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Hedi Slimane’s First Celine Interview

Ahead of his Celine debut, Hedi Slimane talks to Laurence Benaïm for Le Figaro. BoF brings you the exclusive English translation of a rare sit down with one of the most secretive designers in fashion.
Hedi Slimane | Photo: Y.R.
By
  • Laurence Benaïm

Since his appointment as the artistic director of Celine, Hedi Slimane has not said a word to the press. His first fashion show for the LVMH-owned brand, which will take place at Les Invalides on Friday evening, is one of the most anticipated of the Spring/Summer 2019 shows. He spoke to the French newspaper Le Figaro about his life, his inspirations and what he has in mind for the brand.

PARIS, France —Hedi Slimane has given precious few interviews during his 20-year career in fashion. And, since LVMH named him artistic director of Celine on January 21, 2018, appointing him to oversee the ready-to-wear collections, men’s fashion, couture and fragrances, he hasn't spoken a word to the press.

His surprise appointment at the helm of the house, which was founded in 1945 by Céline Vipiana, propelled the French designer into the spotlight again. His first Celine collection, which will be shown in Paris on September 28, is one of the most anticipated of the Spring/Summer 2019 season, as it marks the designer's return to fashion two years after leaving Saint Laurent.

A visionary, Slimane draws his creative strength from his passion for photography, fashion and the rock scene. It is a way for the former student of hypokhâgne (a two-year programme after secondary school graduation specialising in literature and humanities), who dreamt of being a journalist, to "document" the era, as he says, with skin-deep images and silhouettes.

Now, for the first time, the secretive couturier opens up about his family, his affinities and social media, revealing an outstanding person who fascinates and triggers.

Le Figaro: You are returning to fashion after a two-year absence. How do you feel about this comeback?

Hedi Slimane: I am delighted to come back to a French house, the tradition, the métiers, the ateliers. Paris is very specific when it comes to "handmade," which is incredibly chic. Beyond the brilliant virtuosity of the ateliers, this savoir-faire corresponds to a state of mind, a way of operating, the immediate smartness of a model, a particular feeling that can only be found in Paris.

LF: You have been living in the United States for 10 years now. Are you starting a new life in Europe?

HS: I am thinking about it. I still haven’t made up my mind. I arrived in California in 2008, and was already very attracted to Los Angeles, which I have frequently visited since the end of the 1990s. I would start all my Dior collections there, in my hotel room. The city was still asleep, so it was the perfect time to fill in a blank page. There was no creative or artistic stimulation yet, nor was there an emergence of a strong music scene.
This became clearer later, after 2008. Barack Obama’s presidential victory played an important role, it meant something promising. By contrast, Donald Trump’s election created a climate of uncertainty so strong that you cannot escape it. California joined the resistance, but the energy has fatally changed. I still live in Los Angeles, but it is different.
I also think that I have explored the city from top to bottom. I was emotionally attached to an old-fashioned idea of it, somewhere between mid-century and “Hollywood Regency,” a golden age that could still be felt back when I arrived here: Laurel Canyon’s shadow, the “white piano” spirit of the 1970s, the "Less Than Zero" 1980s legacy.
The city has changed today. It's been taken over and the authenticity is slowly getting lost because the megalopolis appeals to the world and the youth. Los Angeles is an open-air construction site and its mythical places are disappearing day by day. Californians have a very different notion of memory. We are committed to preservation, and most of them are committed to evolution and projection.

LF: How do you extend your Californian chronicle?

HS: I don’t spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. I am still passionate about the myth of the West Coast. I think of the seaside towns of the Golden State, the beaches of Orange County, San Clemente, San Onofre, San Diego and further north, Santa Cruz. Everything there remains unspoilt. For 10 years now, and still today, I have been documenting surf communities in Southern California.

LF: Has the fact that the house of Celine was located in a 17th-century Parisian hôtel particulier been crucial?

HS: I was lucky enough to find that place when I arrived. It’s a unique space, the counterpoint of my Californian studio, a minimal white box where I draw my collections. The Colbert de Torcy hotel is very meticulous. The elegant order of the bare stone buildings and the square courtyard are consistent with the project.

LF: How did you reorganise the ateliers?

HS: It was essential to strengthen the ateliers and to add a tailoring atelier for the men's and women's collections, by extension. We also brought on the expertise of pattern making and draping for eveningwear and couture. Everything was done very organically.  

LF: To what extent does your vision differ from Phoebe Philo’s?

HS: Our respective styles are identifiable and very different. Our vision is naturally distinct. Besides, you don't enter a fashion house to imitate the work of your predecessor, much less to take over the essence of their work, their codes and elements of their language. The goal is not to go the opposite way of their work either. It would be a misinterpretation. Respect is to preserve the integrity of everyone, to recognise things that belong to another person with honesty and discernment.

It also means starting a new chapter. You arrive with a story, a culture, a personal language that is different from those of the house. You have to be yourself, against all odds. 

At Celine, the weight of the past is not as strong as at Dior or Saint Laurent. We can break free of it more easily.

A designer is someone who expresses himself authentically through what he feels. Each has his way to tell about his time. My perception of fashion has always been influenced by a certain classicism and the legacy of couture, the spirit of Paris, where I was born and grew up, day and night.

I found my style more than 20 years ago, unless it's the other way around. It passes through a line, a stroke, an appearance, a silhouette that I have been obsessively pursuing since then and that defines who I am. It belongs to me, and in return, I am compelled to it.

Consistency, rigour, accuracy — this is what is meaningful to me. I want the integrity of this route. It will perpetuate at Celine. It's a lifelong story. The idea is not to derogate from my style, from what made me. I also defend a French fashion mindset that is almost formal and is linked to my youth, to what I was taught, to the people I have met — Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, when I first started in my years at Dior.

LF: Cities have always been important to you — Berlin (Dior Homme), London (for its punk rock scene), Los Angeles for Saint Laurent and “California Song,” the exhibition that took place at the Moca in 2011. Why is Paris an inspiring city?

HS: I like walking in Paris for hours and hours, crossing the Seine, walking through the left bank. Paris may be the only capital left in the world where the word flâneur still make sense. I am very attached to it.

I love Paris by night. I grew up between the smoke of Le Palace and the white tiles of Les Bains-Douches. It's a pity that the city is eager to close down interesting places like those and turn its back on Parisian nights. The lights still remain, though. The magic of the street lamps, the neons in the cafés, the sparkling Parisian youth and the energy of the streets.

LS: How do you perceive the brand itself?

HS: I’ve always been really sensitive to this notion of high quality, this inherent savoir-faire of the house. In this context, the idea of playing with the codes of the bourgeoisie is rather interesting. At Celine, the weight of the past is not as strong as at Dior or Saint Laurent. We can break free of it more easily.
Celine is a vision of Paris, a way of being worn… I don’t want to lock it up in something. There’s no constraint, no model that is linked to a very important legacy. Starting from here, we can coin a vocabulary. What’s important is always now.

LF: How do you create an emotional point of view in a world dominated by the "botoxed digital revolution" that you have previously denounced?

HS: By being completely honest with everything I do. By photographing every moment of my life. I wanted to be a reporter and the entirety of my work consists of documenting my era, whether it's photography or fashion. At Celine, I come back to the classic perception of my job from when I started 20 years ago, without any nostalgia. I have this tradition in me. All I do is all I am. 

LF: Do the reactions caused by the accent being removed from the Celine logo remind you of when “Yves” was dropped from Saint Laurent? Why is there this almost obsessive desire to graphically mark your territory?

HS: It’s in no way about marking my territory, quite the contrary. All fundamentals must be carefully considered without losing sight of the long term goal. It's about putting the church back at the centre of the village. It's orthodoxy, quite simply. Installing language elements that are rooted in the original history of the house, its foundations, returning to an architectural and graphic alignment is essential to the project.

You don't shake things up by avoiding making waves. When there is no debate, it means there is no opinion — the definition of blind conformity. 

The reactions to the logos are always very emotional, and today they are amplified by the viral effect of social media. It is normal. All of this was anticipated. But it had to be done. The grandes maisons are alive. They must evolve and unearth the essence of what they truly are — everything but indifference. You don't shake things up by avoiding making waves. When there is no debate, it means there is no opinion — the definition of blind conformity.  

LF: Your aesthetic has often been characterised as being androgynous, or, more precisely, as ambisexual. Can you redefine it within a context where fashion embraces mixed collections and inclusivity is on the rise?

HS: I stand firm for my principles. Why should I give up on what defines me? Becoming someone else on the pretext that what I did in the past has been digested or imitated? Historically, as soon as you alter the silhouette, people react to that. Think about Christian Dior’s "New Look" or Yves Saint Laurent’s “Libération” collection in 1971. It is always a taboo, and at the same time the line is the basis of everything. And the ambiguity of that line says something about me as a teenager. It’s a way of prolonging a story. It’s my thread.
Twenty years ago, I put the shoulders back to where they should be and then redefined the waist line. I reconstructed what had been deconstructed by adding in the concept of movement, of blurring, to use a photographic term. It's part of my obsessions.
I have always interpreted the idea of masculinity as being embodied in other ways than through the body, the muscles, the commonplaces of virility. I was always interested in the “beginnings,” in the idea of the first suit, the pleasure and the young desire of a first jacket, a jacket for going out, some kind of tailoring for man devoid of statutory character, far from the constraints and conventions of the banker's suit. This had to involve a redefinition of the codes and the silhouette.

LF: The black colour that every major couturier or artistic director expresses his difference through, has become almost standardised. Tell us about your relationship with black.

HS: Black is sharp and straightforward. It is inseparable from my fashion style and my photography. I worked a lot on the effects of black, especially on coated effects, satin-finished effects, shiny, coppery effects, as opposed to a matte-finish. As for the creation of exclusive fabrics or leathers for Celine, black requires special attention. We go through hundreds of samples in our research to find the perfect black jacket or the perfect little black dress. There have been collections dedicated to black at Saint Laurent, particularly in 1999 when I launched the laser cut leather and later at Dior Homme with the Berlin collections.

LF: How did your childhood define you?

HS: I was always surrounded by fabric. Sitting on rolls of flannel, I would wait for my mother for hours on end. As a child, I would rather have been playing in the park than at the Marché Saint-Pierre. When I was a teenager, everything was always too big on me. With a few exceptions — the Ivy League blazers that I bought at flea markets in the mid 1980s, the Savile Row suits that I found in Notting Hill when I was 18 — it was impossible to find the perfect jacket. I would float in everything. All the clothes were "boxy."

My mum knew how to cut jackets "au chic" without a pattern. The ones she would tailor for me were perfect. I come from a family of tailors from Pescaro, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Maybe doing this job is a way of endlessly continuing this family tradition.

LF: There are just a few pictures posted on Celine's Instagram, yet you've already managed to create a buzz...

HS: These are first impressions, a portrait gallery, that of a generation. The photographic portrait always precedes the fashion I create. I'm not sensitive to beauty, but to energy and personality. I have girls and boys that come every day to try out and become our new models: they are our accomplices. I admire them and their presence is crucial.

Casting is the key to everything. Designers are nothing without their models.

Casting is the key to everything. Designers are nothing without their models. I see them as artists. They have the capacity to transform, transcend, give life and accuracy to our creations. If a dress that I particularly love doesn’t have a body that wears it, it won’t make it onto the catwalk because it’s not embodied. This Celine project is a collective adventure, a community of strong personalities. It’s team work: that of the studio, the ateliers and the models.

LF: Nowadays, youth seems to be hypnotised by the notion of millennials, generation 2.0… What is your definition of youth?

HS: I have always photographed, documented and dressed the youth. It's been at the heart of everything I've done so far, in photography and fashion. It reigns on my catwalks, house after house. This recurrent millennial term, used like a business school lesson, described with statistics and numbers, is boring. The youth before was no less interesting and engaged than this one, and the youth after will be just as important. It's as if we have just discovered the tenuous and fundamental link between youth and fashion or the link between youth and music. This makes perfect sense, with or without the internet and social media.

Youth is gracefulness, freedom of speech and recklessness. Youth, at the same time, can be on the lions on the grand boulevards, in the cellars of Saint-Germain and in the occupied lecture halls of the Sorbonne. I think about "Tricheurs" by Marcel Carné and the "Chansons d'Amour" by Christophe Honoré. All the youths of the world are different and yet they are alike. No matter the time in history, they are this pure energy, the exaltation of every moment and the emotion of the skin, living their lives at full speed.

LF: What about Lady Gaga, who has 29.5 million followers on Instagram and sparked excitement all over the internet with your first Celine bag?

HS: I gave her this bag in private as a present, because she’s a long-time friend.

LF: Like her, you suffer from a particular illness. Can you tell us about what you go through every day?

HS: Just like many people, I have severe chronic tinnitus. It happened over a year ago now, when I started hearing obsessive and persisting noises one morning. I have been to many specialists in the United States, in Europe, but there’s no cure. This tinnitus apparently comes from a post-traumatic stress disorder, without acoustic shock.

At first it got out of control, and I went through a very dark period, with phases of anxiety that were difficult to bear. The unthinkable idea of no longer knowing silence was unbearable to me. It was a spiral, a daily suffering. Thank God, my friends and loved ones have been really helpful. I managed to get up again and handle this pain every day. It's about learning to live with it.

I also realised what was the most precious thing to me, what gave meaning to my life. It was the joy and the vital need to create, to connect fashion with photography. I don’t see life the same way anymore. Everything was put back into perspective, especially with the idea of creating new collections. Recklessness has taken a new meaning through creation.

LF: What is your ultimate luxury?

HS: Time. Time does things. At a time when appropriation has become the norm, pursuing my way through a silhouette or a recognisable picture at first sight is at the heart of my life. Defending an identity on one hand and continuity on the other.

LF: What is your definition of style?

HS: The style, the personal style in this case, is a discipline made of renunciations. It’s acknowledging who you are and who you’re not. It’s something that is in you and that is stronger than you. Finally, a style is always linked to a time, a period, it resonates with it.

LF: What is your relationship with social media today?

HS: I really like Instagram when it comes to engagement and artistic projects. It is a platform that undoubtedly promotes the discovery of new talents and the sharing of innovative ideas. I don’t have any private accounts on social media. I don’t have a personal Instagram account. My photography website is displayed on Instagram, but the page is not linked to me. I understand the excitement, but to me, the personal privacy seems to be the last luxury that must be preserved. The selfie-craze is an anthropological topic in and of itself. It’s interesting to see what this will become in the long term.
Instagram has created a few conventions in the codified representation of happiness, with the idea of a perfect life, where everyone flies in private jets and wakes up impeccably made up. Will the world eventually get tired of this emulation of reality, of the algorithm to get to the top, of this search for cyber-fame, where quantity is what impresses the crowds?

Will the next social networks evolve towards a new realism where there will be no alterations and touch ups? I realise how difficult it must be to grow up in a world of "likes" when we're not the most popular girl or boy in school. Will the popularity contest smooth out the differences?

Social media is a fantastic revolution and will always be a bit like the Wild West. I guess that’s what makes it so charming. There is still a lot to do to protect everyone's balance and truth, so there is always respect. But it will come, eventually. We have to be as enthusiastic about it as we were in the early days.

LF: What is your motto?

HS: Hold on. Whatever the purpose, the opinions, the noise, the diaries... The key to everything is to preserve the enchantment.

This interview was originally published in Le Figaro. Translation by Khadija Belmaaziz.

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