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Hedi Slimane’s ‘Secret Society’

Courtesy of Italian Vogue, photographer and ex-Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane talks about his ‘secret society’ of Los Angeles musicians, artists, skaters and surfers.
Hedi Slimane in Los Angeles, May 2017 | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Luke Leitch

MILAN, Italy — For the August 2017 issue of Italian Vogue, Hedi Slimane has contributed an expansive photographic portfolio dedicated to the subject he has been researching for a decade: Los Angeles. Since moving there in 2007 the Parisian photographer and sometime creative director has become deeply embedded in the city's creative subcultures. Here, in an email exchange with Italian Vogue editor-at-large Luke Leitch, Slimane sketches the context for his work. He discusses his beginnings as a photographer, and the threads of androgyny, music and indie otherness that run through his canon. He introduces the "secret society" of LA musicians, artists, skaters and surfers that feature in a special portfolio and explains how the city came to inflect his vision, both as a photographer and during his tenure at Yves Saint Laurent.

Luke Leitch: Hello Hedi — thanks for your Los Angeles portfolio and for the chance to conduct this interview. Can I start with this: you once said that when you were growing up in Paris, you imagined that you might become a reporter. What was it that attracted you to that imagined life for yourself?

Hedi Slimane: Very early on, probably at age 13, I had this fantasy of working for Le Monde, the French national newspaper as a reporter. Growing up, I had a fascination for History and Political Sciences. On a different hand, two years earlier, at 11, I started to take photographs, black and white photographs, and to print all of my own pictures. I always thought this was clearly what I would do: document the world around me, be an archivist of my time, live in the moment.

As a teenager, I developed a fascination for the idea of youth representation. I trust it started with early German romanticism, and Goethe in particular. "The Sorrows of Young Werther" had a strong influence on me — Werther’s angst and moments of perfect bliss resonated in me.

I always looked at my own youth with a distance. I was not really part of the action, and watched all my friends around me through a lens, the observation of the fields of possible emerging talents and restless behaviours. I trust this necessity to document what is happening all around me has always been at the centre of what I do and how I work, being constantly inspired and moved by what is about to come. A perpetual photo reportage.

LL: These are tantalising pictures that are both artistic and, I think, reportorial. They hint at the stories of the subjects, and push ajar a door into their own personal narratives. How do you go about choosing who you shoot? What compels you to photograph someone?

HS: It happens in a natural manner. I presume we simply end up on the same road. Taking photographs, portraits, is like writing a short novel about each and everyone. Most of the subjects I photographed during the last 25 years have something in common, an artistic energy, a strong mind and distinctive personality. Beauty was never the subject, as opposed to something heroically real, poetically eccentric or singular about each character, a magnificent chaos.

I am rather attracted by the uniqueness of each of them, the charming, alluring and magic world they all built for themselves. I presume I see it as a sacred and scintillating ritual they all perform every second of their lives. With a simple photograph, I try to capture the sparkling dust of this enchanting practice, preserve it, make sure there is a memory for it. Most of the time, the characters I depict are unaware of this whimsical quality, the spirit of freedom — they just live their lives with a reckless insouciance.

LL: Whether in Paris, London, Berlin or now LA you become profoundly embedded in your places of work. And often — although not exclusively — that connection is made through music...

HS: Music is the syntax behind my style in photography, but also behind all of my fashion design for the past 20 years. I was six years old, and the only thing I knew besides Grimm Brothers fairy tales was David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane period, Angie from the Stones, and Elvis in his gold suit singing Suspicious Minds. Album covers became a vortex of inspiration, as I was mesmerised by the glitters and decadent promises of the stage.

Later on in my life I experimented with different creative cycles, and got involved with emerging sounds and communities in music. Paris circa 1997 at Saint Laurent was when I started designing inside this small creative community coming out, later called the "French touch."

Ed Ruscha With Palms, Culver City, April 2017 | Photo by Hedi Slimane

In 2000, I ended up in Berlin, still preserved from any hype, experimenting with conceptual electronic music and the early days of a rock, or guitar-bands revival. It was a blank page. I had an artist residency there for three years. The city had a strong influence on my early years at Dior, where I tried to introduce in Paris a certain vibration or energy of Berlin in the early days of the new Millennium. I street casted a lot of young Berliner musicians and street kids for it, published a book about those years in Berlin, and finally concluded this cycle with a museum show at the Kunst-Werke, depicting the free spirit of this poetic generation.

From 2002, I spent most of my time in London, surrounded by a group of English musicians that were playing all around the east side of town. Among them were a youthful Pete Doherty, Carl Barat, Franz Ferdinand, The Others, the Rakes, the Paddingtons, and later a young Alex Turner, the Klaxons, These New Puritans, and many other talented musicians who were part of this golden age.

I documented extensively what for me was one of the most exciting times in music. Dior Homme shows from 2005 were exclusively filled with this magnificent legion of UK bands, and the fashion I was designing was somehow dedicated to them, a stage wardrobe.

I decided to shift to California in 2007, at the tail of English rock and guitar bands period. There was not much in LA and California back then, but it felt so raw and new, and everything was possible. A generation was about to come out (Girls, No Age, The Growlers, Ty Segal, Fidlar, Mystic Braves, Allalahs, Froth, the Garden etcetera), from all places of Southern and Northern California, distilling distorted psychedelic riffs and a new surf sound. I started to define an aesthetic and musical representation that I first showed in an exhibition at the MOCA museum in 2011, called “California Song.”

The current essay for Italian Vogue is somehow an evolution of this generation, 10 years after. Some of those characters — mostly musicians — I have been following and photographing ever since; some are newly discovered; and naturally this intriguing search is ongoing day after day.

LL: Can you tell us about some of the particularities of LA’s scene that you relish most? Some of the bands and people you are especially passionate about? Especially those you have chosen to document in this issue of Vogue Italia?

HS: I met Arrow some years ago; she was still very young and captivating and wanted to focus on Music. It was not the right moment to photograph her, she felt she needed first to define her music, and we reconnected recently at one of her early concerts with her exiting band Starcrawler.

Lindsey Troy from Deap Vally is quite quintessentially of LA, and, just like Sally Spitz from French Vanilla, typical of the girls I always depict: a punk rock and glam rock style that has been part of my work and design for the last 20 years. We were at Jumbos, a pole dancing bar I love in Los Angeles.

Kevin and Tame Impala — who are technically from Australia — were photographed in Laurel canyon last month and have had a strong impact in California. I presume their sound and aura were completely in tune with what was happening here with new psychedelia.

Los Angeles is always evolving. It is like a secret society of some kind, not driven by any commercial end, or any desire to publicise what they do.

Michael d’Addario and Brian his gifted brother are also technically from the East Coast, but we met in California and this is where I always photographed the Lemon Twigs. Somehow, there is that strong connection with California where they recorded their first album. They are somehow part of this Neo Glam movement we have seen emerging in California (Foxygen etcetera).

Staz was photographed at her apartment on the east side of town. I almost feel like her godfather at this point: she, and her brother to some degree, have been part of our little music community for quite some time and I document her all the time. The modelling is unrelated. Staz for me has always been a musician. This is her life and passion.

Yann Pessino is like a poet, a genuine and charming musician that embodies a certain idea of the current surf culture in Southern California. I am really found of him, his effortless psychedelic sound, his dreamy persona. Most of the musicians in this essay were photographed at home or in their sound studio or music venues, and are wearing their own stage clothes. For portraiture, and music in particular, I don’t think interfering with the subject’s personal style makes any sense. You cannot separate the sound from the style.

LL: Where is the best place in LA to seek out progressive music? How does the scene compare to the other cities whose scenes you have documented?

There is not such a thing. Los Angeles is always evolving, and there are music communities that keep emerging all over the state. It is like a secret society of some kind, not driven by any commercial end, or any desire to publicise what they do, quite on the contrary.

I presume the juxtaposition of distinctive scenes, the sense of isolation of each creative pocket, is what makes California rather unique, compared to all other territories I have explored over the last two decades (London was of course like this in the late '70s / early '80s, a juxtaposition of music "tribes," with specific stylistic conventions). To document it, you need to become part of it, and it can only happen over a very long period of time.

LL: As well as being talented and progressive musicians, some of your subjects here are consistent with your totally recognisable — Slimanesque — style of casting; an emphasis on androgyny long present in your photography and that has allowed you in the past to cast women in your mens campaigns with absolutely no creative inconsistency. You have said before that this was something that developed as a form of defence, almost defiance, to those who teased you. That defence strategy has now evolved into an internationally recognisable currency (sometimes subject to forgery). Does seeing something so personal being appropriated by others offend you?

HS: Androgyny is somehow personal history. Growing up with a really oblique idea of gender representation, I always thought I was somehow on an alternative route, and I was political about it. I started street casting at age 17, and defined a personal style in casting, both for girls and boys that was somehow the projection of who I was at the time and how I looked, but also a projection of my taste in music.

Michael Daddario With View, The Lemon Twigs, The Valley, March 2017 | Photo by Hedi Slimane

Androgyny was already part of my photographs in the late '80s, as I was already street casting art students (model Jerome Le Chevalier, one of the first “waif boys” I found in a bus probably in '88) or musicians. When I started to design in the late '90s, my casting was probably disturbing for the audience. The industry was mostly comfortable with a dominant conservative idea of masculinity, an echo of '90s supermodels.

There was also my belief back in the '90s of a distinctive attitude, a creative community rooted in indie subcultures. I was not really into anyone that did not have their own sense of style and strong artistic personality. This is still the case today. In the end, it all became a signature and archetypal of my style over a repetitive and serial approach in all my work. My street, indie, and slender “androgyne” models were for many from another planet. However I never changed since my first steps in the late '80s, and stayed consistent with my casting signature. The young skater opening this portfolio is significant of my style.

Naturally, forgery is mesmerising and interesting to watch. However, you keep doing what you always did with authenticity, determination and dedication regardless of forgery and imitation. Those things always end up getting sorted out, one way or another. You own it, it’s your trademark, and there is besides a record for it.

LL: Another subculture you are drawn to is skate and surf. Your photographs show a rawness and almost anarchic punk attitude particular to the LA scene that goes right back to Tony Alva in the '70s and '80s. Can you tell us about the vibe?

HS: Surf and skate cultures have been one of the main topics of my photography since I started the California cycle in 2007. Musically and currently from Zac Carper — the charismatic singer of Fidlar, a skate cult band — to Yann Pessino, this is an alternative background that endlessly define the conventions of youth cultures in California and influence youth all over the world. Naturally it started in the '60s and '70s, and this is a ritual transmission, generations after generations.

LL: Your portraits of the artists are another facet of this portfolio; Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari. You really capture them. Baldessari is an especially interesting subject because his work has long used photography to interrogate our assumptions of artistic value. Can you tell us a little about your friendship with these artists?

HS: I have been documenting artists, mostly in their studios, for quite some time. From Elsworth Kelly, to Brice Marden, Chris Burden, to the underrated French minimal artist Francois Morrelet... and a hundred of other legendary or emerging artists over two decades. For this essay I believed Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari could define historically the contour of the generation I was depicting. They truly are California.

LL: You imported a lot of the authenticity you document in LA into your re-envisioning of Saint Laurent. I know that you have, of this year, returned your focus to photography again full time. But do you think somewhere in the future there might be a return to design for you? I saw a video interview you did with Tim Blanks for Style.com many years ago in which you mentioned the possibility of creating a brand or house of your own — would that ever interest you? "Slimane" would make a great, great label…

HS: The Saint Laurent project was somehow experimental, a French couture studio based for the first time in California. I am deeply attached to those years, my beloved team and the beautiful house of Yves Saint Laurent. Time might put this period in perspective, reflect the authenticity and realness of this project, and the risks I took against all odds, one of them defending an idea of California.

Going back to design will always be an option, as long as I stay loyal to my principles and keep protecting the integrity of my work.

Going back to design will always be an option, as long as I stay loyal to my principles and keep protecting the integrity of my work. On a side note, I don’t know why I did mention a brand under my name back in the early 2000s? I guess I have changed, but more likely I was sleepwalking. I have absolutely no interest.

LL: If you had to advise a newcomer to Los Angeles who had three days in the city and was keen to sense some of the urgent vitality of the city — the real grit of it — what would you recommend they do, and where?

HS: There are always a lot of concerts everywhere here in Los Angeles, downtown, on the east side, or Hollywood. This is a good start. You need to experiment different crowds and areas of town, just like you would do in London or Berlin, with a juxtaposition of alternative scenes.

LL: You moved to LA in 2007. With the exception of the Oscars, that city was barely on the radar of the fashion industry back then. Now it's a completely different story — French and American houses are regular visitors to show events at the city and the aesthetic of LA's style vernacular (in a great part thanks to you) has become globally recognisable and aspired to. Do you have any feelings about that?

HS: I started to come to Los Angeles in '97. I was escaping Paris in February and July to start designing all my collections, and did this for all the Dior Homme collections, until 2007, permanently moving to California. Before I had a home, I used to stay for months at the Chateau Marmont which typically was a really different place then, very private, filled with young actors or directors living there all year around. No social media at the time — it was private and had the authentic feel and dusty glamour of old Hollywood. Los Angeles changed a lot over the last few years.

Sally Mary Spitz With Nancy French Vanilla, Eagle Rock, April 2017 | Photo by Hedi Slimane

For an obscure reason, there was such an uproar when I decided to design from Los Angeles. In 2011, there was clearly a condescending and abrasive attitude in the industry toward Los Angeles and California. I was nonetheless convinced of the growing influence California would have in popular culture, music and art, and for obvious reasons even more so with the rise of social medias. Why not design from here and define an aesthetic around California ? LA felt like the most vibrant and relevant observatory at the time.

Finally the fashion industry followed three years after, showing up for advertising campaigns and fashion shows, any possible occasion to vaguely associate themselves with LA or California. Everyone loves LA now.

LL: I love that picture of Iggy. It’s a previously unseen photograph that you took back in November 2015, whereas most of the rest of this portfolio was shot this year. Can you tell us a little about connecting with him? His aesthetic shares a deep kinship with yours, I think.

HS: I never published this portrait of Iggy shot in Los Angeles in 2015. I remembered a conversation I had with him that day about following new acts. Iggy knew really well Curtis Harding’s music for instance, or Cherry Glazerr, which was remarkable. He knew California's alternative scene really well, and all the musicians I was documenting. This is why I thought he was naturally part of this project, an icon next to the promising and electric Arrow de Wilde.

LL: Is LA your forever city? Would you ever leave it again?

It is hard to say. One day I could wake up and feel I need to start a different chapter, however this has been a lasting creative cycle, over few decades, so many souvenirs, encounters and projects I am deeply attached to. There is still something about California that makes sense for me, that simply feels right.

This interview first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Italian Vogue.

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