PARIS, France — On Sunday morning, after luxury conglomerate LVMH announced that Hedi Slimane would take over at Céline, the house posted a photo of its new designer on Instagram with a simple and direct caption, complete with hashtags: "Hedi Slimane named Artistic, Creative and Image Director of CÉLINE #HediSlimane #celine #LVMH.”
For any other brand, such a gesture would seem normal. But this is Céline, the women’s ready-to-wear house led for the past 10 years by Phoebe Philo, whose allergy to publicity and social media is widely known. The brand only began dabbling in social media in early 2017, when it launched its Instagram account, and executing an e-commerce plan late last year.
Online, the reaction to the news of Slimane’s appointment came fast and furious, a mixture of jubilation, shock and disgust — from “I love it!!!” to “Ten years of work destroyed!!!” — depending on whether the commenter’s allegiance was to Philo, the Coco Chanel of her generation who transformed Céline from a once-middling label into a fashion authority, or Slimane, the former Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent maestro whose ability to drive spectacular commercial results is polarising, yet unmatched.
The rationale for Slimane's appointment at Céline is clear: LVMH has big commercial ambitions for the brand and the group’s chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault has reportedly sought to win back Slimane since he exited Dior Homme, also owned by LVMH, in 2007. Now, as Céline approaches €1 billion in annual sales, the arrival of Slimane (who is set to launch new categories including menswear, couture and fragrance) alongside a more robust digital strategy and new stores (there are currently 150 globally) could help to double that figure. Fragrance, if executed correctly, could be a billion-dollar business in itself.
Slimane certainly did wonders for Saint Laurent. Nearly two years after his departure, Slimane’s successful revamp of the brand is still paying dividends for LVMH-rival Kering. (In the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year, sales at the brand, whose current creative director Anthony Vaccarello has managed to evolve the label without abandoning Slimane’s vision, were more than €1 billion, up 25 percent from 2016.)
But just how Slimane will go about repeating this success at Céline is complicated. Céline’s history is not as rich or storied as that of Yves Saint Laurent (or Dior). Founded in 1945 as a made-to-measure children’s shoe business — identifiable by its red elephant logo — founder-designer Céline Vipiana pivoted the business in 1960 to focus on women’s sportswear, finding a following with the French bourgeoisie.
Philo’s success at the house, which she completely revamped, had virtually nothing to do with Céline’s past. She carried on with few memorable signatures to rely upon, save for the abutting “C” logo and a horse-and-buggy motif, and re-imagined Céline in her own, maximum-minimalist style, which has been seared into the hearts and minds of faithful Céline followers (sometimes called “Philophiles”) around the world who quite literally bought into Philo’s philosophy of a wardrobe for the modern woman.
Unlike Saint Laurent, which was uneven both critically and commercially when Slimane joined, leaving room for a sweeping reinvention, Philo has loyal followers, many of whom could easily abandon the brand if Slimane makes changes that are too extreme. While LVMH traditionally prefers hiring star designers over promoting from within, some industry insiders believed it would have been more prudent to elevate one of Philo’s deputies, or bring in a younger designer to continue in Philo's stead.
So why install a male designer known for his dark, rock 'n' roll aesthetic at the helm of brand now so closely associated with the modern woman?
For one, partnering with Slimane probably feels like the closest thing to a sure bet. Along with Philo, Slimane has proven himself to be one of the most commercially bankable designers. And with the stratospheric successes at Gucci and Balenciaga, both Kering brands, LVMH has been on the backfoot. Getting Slimane to come back to the group ups its high-fashion game.
But there will be changes, and plenty of them. (The designer's weighty new title — Artistic, Creative and Image Director — indicates that he will have a significant amount of control over everything from product to stores to beauty.) Even though LVMH has already invested a great deal of money in building out the Céline brand over the last 10 years, including its suite of about 150 retail stores, Slimane will likely want to redo everything.
Still, it’s also likely that he will find a way to reconnect with his own set of loyal customers, many of whom are still buying Saint Laurent and Dior Homme. While his runway shows for Saint Laurent received mixed critical reactions, his designs were a clear commercial success, feeding a customer base hungry for “gypset” dresses and sequined tuxedo jackets.
Store buyers are generally enthusiastic, though the reactions of some have been more muted than others. “Given the industry's current appetite for designer shuffles, the news of Hedi Slimane to Céline is one of the most welcome and logical new pairings,” said Linda Fargo, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “Losing Phoebe was admittedly concerning at retail, but the news is a relief and gives us great confidence in the go forward.”
“The move of Hedi to Céline is exciting and unexpected,” said Paolo de Cesare, president of Printemps. “Hedi has proven to be a ‘trendsetter’ in the industry and it seems his creative mandate will cover all aspects of the brand, including the development of a men’s line and beauty. Céline has done incredibly well with Philo, and I’m convinced it will have a very exciting development in the coming seasons.”
“This appointment was completely unexpected which makes it very interesting,” said Sebastian Manes, director of buying and merchandising at Selfridges. “The addition of menswear is a very smart move specifically with the credibility of Hedi in that category.”
"Whenever a fashion house makes a change in creative direction, we tend to see more interest and with Slimane taking over Céline's helm, you can be certain that this will be the case," added Tracy Margolies, chief merchant at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Slimane’s success at Céline will depend, in part, on his ability to create an exacting core collection — which at Saint Laurent included the perfect Chelsea boot, motorcycle jacket and pencil-thin jeans — that appeals to the label’s current customers, while also layering on his own vision of Céline.
What’s sure is that Slimane’s debut at Céline will be the hottest ticket in town at Paris Fashion Week come September. Until then, the Philophiles have one more season to fill their wardrobes.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholder’s documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.