California Dreamin’

Hedi Slimane Interview: ‘California Song’ at MOCA Los Angeles (PHOTOS)

His Dior Homme work had cult following. Now he’s paying homage to Southern California. By Isabel Wilkinson

Some time during the last 15 years, Hedi Slimane has earned cult status. Perhaps it was his work at Yves Saint Laurent, where he worked in the late 1990s, perhaps it was his declaration that “Fashion = music + youth + sex.” But in many ways, Slimane is seen as the father of the minimal aesthetic in fashion, having ushered in skinny silhouettes during his seven years at Dior Homme, where he cited the rocker Pete Doherty as a muse. When he abruptly left the helm of the company in 2007, he dedicated himself fully to photography.

Now, Slimane has his first major solo show, California Song, which offers a window into the spirit of Los Angeles, with its palm trees and tattered flags, surfboards and sun-drenched sidewalks, peroxide blondes and tattooed boys. Inside MOCA’s Pacific Design Center, his black-and-white images move slowly on three large screens, set to the transient music of No Age, an experimental punk band. His pictures document restlessness, desire, and vulnerability—all a moving tribute to Southern California. Slimane answered our questions via email.

The Daily Beast: Do you have an objective in your photographs? What is it?

Hedi Slimane: Photography has always been about documentary, the depiction of the instant, a moment, sometimes a place. Each project is somehow an experimentation of a specific context or a character.

TDB: You’ve described your menswear style as “Fashion = music + youth + sex.” Is that what your photography is also about?

HS: It is maybe less of an hedonistic process. Youth has always been a subject in my photographs, since age 15 really, when I started to photograph my friends, and has been a subject of portraiture until now. Music is somehow related to it, and a metaphor of restlessness, romanticism, utopia somehow. Sex is not a subject in my photographs, or would only be if it had to do with romance, sometimes vulnerability. The photographs are quite clearly about happiness, or search for happiness.

TDB: What is going on in L.A. right now that inspires you? Are there specific people or places or movements?

HS: Cities are like living characters, going through energy cycles. Los Angeles is somehow belonging to this Pacific axis, and naturally a haven for an emerging artistic scene, stronger than ever, and proud of its heroic heritage, a generation in art, music, or film that have been an inspiration for decades (Baldessari, Ruscha, Burden, Dylan, Wilson, etc.).

TDB: You recently photographed Frances Bean Cobain. What is it about her that makes for a good subject?

HS: Frances simply belonged to the generation I keep portraying in my photography diary. It was not so much about a heritage, rather than about a charming and promising girl of her time. The project was in fact a commission, and a common documentary project. She was 18. The photographs could rest in a drawer.

TDB: Your subjects are often vulnerable. Is there someone you would most like to photograph next?

I am quite moved by the signs of time, age, and the urge of my subject to create always, despite a life already behind. I am quite attached to my “heroes.” I fear we could loose them, and I become protective of them. Photography is always a way to preserve, [a vain] attempt to keep your subjects alive, both in their youth and grace or elderness.

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TDB: At Yves Saint Laurent and Dior Homme, you created a silhouette that was adopted internationally and became derivative for other designers as an “open-source commodity” for years. Why do you think it hasn’t progressed much?

HS: The cycles for silhouette, and what it implies are long cycles, 10 to 15 years. My style was also implying a new sound, or generation of music, and the birth of social networks, which gave a global popularity to my principles. It was the 2.0 decade, and just like 1900, 1910, was, a moment of crystallization of ideas and aesthetic-design conventions, transposed with new technologies. Besides men’s fashion, most of the derivatives are to be found on the evolution of women’s wear, in term of silhouette or attitude.

TDB: There is reportedly no archive from your time at Dior Homme. What have you personally kept?

HS: I did not keep much, and the little I kept was lost for the most part. I have still my photography archives of the period, quite extensive, as I documented most of my projects. It is an archive which might be helpful in some time from now, to perceive the evolution in men’s morphology-identity, and its consequence on fashion, style, and music.

TDB: Why does someone retire—or step away—when they’re at the top of their game?

HS: Stepping away is a healthy necessity, I guess. It is just sometimes common sense, to preserve interest, and somehow passion. I always loved designing, but the context needs to be right, and have a positive perspective. Photography somehow has always been the “fundamental” behind my design, and did naturally take over since 2007. As for retirement, it was never the option, but only an odd speculation, I presume.

TDB: You’ve always aligned yourself with musicians—from Pete Doherty to Amy Winehouse. What music are listening to right now?

HS: Part of my interest for California is music certainly, a really strong scene right now from the north to the south, San Francisco to Los Angeles. I listen to Girls very often; a classic last album, that followed promising early ones. The simplicity and strength of it all, is quite rare. Christopher Owens is somehow one of the characters that defined my show at the L.A. Contemporary Art Museum this month, and the main portrait of the show. I also followed and worked with Randy Randall, and Dean Spunt from No Age, who catalyzed a really strong cult scene in downtown L.A., and are endlessly experimenting with this idea of California Sound. They are truly a key band to understand a scene that is somehow directly connected to the L.A. art world, and a pure expression of its principles. I also followed Ariel Pink, also extremely significant of this L.A. alternative scene. Some other bands became already quite well known, of course, Local Native for instance, or the excellent and moving Best Coast.

TDB: Through blogs and “street-style photographers,” the feel of the street has become something of a commodity that designers are trying to access. How do you feel about this?

HS: It is quite a classic situation of imitation, and commercial validation. In fact, you are either inside, or outside. You cannot possibly be outside, and pretend to be inside. It is in fact not only the case with design of fashion design. The sense of integrity, and authenticity is key to any idea, and the relevance of the process. When I was designing, young musicians were just all around, that scene was extremely small and emerging, and they belonged to the project. I actually had a terrible time trying to give it a tribune, and got the harshest criticism about it. Nobody cared, or had any interest at the time. Naturally, I kept pursuing the same idea, no matter what, over and over.

TDB: Apple, you’ve said, is a company where design meets innovation and sense. How does Apple inspire you?

HS: I have mixed feeling about Apple, really. Not so much about the ideas, technology, or design, but rather about the culture and communications around their new products.

It feels a little contrived to me, I don’t understand what they try to do with public communication. As a matter of fact, or example, I still haven’t changed my phone, because of the way Apple deals with artificially “creating” a demand, or so it seems. You would go to the Apple store, and the staff will tell you that you have to pre-order your iPhone online, because of a “high demand.” You look around you in slow motion, and there is no line at all and 10 customers in the store for 20 salespersons. This is not a good idea for “another” smartphone, and with Android and Samsung way ahead of the curve. As a joke/bet with some friends, we tested many stores in N.Y. and L.A. to see if the staff was meant to repeat the same nonsense, and we found out, they absolutely do.

Meanwhile, we all forgot about the iPhone, and kept our BlackBerrys.

Bottom line, Apple comes out sometimes as trying too hard, unfortunately, when they should be much more low-key about their achievements. Arrogance or attitude is the perception that could come across, in leadership, but of course it is only bad or clumsy communication and sales policy, and I do trust and presume Apple mean well. I do still love them after all.

TDB: Would you ever make a film? Under what circumstances?

HS: I never did commit until now because it was never the right project. I always thought, they would need to be an evidence to the story, and the way I would transpose it. I never really found this, so I passed when this was proposed. Just like for anything else, it needs to make total sense.