Designer Hedi Slimane, recruited in March to usher Yves Saint Laurent—one of fashion’s most storied labels —into the future, announced his arrival with an audacious move. He changed the name of the house to simply Saint Laurent—a reference to the brand’s mid-60s history. But with that decision, he subtly chipped away at the ghost of the design icon who died in 2008, but who continued to define the brand and was a near suffocating presence for all those who tried to carry on his legacy. Without insult or disrespect—and before a single garment appeared on the runway—Slimane did what Alber Elbaz, Tom Ford, and Stefano Pilati could not. He exorcised the house of the master.
And, in his spring 2013 runway debut, Slimane stayed true to the brand’s enduring legacy.
As the lights dimmed and the paneled ceiling of the black box auditorium—constructed inside the Grand Palais—flipped open to reveal lighting, scaffolding, and speaker systems, the first model appeared on the runway in an homage to “le smoking”—Saint Laurent’s version of a woman’s tuxedo. She strutted out atop spike platform shoes wearing nearly all black: cigarette trousers, a jacket with exaggerated shoulders, a white shirt with a black floppy bow and a wide-brimmed hat. The look was sexy, rock and roll, contemporary, and utterly Saint Laurent.
Slimane followed up with more cigarette pants, these paired with a pale salmon cropped jacket in twinkling sequins with super-wide black satin lapels.
Slimane revealed himself to be deeply influenced by his past as a menswear designer, with his expertly sharp tailoring and ability to give his clothes a confident swagger. For a woman who can fit into his silhouette—and this is the tricky part—his suits are the epitome of cool. But they appear to be cut for the sort of woman who has the physique of a 12-year-old boy. She is not merely slender; she is hipless. She doesn’t have much of a tush either. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the curvy Salma Hayek, wife of Saint Laurent’s corporate boss François-Henri Pinault, wearing Slimane’s no-hips-allowed trousers.
Of course, every collection, particularly every designer collection, isn’t meant for every woman. So there is nothing particularly wrong with a designer cutting for a certain physique. But Slimane’s silhouette looks to be so unforgiving that it could be a financial liability to a brand trying to build its clientele.
Still, Slimane is at his best as a tailor and when he’s conjuring up all manner of ruffled capelets and glittering pullovers to wear with his trousers. The weakness in this debut collection was with the dresses. They referenced the brand’s bohemian past with floor-grazing hemlines, fringe, tiers of ruffles, wide belts, and lace-up bodices. They often made his rail-thin models look bulky and they struck the eye as supremely impractical in modern times. There was just too much Stevie Nicks-style billowing fabric.
But Slimane clearly signaled a new attitude at Saint Laurent. With his rhythmic soundtrack interrupted with screaming guitars and his models picking their way down the runway on shamelessly spindly legs, Slimane created an atmosphere that called to mind backstage, VIP, beyond the velvet rope, Hollywood hipness. It is a place where more than a few women would want to be. The only question is: how many are willing to eat like a bird in order to get there?
This was arguably the most anticipated collection of the season—even more than Raf Simons’s ready-to-wear debut at Christian Dior, if only because folks had already gotten a peak at the sensibility he would bring to the brand during in his first couture presentation in July. Saint Laurent had been shrouded in mystery.
Slimane had not designed a women’s collection before. He entered the spotlight in the mid-90s as the menswear designer at the former Yves Saint Laurent and went on to acclaim with his pencil thin silhouette at Dior Homme. In recent years, he has been working as a photographer based in Los Angeles.
Although he’d dressed women such as Nicole Kidman in the past, there was precious little to suggest the aesthetic he might envision for the average well-to-do woman.
His debut brought out a host of other designers, from Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg to Peter Dundas of Emilio Pucci and Lanvin’s Elbaz. There were old Saint Laurent veterans too, including the designer’s former partner Pierre Bergé. Still, for such an anticipated show, it was relatively small. With only four rows of seats flanking a narrow runway, there were perhaps 500 seated guests, whereas major brands typically have an audience twice that size.
With so much buzz about the Saint Laurent show, it’s not surprising that the house’s great history seemed to inspire other designers this season. Elbaz’s Lanvin show gave more than a few nods to “le smoking,” for example. And while Riccardo Tisci was drawing directly from the Givenchy archives in his presentation for the brand Sunday night, one couldn’t help but feel a certain debt to Saint Laurent was owed in his sensually draped evening suits.
Tisci might loosely be described as darkly romantic. But instead of speaking consistently with his own unique vocabulary, he shifts his aesthetic from season to season based on his moods. One season cat faces are smirking from the front of pullovers; in another, the runway is awash in black lace. It’s a design style that surely must keep him creatively fresh, but it also can give the customer whiplash.
This season, Ricci found inspiration in the religiosity of Catholicism and ecclesiastical garb. Indeed his soundtrack came—in part—from his central scenic prop: a small pipe organ. High necklines, angelic white and celestial blue, and mostly modest hemlines dominated his runway. Ruffled dresses with single sleeves showed off the shoulder line; split skirts hung like aprons over longer skirts or slender trousers.
It was a luxurious collection with its balloon blouses adorned with jet beading, but there was also an air of adult sophistication, an about-face for a collection that often erupts with hard-edged-but-untamed sex appeal.
Also vying for attention with Saint Laurent was Celine’s minimalism, which this season came in the form of loungewear nonchalance, with satin blouses, trousers that mixed matte and shine and dresses that dripped threads from unfinished hemlines. Designer Phoebe Philo showed a soothing palette of ivory, dove gray, and midnight. The few bursts of color were provided by furry pumps in geranium.
The fur-covered footwear—particularly the sandals—looked like house shoes and had a jarring effect on the sleek and elegant lines. One can imagine the sandals as an indulgent alternative to Uggs or Birkenstocks but one can only shudder at the thought of the knock-offs they will inspire and the blight those poorly made imitations will be on a landscape filled with scruffy feet.
For women yearning for even more of an alternative to the perfume cloud of Saint Laurent sensuality, the truest one may be sporty chic. Stella McCartney offered oversized and relaxed windbreakers and sweatshirt-style pullovers in a combination of white and orange as well as in sage green. Easy dresses in stretchy pleats rounded out the collection.
And Junya Watanabe dared to create an entire collection of brightly colored leggings, T-shirts, windbreakers, and sneakers using Puma’s high-tech fabrics but his own sophisticated and artful cuts. It was the most eloquent argument for 24-hour gym style—a recognition that women often move through their entire day without ever taking off the yoga pants in which they did their morning sun salutations.
If designers can’t coax women out of their Lululemon spandex habit, at least Watanabe gives them a more sophisticated—albeit more expensive—option.