On Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent

Unless you literally only got into fashion in the past week (or for some reason you’re reading this blog and aren’t interested in fashion), you’ll know Hedi Slimane resigned as the creative director of Saint Laurent last week. His time at the label was indisputably a huge commercial success, but opinions on his creative and artistic merit are far more divided. The “SLP aesthetic” has grown to be massively popular among many fashion enthusiasts, and while his legions of fans will fall over themselves to espouse Hedi’s genius, many others dismiss him completely as a one-trick pony who hasn’t done anything interesting since he left Dior Homme in 2007. I feel like neither of these viewpoints are completely accurate or fair, and I’d like to present something of a middle ground.

The criticisms levelled at SLP tend to center around a few common themes. First, many complain Hedi has become incredibly predictable, presenting variations on the same shit in all of his collections. Every season we see another series of black leather jackets and skinny jeans, embellished with a few gaudy details. It’s the same vision Hedi has been pedalling for his whole career, presented over and over with only minor variations.

The second criticism is that this aesthetic vision isn’t even particularly interesting or expressive from the wearer’s perspective; outfits built around skinny jeans and leather jackets are hardly new or individual. Compared to the work of more avant-garde designers like Carol Christian Poell or Dries Van Noten, dressing in all SLP results in a far more safe and conventional look. This is further exacerbated by SLP’s commercial success, which has lead to enormous popularity of the infamous “SLP aesthetic”, with countless SLP fans actually dressing to the same narrowly prescribed aesthetic. And indeed, perhaps due to SLP’s pricepoint, the vast majority of these fans end up dressing almost entirely in an incredibly dilute version of Hedi’s already narrow vision: how many outfits have you seen that follow the formula of “black biker jacket, flannel shirt, black skinny jeans, suede boots”?

While I think that these two criticisms are accurate to some degree, I believe that they can be overstated, and that they by no means eliminate Hedi’s merit as a designer, nor the appeal of the “SLP aesthetic”. I’m going to tackle each of them separately.

Hedi Slimane as a Designer

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I don’t think there can be much doubt that Hedi has a formula he likes to stick to in his runway shows. They are all built on a foundation of black leather jackets, flannels and printed shirts, skinny jeans (some distressed or embellished), and sleek chelsea/zipped/buckle boots, and elevated slightly by some flamboyant details (usually some combination of animal prints, metallic finishes, chains, and sparkles). Of course it’s possible to narrow down specific themes for each collection, but to the untrained eye, each collection looks rather like the last.

It seems easy on the basis of this to characterise Hedi as a stale, washed-up artist who has run out of ideas, and must resort to endlessly rehashing the same old stuff. However, I believe that argument relies on a flawed assumption, namely that a designer’s collection is “supposed to be” something new and independent, a work of fine art in its own right. I think it’s reasonably fair to say that Hedi’s collections fall a bit short on that front.

However, I don’t think that designer collections are the be-all end-all of fashion as an art form. On the contrary, I think the beauty of fashion is in the way that individual people style different designer’s pieces into outfits. I am far more interested in how a designer’s pieces can be styled into cool and interesting outfits than how cool or interesting a whole collection itself is. It is in this regard that Hedi shines; he designs pieces that serve their purpose incredibly well, and can be styled into dope fits.

I think that it makes more sense to view Hedi not as a fine artist, but as a product designer. Nobody expects Apple’s Jonathan Ive to present a bold new artistic vision on each new iPhone release; instead they expect him to make the product better at what it does, while maintaining what people already like about it. Or for a closer analogy, nobody expects the creative director of Polo Ralph Lauren (can’t remember his name, I know it ain’t Ralph tho) to reinvent the wheel with every collection: Polo is known for its trad/prep look, which by its nature is highly conservative and doesn’t change a great deal over time. The best way for Polo to serve its fanbase is to keep doing the same thing it’s always done, and to do it well.

Going back to SLP, take Hedi’s footwear designs as an example. If you’re looking for chelsea, jodhpur or sidezip boots in a “sleek” or “elegant” shape, SLP is the de facto best choice. There is a reason that practically every other “sleek” boot is held against the SLP equivalent as a benchmark: they simply have what almost everyone considers the best shape and design. But it’s not limited to such basic items as plain black chelsea boots. SLP’s Wyatt harness boots are literally the only harness boots on the market with anything even approaching a sleek shape; they offer a completely unique combination of elegance and edge. Similarly, their Santiag and Duckie boots offer a highly refined and wearable interpretation of classic western designs.

While I do believe footwear is Hedi’s forte, this theme continues through his other pieces: his distressed jeans manage to be distressed in just the right way; his printed shirts and gaudy jackets fulfil exactly the kind of thing you go into a vintage store hoping to find; even his plaid flannels all have patterns that are actually nice despite the countless ugly variations available elsewhere.

Of course, I don’t think that all SLP items are amazing or perfect. But it certainly seems to me that Hedi’s goals are to create highly desirable items, rather than necessarily creative or artistic collections, and I think he largely achieves that goal successfully. I also think it’s a very worthy goal, and one that ultimately benefits fashion as an art form; it provides a wide selection of excellent pieces to be styled in creative ways. You can argue that churning out such pieces on a mass scale removes some of the magic or skill of finding the perfect piece in vintage stores or designer archives, but ultimately it’s providing more good options to work with, which I think is a good thing.

The SLP Aesthetic

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“What is your opinion of Hedi Slimane and the Saint Laurent Paris aesthetic?”

So it’s well established that Hedi Slimane has a very clear and narrow aesthetic vision; the question now is on the merits of that vision.

One of the main criticisms of the infamous “SLP aesthetic” is that it is overly prescriptive, reflecting a narrowly predetermined view of what “rock chic” looks like. Indeed, the idea of dressing to a prescribed aesthetic seems very much at odds with the ideals of rock music and even just general self-expression. This leads to a legion of SLP fans all believing that they’re uniquely expressing themselves through their clothing when in fact they’re all dressing exactly the same.

However, I think that that’s a slightly overly cynical viewpoint. While the idea of straight-up copying outfits and dressing completely formulaically seems incredibly dull, it’s possible to start out by copying elements and gradually find your own take from there.

From this perspective, the SLP look has a lot of useful and potentially expressive elements to draw on. First off, it introduces ways of incorporating style choices that many might otherwise consider to be too feminine, or too gaudy, or just too out-there: higher heels on men’s boots; shirts with half the buttons undone; tight jeans with oversized tops; jewellery; silky scarves; loud, gaudy prints; sparkly shit; the list goes on. The most extreme take on SLP styling (for example as seen on the runway) is a very maximalist, attention-grabbing, in-your-face look. These are descriptors that are very often avoided in lots of other popular styles, from traditional #menswear to minimalist streetwear. The SLP look demonstrates how details like these can be incorporated in a way that still looks good; it’s a look that is youthful and edgy yet still put together; it suffers neither from the potentially “sloppy” look of brand-driven streetwear, nor the overly conservative vibes of traditional menswear.

Of course, there are many people who claim to be dressing in ~The SLP Aesthetic~ while wearing variations of basically one outfit: biker jacket, plaid flannel, black skinny jeans, chelsea boots. This is obviously an incredibly diluted interpretation of the real “SLP look”: not only is there little variation, but almost none of the edgy or interesting elements are present. That said, while restricting oneself to *only* variations on this fit is obviously rather boring and uninspired, it does have its merits: it’s very inoffensive and easy to wear, yet still looks stylistically consistent with bolder, edgier SLP looks: this makes it a great starting point for beginners to start building more interesting outfits off of without straying too far from their comfort zone; whether by adding a few eye-catching accessories, or swapping out some of the “plain” pieces for more interesting ones, or whatever, there are lots of ways that this simple outfit can be spiced up into something a lot more interesting.

This leads me to another merit of the SLP aesthetic: it has a very smooth learning curve. Compare SLP to say Rick Owens: Rick’s clothes might theoretically be useful as a means of learning about drape and silhouette, but most of them are so difficult to fit into “normal” fits that you almost need to start with several Rick pieces at once to get something that works, which is challenging and expensive for a beginner; on the other hand, as I’ve just discussed, it’s easy to tweak a very simple outfit with more interesting SLP (or SLP-esque) pieces to build up a progressively more interesting look, at a more comfortable pace.

TL;DR: Hedi’s talent is for making dope pieces, not collections. The SLP aesthetic teaches maximalism in an accessible way.