How Hedi Slimane Reinvigorated Saint Laurent Through Music

Anne T. Donahue on the designer and his musician muses

If last week’s news that Hedi Slimane was leaving Saint Laurent didn’t shock you, try this on for size: After appointing Anthony Vaccarello as his successor, YSL just purged any/all traces of Slimane from its Instagram feed and kept only a photo of the brand’s new face. Yikes.

While that is some basic-level pettiness on the part of Saint Laurent (sorry, Yves Saint Laurent), it doesn’t erase all that Slimane did to establish YSL as a culturally relevant and exciting label.

But don’t take my word for it. (Or do! I won’t be mad.) On top of consistently outfitting the likes of Harry Styles, Cara Delevingne, Rita Ora, and Kate Moss, Slimane helped double Kering’s (Saint Laurent’s parent brand) revenue since his appointment as creative director in 2011. His "it" bags, leatherwork, and the accessibility of his ready-to-wear lines made fashion feel accessible and exciting, particularly as he drew inspiration from eras when music drove fashion -- from '90s grunge to '70s disco glam to ‘60s-era Carnaby Street. Which meant that even if you couldn’t afford Saint Laurent proper (true for most people on earth), you could at least acquire and create outfits under the same sphere, whether that meant shopping vintage or dropping cash at chains like Topshop, whose eclectic offerings often fell in line with Slimane’s trendy looks.

Yet what was most exciting about Saint Laurent under Slimane was his innate understanding of the way music and fashion are so intrinsically connected. Any designer can draw from the crème de la crème of a particular industry, but Slimane sought to include the music industry, not just to leach off of it (or off of their special relationship). Enter: The Saint Laurent Music Project, a 2013 campaign featuring a slew of artists including Courtney Love, Kim Gordon, Joni Mitchell, Sky Ferreira, and Marilyn Manson, which not just served to reinvigorate Fashion Courtney™ (who appeared in several campaigns shot under Slimane) but showcased music and YSL’s mutual respect. Yes, it was YSL that outfitted perdurable icons Mick and Bianca Jagger for their 1971 wedding -- but it was Slimane’s relationships with iconic musicians and artists that existed outside of fashion that brought such credibility and cool to Saint Laurent under his stead.

Still, it’s important to remember that Slimane’s career has consistently been his own. In 2001, the designer/photographer launched The Stage Project, which featured everybody from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie to (then) lesser-known acts like The Kills and The Strokes (whose style, of course, was reflected in Slimane’s designs for Saint Laurent once he took charge).

In a 2015 interview with Yahoo, the designer opened up about his affinity for the slender silhouette, but particularly the way he was influenced by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and David Bowie after seeing their body-hugging styles as an inspiration and reminder that he didn’t need to hide or shy away from androgyny. Which means that Kanye isn’t actually the only reason men wear skinny jeans. (Kanye’s “I Am a God” was in response to Hedi’s demand for Paris Fashion Week show fidelity.)

Since Slimane took the reins at Saint Laurent, the rock, pop, and rap star uniforms have evolved into skinny jeans, plunging necklines, button-ups, and an inherent sense of vintage appreciation. Men in music -- regardless of genre -- no longer shy away from skinny pants or even exhibitionism (see: Harry Styles’s refusal to button up his shirt). Instead, they’re wearing 2016 takes on an aesthetic first mastered by the Thin White Duke, updated via fashion shows that feel (or felt -- R.I.P.) more like concerts than like Fashion Week events. And in turn, younger fans and audiences have gotten wise to the label, learning the ins and outs of a brand they hadn’t heard of until a particular boy band member picked up a pair of sparkly boots, which serves to remind them that fashion can be just as exciting and expressive as music.

So now what? Clearly, Vaccarello isn’t going to burn down the brand like the social media manager of the YSL Instagram account just tried to. No, he just accepted a really great job -- and I wish him luck. But it’s disappointing to see a label act like the person who once held its creative reins never existed -- especially when that designer managed to seamlessly merge style and music in a way that made us love both even more.