Paris Fashion Week is where fashion's rumor mill gets most of its power, and it's also the perfect time for companies to announce strategic moves—like job changes. LVMH won the week with not one, but two big announcements. The first came before Louis Vuitton's Fall/Winter 2018 menswear show, which turned out to be the last for outgoing creative director Kim Jones. The second was the news that Hedi Slimane is taking over Céline.
It's sort of a homecoming for the designer, marking another return to LVMH, where he famously ushered in a new era of menswear under Dior Homme. Then he went to LVMH's biggest rival, Kering (the same umbrella company that owns Balenciaga and Gucci), where he completely reinvented Saint Laurent Paris for a younger generation. Now, he'll be expanding Céline's offering into menswear and fragrances, two places the label has never ventured under outgoing creative director Phoebe Philo, whose last show will be presented in March.
Philo is lauded as a master designer who made Céline highly relevant since starting her tenure in 2008. Her clothing struck a line between Bohemian, minimal, and covetable. Her name is a reference point for guys like Virgil Abloh and Pharrell Williams. And sneakerheads found out who she was when she gave the Nike Air Force 1 a high-end, vachetta tan makeover in 2014, a look which was reinterpreted by Nike in 2016.
Fashion fans are torn between welcoming Hedi Slimane and missing Phoebe Philo dearly. Slimane's appointment could help expand's Céline's audience even more, but it might come at the cost of Philo's beloved design legacy. To debate the possible outcome of Slimane's new post, fashion writer and Editor-in-Chief of StyleZeitgeist Eugene Rabkin has a tête-à-tête with Highsnobiety editorial director Jian DeLeon.
Jian DeLeon: Let's start things off with…Why do you hate Hedi Slimane?
Eugene Rabkin: Well, “hate” is a strong word. I just haven't liked his design direction as of late—his last couple of seasons at Dior Homme, and I never liked it at Saint Laurent. I found it too simplistic, too literal. It was taking very clearly defined youth culture codes. This kind of rock-and-roll, pretty young thing from L.A.—and impossibly skinny in both body and mind. You know, all about image.
JD: If you're looking at what he did at Dior Homme, and what he did at Saint Laurent…the latter was a much more dramatic change. He moved the design headquarters to Los Angeles and rebranded it. But I think he is one of the few designers who has defined the aesthetic of modern dressing. A lot of what's happening now in menswear can be traced to him and Thom Browne in the early 2000s. The slim, skinny suits, the razor-cut jeans, the overall casualization of dress codes still echoes of what he was doing at Dior Homme.
What he did with SLP is—and this is a bad way to describe it, but it's true—he redefined the uniform of the L.A. douchebag. Someone like you can't wear a bomber jacket or a moto anymore because he gave the “basic” guy a new casual uniform. It's evident in all of those post-Hedi SLP labels that have filled that void for very minimal, rock-inflected clothes that seem to say: “I do drugs, but I look cool.”
ER: Right. I'm not saying he hasn't influenced the zeitgeist of dressing. I'm just saying I find it pretty meritless. I'm not saying he's not influential; he's very influential. What I mostly questioned at Saint Laurent was, when I looked at the clothes, a lot of it was not good quality design at all. It could have easily been imitated at Topshop.
JD: Yeah, and it has.
ER: He took a look that is so clearly defined and just put it on the catwalk. To me, there isn't much design merit in that. I would also argue that his influence has waned. Look at what people wear now—it's really elevated streetwear. A lot of is quite oversized, and it's pretty far cry from what he's been doing. It's more like Balenciaga, and it's a very different look right now.
JD: Well, to provide a counterpoint, look at some of the most influential pieces from his Saint Laurent Paris collections. The Teddy Jacket with the raglan shoulders and white leather trim has been copied to no end.
In terms of elevated streetwear, he's taking over Phoebe Philo, who gave the Air Force 1 a luxury make-over in 2014. Around the same time, Slimane introduced his upscale version of Vans Slip-Ons and Authentics, with vampire lipstick prints and the ubiquitous Babycat print. Then there was the SL/10H, which aped the Black/Red and Black/Royal Jordan 1s.
ER: We're on the same page. Mostly what I've seen people wear from SLP is sneakers. There's been an occasional jacket. You could argue maybe that he popularized the Perfecto and gave it a new life, but even I think that's questionable.
Schott is still the archetype, but think what Slimane did was legitimize it in the same way Alexander Wang made hoodies and T-shirts viable fashion statements. But, let's move onto Céline. Why do you think Phoebe Philo wanted to leave?
ER: My theory is that LVMH and Philo parted ways because LVMH wanted to expand the brand and she didn't want to. I don't think she ever wanted to design menswear. She has children, a family, and she wanted to maintain a good work/life balance. The fact that the announcement was that Slimane will introduce menswear, haute couture, and perfumes speaks volumes here.
I can't really fault LVMH for that. They're in the business of making money. But Phoebe Philo made Céline extremely successful. Céline went from a 200 million euro brand to a 700 million euro brand. To me, she was the last designer holding the torch and dressing women who are both stylish and smart. Her customer is a cerebral customer. It's fantastic, minimalist design, but it's not exactly minimal. It was certainly very dressy, but her woman would just put on a pair of Stan Smiths, white wool pants, throw over a Céline camel coat over her shoulders, and she's done. And everybody knows what those codes signify.
JD: Let's examine the history of Céline. This is a brand founded in 1945 by Céline and Richard Vipiana, and it was initially children's shoe business. It was acquired in 1996 by LVMH for 2.7 billion francs—around $540 million. And then Michael Kors helmed it in 1997. When the Phoebe Philo era began in 2008, she remade the brand in her own image in the same way Hedi Slimane did at Saint Laurent. I think this is Phoebe Philo's legacy—she made Céline into a new money status symbol. If your mother and your grandmother were buying Louis Vuitton and Hermès, you—as a smart, stylish woman of today—wanted to buy Céline.
ER: There was an aspect of that, for sure. I think the type of a woman you describe speaks more to the bags instead of the clothes. But I think these universes overlap. I think the most telling point for Céline and Phoebe Philo came in 2015 when she used Joan Didion for a campaign. That was the most symbolic. It said: “This is exactly who I want to dress.”
And the tragedy for me is that Slimane's going to erase all of that in a second. She didn't want to put an 18-year-old Instagram starlet in cut-off shorts, which is what basically Slimane did at Saint Laurent, and what I expect Slimane to do is exactly a copy of Saint Laurent. He has too much of an ego, and his vision—it's tunnel vision. I just don't see him changing that at all.
JD: In the Highsnobiety world, dropping a reference to Céline is shorthand for possessing an elevated taste level. It's almost just like knowing about it and who Phoebe Philo is puts you on a different plane of conscious consumption.
JD: In 2011, Kanye West wore the tunic from the Spring/Summer 2011 collection at Coachella, and that particular graphic found it's way on a skateboard by Jayne Min and on a hockey jersey and sweat shorts from this Texas brand called Black Market.
Then in 2014, Pharrell wore the hot pink women's coat at Madison Square Garden, I think it was the Jingle Ball or something like that. But you've always had men wearing Céline in some way. I remember seeing designer John Elliott in a pair of the Céline Air Force 1s when they came out. In many ways, it's street culture's aspiration to be on Phoebe Philo's level. Virgil Abloh even referenced “Céline as the dream” during his Nike OFF-CAMPUS events in New York.
ER: Yeah, for sure. I think that's another telling sign because let's face it: Céline has become this sort of a pinnacle of design. And the likes of Virgil Abloh, Kanye West, and whatnot—there's also an aspirational aspect to them, don't you think?
ER: There's none of that in Phoebe Philo. And I really don't know who's going to aspire to design like Hedi Slimane—because there isn't all that much design in there, to be honest. He's a phenomenal image-maker, and when I say “phenomenal,” I mean he knows exactly what he wants. I'm not saying the images are phenomenal, but it works. And it works for the brand after he leaves.
Saint Laurent is still posting record sales numbers—even though he hasn't been there for a year. So it's really no surprise that he was hired at Céline. But I do believe it's a loss for fashion.
JD: We're aligned in the fact that part of the appeal of Phoebe Philo's Céline is that you were buying into an overall feeling that permeated the clothing, and by extent, the brand. It was indescribable yet when you looked at it, something tugged at your heartstrings that made it desirable and worthy of value.
And we also agree that with Hedi Slimane, it's “buy the look.” The pieces are what they are, his vision is what it is, and the references are usually the same. Philo's approach and what she was doing is essentially a couture mentality, taking the materials and trying to sell an ideal, whereas Hedi Slimane is selling an aesthetic—and there's nothing wrong with that. It's wearable clothing that makes you feel like a million bucks: purchasable confidence.
ER: This is maybe the last nail in the coffin of designer clothing, because it will keep erasing the distinction between what “designer fashion” looks like and what the rest of the apparel market looks like. You could easily imitate SLP by going to a high street store, but you couldn't really do that with Céline.
Unless Slimane has something up his sleeves that none of us know about, he will make it as approachable as he did SLP. But of course, it will sell amazingly well.
Now read about 5 ways Hedi Slimane changed Saint Laurent.