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Crystal Gazers might consider it a good omen.
In 1962, as he prepared to show his first ready-to-wear collection under his own name, Yves Saint Laurent set up a temporary studio at 12 Rue François 1er while waiting for work to finish on his own Paris headquarters.
Fifty years later, Hedi Slimane is working in the same building—now the headquarters of Artémis Group, the holding company for YSL parent PPR—on his first designs as creative director of the Saint Laurent brand.
The arrival of the men’s wear superstar to the storied French house has generated a degree of excitement among press and retailers to rival the buzz that surrounded Phoebe Philo’s comeback at Celine in 2009 after a three-year sabbatical.
Slimane’s stint at YSL Rive Gauche Pour Homme, from 1996 to 2000, and his subsequent seven years at Dior Homme, set the defining aesthetic for men’s wear that decade, famously prompting Karl Lagerfeld to shed more than 90 pounds.
In the interim, Slimane relocated to Los Angeles and pursued photography, shooting campaigns for Prada and magazine spreads galore, and posting images of young rock stars, actors and artists on his Web site. He also made fine art, from fragmented photos to minimalist sculptures.
To be sure, PPR is expecting a big bang with its bold choice of designer. As the news broke during Paris Fashion Week, PPR chairman François-Henri Pinault noted, “As one of the most important French fashion houses, Yves Saint Laurent today possesses formidable potential, which I am confident will be successfully harnessed and revealed through the vision of Hedi Slimane.”
Pinault, YSL ceo Paul Deneve and the designer have opted to stay mum to let Slimane get on with his work.
In an interview with WWD’s sister publication Menswear last year, Slimane made it clear he wished to return to fashion: “I never intended to give up on design, but to take a necessary and healthy distance.… I do still love design, and have protected my passion for it. I’ll catch up with it in time.”
Slimane also didn’t change his ways and develop a taste for, say, fast fashion. “I only like luxury fashion. You have to decide where you stand. I like well-made, authentic clothes, well-crafted tailoring. I also like the dream and fantasy of luxury, the exception and rarity of it.”
Crucially, Slimane has the endorsement of the remaining members of the Saint Laurent clan: the late couturier’s business partner Pierre Bergé and androgynous muse Betty Catroux. This should secure him unrestricted access to the YSL archives.
“I’m very happy,” says Bergé, who never hid his distaste for Slimane’s predecessors, Stefano Pilati and Tom Ford. “Hedi Slimane has an enormous amount of talent, something that has been missing at the house of Yves Saint Laurent.”
“Hedi is the only one belonging to the Saint Laurent family, my family, so you can imagine how happy and excited I am,” Catroux writes in an e-mail. “It will be easy for him as he has the same sensibility and aesthetic, and like Yves, he understands his times perfectly. I always dress as a boy, but I am sure he will find a new way to make girls magic again. Hedi will continue the spirit of Yves. He is the YSL of today, so everything is as it should be.”
Catroux, Nicole Kidman and Madonna were among those who wore Slimane’s smaller sizes at Dior Homme, but the designer has never done a women’s collection.
Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager for men’s and women’s apparel at French department store Printemps, says Slimane’s approach to women’s wear would no doubt reflect his photographic work, his interest in underground music and the time he has spent in California.
“His vision of the Saint Laurent woman will probably be completely different to anything on the market today,” de Lalun says. “Obviously, he will be very good at the masculine-feminine look and will give us great tuxedos, but the question is how he will approach the other side of Saint Laurent: the flou, the bright colors, the North African influences, the embroidery. He might not tackle it straight away, but wait until the second or third season.”
Perhaps more important is what Slimane does with the accessories that generate the bulk of the brand’s revenues, which rose 31.4 percent last year to 353.7 million euros, or $493.2 million at average exchange rates.
Pilati had uneven reviews for ready-to-wear but turned out a string of hit bags and shoes, like the Muse and Trib Too. In 2011, leather goods generated 35 percent of revenues, footwear 25 percent, apparel 24 percent and accessories and royalties 16 percent.
Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue, says he hopes Slimane will evolve the accessories business gradually. “It’s been tremendously successful and growing at a very strong rate, and has brought a lot of new customers to the brand.” He notes that Slimane would have more latitude with rtw, since this was a relatively small business. “It has unfortunately not grown as we’d all hoped it would, so I think it’s kind of a perfect way to walk into it, because there’s not a lot to defend in the ready-to-wear.”
Pushing the business will involve renovating at least part of the brand’s retail locations, some of which retain the underlit, mostly black design concept from Tom Ford’s tenure, while newer boutiques reflect versions of the “Opium experience” decor introduced by Pilati in 2008. YSL ended last year with 83 stores and plans to open 15 in 2012.
Almine Rech, whose galleries in Paris and Brussels show Slimane’s artwork, says she’s not privy to the details of his YSL contract, but imagines he would want to bring his touch to every aspect of the brand, from clothing to advertising to stores. “He enjoys working on a complete universe—so everything from the appearance of an outfit to interior design and an artistic medium like photography,” she notes.
The hardest thing might be for Slimane to adjust to the Parisian climate after living in Los Angeles. “I think that’s a little more tricky,” Rech laughs, “especially because he really enjoys the weather in California.”