bit like it was a short film, no?

There was no way you could have done this there. There’s no way you could have carried on that vision

Oh no. Forget it. I took the door, which was really a good decision I believe and I think it’s fine. You have to move, right. I had a very very good report, i ended up having a very very good rapport with Bergé and Saint Laurent. At the beginning they were protective, you just had to prove you were not putting a cocktail Molotov in the house.

It did seem when they came to your show [Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were front row at Hedi’s debut Dior Homme show], it did seem like a gleeful joke, funny that they were there, kind of defiant

It really appeared like that, and i suppose it was something true. But meanwhile I’ve been really close since I have left and I’m really close to Pierre Bergé, I knew, except for Saint Laurent, I knew from the beginning when I joined Dior that he would come to the show. It would have been strange if he had not come because I’m close to them. I’m not close to Yves Saint Laurent, I have met him a few times, tremendous respect for him, it would have been very presumptuous to think that someone like Yves Saint Laurent would have come to the show. It was the only part that i didn’t know and it could have been interpreted in a way another, but then also when I left [Yves Saint Laurent] it’s not that he was very happy about it so, you know, maybe it was a way for him to say his word about it. Whether he sold his house or not, it’s still his name. It has major moral value for someone like that.

Have you spoken with Yves Saint Laurent about his time at Christian Dior, and have you learned about Christian Dior through him?

No but I did through his, there was a woman working with him since the house [Yves Saint Laurent] opened that met Saint Laurent when he was working for Dior and [he says a woman’s name, I can’t make it out] was also working at Dior, she was very best friend of Dior and she entered the house and was in the atelier and then the studio and that’s how she met Saint Laurent. They became really good friends,  she joined Saint Laurent afterwards [after Saint Laurent left to set up his own house]. I had lunch with her and. I knew I would join Dior, I couldn’t really say it [tell her], I started to ask, how was the feeling, what was the ritual, all those things. But also when you work at Saint Laurent, and when you know about Dior, you know how the tradition went on to Saint Laurent. The rituals, the certain etiquette, that came straight from Dior, all these french traditions.

But then also there’s the fact that Saint Laurent had to leave the Dior tradition to set his own thing, it’s almost like you’ve gone the opposite

And he did it on a crisis element, going into the army [Saint Laurent was fired from Christian Dior while he was on French military service, on which he only lasted 20 days before being admitted to military hospital to be treated for his nerves],

He did a collection that was

The thing is, there is, I don’t know very well the story, obviously he’s a very strong temper and his very own style, maybe Boussac [Marcel Boussac, at the time the owner of Dior] was scared he would make shadow of a house and the traditional name of Dior. I don’t know. Saint Laurent was the heir of Dior. But it’s a great story, because it’s what pushed Saint Laurent to have his own house. And then the thing is, what is interesting is that the house of Saint Laurent had a really strange rapport with the Dior house all these years, there was something that had not been resolved between Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent and the Dior house, nothing to do with the battle that we know [Gucci Group buying Saint Laurent]. So it was a very symbolic thing to have them at Dior, which nobody really pointed because everybody pointed on the sort of Dynasty moment

It seems that because the whole thing is the big soap opera story, and you’re one of the people most thrown around by the whole thing, but you seem to have done it very quietly and calmly

I just want to have a little control, i just try to be careful that I’m not manipulated, maybe I was to a certain extent, but I try to make sure there will be no negative consequences, and also to keep all of the negative energy out of here [the studio], and when we prepared show, the thing was really calm here, it was really serene, really calm. We did not really feel anything of it. Even at the show, I want to have a big space, between the audience and the cabin [backstage], almost a space of transformation for the character that comes out, which also makes it a different world in the cabin, so you can be very serene. It can be very exciting but it can be very negative too.

It seems that in london I think among the young designers, there’s a thing of wanting to do it on their own and be a small thing. But it seems a much more sensible at the moment to actually work for a house that gives you the freedom that has got that kind of support, for you to be able to not worry about the business

I don’t think you can say that, it’s not as idyllic as you say, it’s very very stressful, and a lot of pressure. There is the economic pressure. You have to convince everyone, which you do not have to do if it’s your own design, because you have to have some permission which you don’t have to have if it’s your own business, because the consequences are a bit more risky. So it’s for me a difficult game, so of course there is the backing side, but just like in life things have a price, and the backing is not for nothing. This I have that feeling every single day when I come here. it’s very difficult to have control of an expanding business when you’re a little bit obsessed with the right image and the right projection and a certain philosophy and psychology of a brand. I suppose Nicolas [Ghesquière] has the same sort of problem. And to me, it’s much more light and easy to do a small own business, because you don’t have to deal with all this, and that’s the difficult thing sometimes to do a collection or to work on this sort of aspect, but then to have to deal with

So why do you do

Because I like this idea, that it’s a frame [a framework], it becomes very concentrating, and that you can try, which doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed, you can try to give a different perspective to something that everybody knows. So it’s just like if you want to have things evolving in politics, would you rather do your own party or would you rather work in a government and have a position where you can try to have some influence to make some reforms? It sounds a little bit weird, the comparison, but there is definitely something a little bit politics about it.

Do you think that menswear is going to change

This is what you were saying, for me it has to change, whether it’s a generational thing or it’s it absolutely has to change, but I don’t know when. You know it’s going to change, its very difficult because there’s so many taboo.

For me it’s interesting that Raf’s back and Junya Watanabe’s going to show menswear, that sort of stuff, is more interesting

Yeah so it’s a good moment, certainly it’s much more creative than it was before, really about doing some technical pieces but also try to have a to bring back a certain credibility to men’s fashion, which to a lot of people is completely a paradox. Junya Watanabe transferring his style to menswear, and I find it really relevant.

Hopefully he won’t chicken out, do the cowardly thing and some designers where their menswear line is nothing like their womenswear line

They don’t dare, yeah you’re right.

Is it definite that you would never do womenswear

No no no, nothing definite. I will do when I feel it. I can do it [womenswear] any time. It would be very specific. I could do it, if I go on designing, I sure will do it. When you design you don’t design one thing i suppose

You seem very relaxed about it

About what?

About everything

Not all the time, I’m a bit more tense. You have to keep a little protection, as I told you its heavy, but it’s fine because my team is really nice, we all get along very very well, everybody does here, everybody’s into the project, [I’m not sure why, but here I turn the tape off. When I turn it on again, we are talking about the layout of the studio, and the way he works]

I always work with pictures, we have pictures of fittings, but there is no board of inspiration

Mood board

No I don’t like that.

It’s interesting that the way you work is very different to most peoples, a lot of designers are about styling as 

But I work mostly in, I work on design, not on fashion brand more on proportion, I don’t work on function so much, I’m not interested in function, but proportion, I don’t know. Culture is also an element, shape,

Have you got long-term projects, to make the prefect trouser, or make the perfect jacket

Yeah, I try not moving so much from one season to another. I’m not really much into the look of the season thing. I like to sort of go on working, because also in menswear it’s not that you absolutely have to sort of jump. You just have to make one small step. To have all these new trends to communicate – “this season I did this and that” – I could never do it this way.

A mistake that some people make, they assume that the way menswear will move forward would be like womenswear

You can still have certain desires. When I say desires, it has a notion a value, of something immediate and positive for fashion, that is really not about fashion, I found. Its not the key element of the collection, the collection is about the structure, the line, the silhouette, then from it you have the new desire but you always talking about the same character.

When you were sorting out your contract with Dior, was it easy for them to understand that you needed this level of control

Yeah I think they sort of understood it, I was lucky enough, they felt comfortable with it, it actually means you work much more, and you are very more dedicated to the house, because you really care about it. it’s not like i go playing tennis in the morning and come here, and then go on vacation to Saint Barts,

I suppose it’s lucky the Dior image in the public’s mind isn’t one that matches with menswear, it’s not something that seems attractive for men to buy

No

So they can keep the old logo for the womenswear but

It was the major psychology with Dior Homme, to make people my age or even younger to consider it,to have something relevant to themselves and desirable. There is the whole thing to do with that. And in that sense you have to have a message be really focused and very also true not préfabriqué[The tape is turned off]