A Conversation About Hedi Slimane’s Controversial Celine Debut

Hedi Slimane debuted his first collection for Celine in Paris today, and the response that echoed across the internet was both repetitive and immediate (This is not Celine! This is Saint Laurent!). While most expressed indignation at the abrupt change, some acknowledged the acuity of Slimane’s vision. Overall though, the enormous reverberation of commentary amounts to a singular question: What in the name of Phoebe Philo does this MEAN — not just for Celine, but for fashion at large? Leandra and I debated the answer below. Keep scrolling to read the conversation, then join us in the comments for further discussion. -Harling

Leandra: Celine. Is. Not. Celine. It’s Saint Laurent. And that customer is already being satisfied.

Harling: Wow. Hedi Slimane really doesn’t care what people think huh! I’m trying to find some photos on social.

Leandra: It’s on Vogue Runway too I think.

Harling: Oh I see it now.

Leandra: But it’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s that he has a very specific perspective. And it doesn’t deviate from itself. But…someone else has captured his perspective and is serving it! So…who satisfies the hole that Phoebe leaves??? WHO?

Harling: And I guess he knows this perspective sells, albeit to a different woman. It really begs an interesting question about whether or not a new creative director should feel obligated to uphold a house’s brand identity. When they don’t it almost feels like an erasure.

Leandra: Well, from what I understand given an interview he gave to Le Figaro and some reporting from Business of Fashion, he really wants to own all the parts of a house — man, woman, accessories, beauty, fragrance — and at that point, it seems like you’d just start your own house, no? But what do I know. My mind is flexible enough that I feel like if intellectually you can make a case for your vision abiding by the tenets of another house, I can meet you there. When he went to Saint Laurent, there was so much shock and dismay, and I felt that perhaps this radically different perspective, a true deviation from the house’s tradition was what made it inherently Saint Laurent. Yves Saint Laurent was such a pioneer of prêt-a-porter as opposed to couture, so I saw Hedi Slimane’s $700 jeans as an extension of that sentiment. And the energy Slimane brought with him, for what it’s worth, didn’t feel like it was being satisfied across fashion, and obviously there was a hankering for it as evidenced by the house’s success. But that energy has been co-opted, or rather it has continued in the hands of Anthony Vaccarrello (who now designs Saint Laurent). But let me change tracks for a moment, what I’m left wondering is what happens with a brand that has been designed for women by a woman (I hate to be gender specific, because I really don’t feel that it matters as long as there’s compassion, true emotion and sincere ability to connect) after she has left. It’s not as simple as just woman designing for woman, it’s woman who has helped other woman navigate different parts of her identity, who has exploited the parts that make her feel safest and most comfortable. It’s also not just man now designing for woman. It is man with objectified experience of what it means to be a woman.

Harling: I’m very torn between respecting the fact that he clearly has such a distinct and unwavering vision and wondering why he didn’t feel the need to challenge himself — or at least explore what it might mean to realize his vision within a paradigm that was established by someone else and beloved by so many. The stripping of the accent off the e and the stripping away of the ease that Phoebe’s clothes embodied…it all feels so symbolic, like a whittling of the brand down to a very narrow idea of what it means to get dressed as a woman. Phoebe designed for Women plural with a capital W but Hedi designs for one very specific woman. So maybe it’s not worse, but it’s different in a way that seems limiting. Also we should publish this convo!

Leandra: One thing to note: Phoebe added the accent back to the e! But yes I agree and hear you. I’m at a dinner right now and everyone is talking about what this means for the future of Celine — what I think they are wondering is what this means for the future of a narrative imposed by your clothing, and they are enraged. Enraged! But I must say that such a passionate response in an industry that is founded upon emotion but which has been feeling more clinical or robotic is worth something.

Your piece about learning to realize your vision within an already existing paradigm is one that I find very important and valid.

Harling: I didn’t realize that about the e! Interesting. I hear what you’re saying. I can definitely write something about this.

Leandra: It sounds like I’m defending him, but I’m not. I don’t like the clothes, I just also am not sure if it matters. I’m trying to meet him and the makers of this decision. When Hedi Slimane is interviewed, I always find his perspective pointed, intentional, and I respect that. But I guess in practice here at Celine, there’s a disconnect to me between what is said and what is seen.

Harling: I’m so intrigued by what you’re saying, especially in the context of knowing the malleability of your own mind (and thus being open to letting a designer at least show you where he or she is taking you before deciding whether or not you want to go there). I identify with that too because there have been many times in which I’ve written something off and then six months later, it’s all I want to wear. It’s also interesting how as human beings we are typically very resistant to change and yet fashion is predicated on change! It’s what makes the industry go ‘round, so even if this particular change is mourned by many, it’s still moving the needle forward purely in the sense that the Celine of now is not the Celine of last season, and that’s something.

Leandra: Yeah. Definitely something. But for what it’s worth, the more I think about it and the more it comes up (again I have a competitive advantage because I am in conversation about this right now over dinner), he fostered a seismic shift by injecting his perspective in Saint Laurent (previous to that he’d only designed menswear, but was a renaissance man for Dior Homme), but the perspective he is pushing forward now, again, is already being accommodated. And frankly has incurred nary the slightest shift. So I’m conflicted and at a loss from the POV of the most empathetic and sponge-y parts of myself vs. those that want to criticize and denounce. I guess for that reason it is constructive that it’s only act 1.

Harling: I don’t think empathy and criticism have to be mutually exclusive in this case (and in fact, criticism grounded in empathy feels distinctly necessary right now), and in that sense I can admire what Hedi is doing even if it’s not necessarily FOR me. The point about his perspective already being accommodated is a particularly interesting one though because we don’t just have more of Hedi’s vision in the world — it’s also displaced another variety. And that means there is an opportunity for other designers to fill it, which brings us back to your initial question: Who will?

Leandra: I hope Phoebe Philo goes to Chanel.

Feature image by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images. Slideshow photos via Vogue Runway.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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