For Paris-based designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin, known for his racy, gender-fluid looks, the last year has been a rollercoaster. The pandemic posed a serious threat to his business. But a sex-positive Instagram community built on queer imagery and a series of popular challenges that de Saint Sernin cultivated after his own sexual awakening helped keep the label on track.
From the beginning, de Saint Sernin’s work was closely shaped by his personal life. “I think from the first collection, it was very much like a coming out, because at the same time I was coming out in real life,” said de Saint Sernin. “I have always approached my collection as a diary. The same way a singer can express their feelings in a song or album, I was expressing that in my collections and I thought that was something the public could relate to.”
Relate they did. With the fashion industry starving for inclusivity and male pop stars like Harry Styles and Lil Nas pushing gender boundaries, de Saint Sernin’s queer sex-positive vision — of a kind perhaps not seen since Jean Paul Gaultier in the 1990s — has been gaining traction with its range of hard and soft pieces, from S&M-inspired, metal-adorned leather pants to sheer organza jackets, cut-out knitwear and body-con halter tops.
Since launching his eponymous label in 2017, de Saint Sernin, who cut his teeth in the design studio at Balmain, has been shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and, in 2018, won the ANDAM Creative Label Prize. The business remains small, but his collections, which span men’s and, increasingly, womenswear, have been picked up by retailers like MatchesFashion and Ssense, and worn by Dua Lipa, Rihanna, Hailey Bieber and Reggaeton star Bad Bunny.
Kim Kardashian donned bespoke brown leather pants and a bespoke oversized metallic top adapted from de Saint Sernin’s Spring-Summer 2020 menswear collection for her appearance in the campaign to promote KKW Fragrance’s collaboration with Kendall Jenner back in March. “I dressed her for her latest perfume campaign and we want to do more stuff together in the future,” said de Saint Sernin, who received new womenswear orders from stores like Selfridges soon after the campaign.
But if things seem to be progressing quickly for Ludovic de Saint Sernin, it wasn’t that long ago that the self-financed brand was in jeopardy. Last spring, with Covid-19 bearing down on Paris, the label was already late with deliveries to its wholesale partners because of the on-going “gilets jaunes” strikes in the French capital, where all of its products are made. Then, all of sudden, when lockdowns hit, stores were forced closed and orders were cancelled. For a small label with limited capital and no e-commerce channel of its own, the situation was dire.
But while locked down with his boyfriend and project manager Ignacio Muñoz, de Saint Sernin took out his iPhone and snapped two pictures of the unsold inventory lying around their apartment, posting it to Instagram and inadvertently giving birth to a direct-to-consumer business that now accounts for 50 percent of the label’s revenue. “I would use the swipe up [feature] and people would buy. It was amazing because it was like I have my clients here,” said de Saint Sernin.
In August 2020, MatchesFashion, under pressure on late payments to labels and aiming to attract consumers with a roster of fresh young talent, launched a new program to help small designers survive the pandemic with preferential payment terms and marketing support. The retailer signing up de Saint Sernin alongside Charles Jeffrey, Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner.
De Saint Sernin’s crystal-embroidered t-shirts and leather pieces, in particular, have done well for MatchesFashion, said head of menswear Damien Paul. “It’s fantastic product that comes from a really pretty sound understanding of luxury,” he said. But the brand’s message — “be proud of your sexuality, be proud of who you are,” also resonated with customers, said Paul.
It’s a message that de Saint Sernin has cultivated on social media to terrific effect and which has helped to drive the success of his e-commerce business.
It started back in 2018, when de Saint Sernin, a year after coming out as gay, launched @ludovicdesaintserninX, a private Instagram account that now has 45,700 followers. Inspired, in part, by Robert Maplethorpe’s “X” portfolio, the account began by posting sexy images shot by Thomas Giddings featuring male models on New York’s Fire Island. “A conversation celebrating sex, love and freedom — that was the first intention for it,” said de Saint Sernin.
The audience grew steadily. But things really began to pick up in 2019 after de Saint Sernin received a series of DMs from men wearing beige towels riffing on a runway look from his most recent menswear show in Paris. “It was a meme and it became bigger than what I thought it would become,” said de Saint Sernin, recalling the inception of the popular challenges for which the @ludovicdesaintserninX account became known.
The first official challenge was the #ldsstowelchallenge in the summer of 2019, which compelled LA-based musician @Saro to pose wearing a towel poolside. For the #ldssinbedchallenge in early 2020, @michaelstivanello took photos of his reflection on top of white bed sheets. And the #ldssfoamchallenge in the summer of 2020 made @casually_amaury run bubbles over his torso suggestively covering the contours of his penis. The most recent #ldssoutdoorchallenge had @jacksonsypher cavorting naked on rocks in Lake Tahoe.
The challenges helped to generate buzz for the label. According to TribeDynamics, the brand’s earned media value (EMV) grew significantly from May 2020 to April 2021, outperforming the social media analytics firm’s Luxury Fashion EMV Index by 36 percent.
De Saint Sernin declined to disclose revenue figures, but said his social media activity had helped to more than double sales in 2020, as many brands faced steep declines. MatchesFashion recorded a pandemic year uptick in Ludovic de Saint Sernin sales, too.
“He has harnessed social media in a way that I think feels kind of relevant for now,” said Paul. “[His followers] know these products are launching. He teases them through social media. And we see the reaction as soon as they hit the website.”
But the Instagram account means more than a sale to many of its followers.
“The impression I guess is that most people who are submitting their pictures or participating in these challenges are people who wouldn’t otherwise have a platform to share these kinds of images,” said Igor Pjorrt, an emerging photographer, who recently submitted a self portrait to the account. “I feel like there is a certain aesthetic that Ludovic has nurtured in his Instagram and feel like people try to emulate it. And that’s what’s interesting, because they are not just following a challenge, they are following a sort of movement, an art movement.”
De Saint Sernin recently launched a collaboration with Swarovski. He is also expanding his womenswear range, which now accounts for 50 percent of his wholesale business. “I think that’s exciting for us,” said the designer. “But I obviously will never forget my core community, coming out and how it all started.”