PARIS — Now that the social media furor has died down and order books have been filled, what did retailers really think of Hedi Slimane’s debut collection for Celine?
Reached directly after the show, which took place on Sept. 28, buyers were largely positive in their assessments — with some exceptions and caveats. Indeed, some major stores declined to comment for fear of reprisals, while others reserved full judgment until they saw what was in the showroom.
In the run-up to the first Slimane-designed handbags arriving in stores today, retailers reappraised the commercial potential of the collection, including the vast range of bags, shoes and accessories that he presented in the showroom. And while some are still mourning the era of Phoebe Philo — and others pointed to a risk of overlap with his former label, Saint Laurent — the majority are confident that the Slimane era will spell sales growth.
“I personally loved Celine,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, designer fashion director at Nordstrom. “When I’m in a showroom and love something, I get manically overstimulated. I get kind of a rush. That happened in the way that I felt with every fiber of my being that this would be a great thing for us.”
Linda Fargo, senior vice president, women’s fashion director and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, was particularly taken with the tailoring for women and men.
“It’s actually a category, which isn’t addressed and offered by many other brands. The cuts were progressive-feeling, slim, sharp and probably some of the ‘coolest’ suiting for women in the market right now,” she said.
“There was a plethora of tailoring on the runways for spring, but much of it was rather oversize, over-colored and simply not as universal, timeless and wearable. In addition, it felt ‘signature’ and memorable. The new modern ‘lady’ bags we also saw as an influential must-have,” Fargo added.
Nathalie Lucas, general merchandise manager women’s apparel at Printemps, noted that while the show focused on eveningwear, the showroom catered to a much broader range of requirements. She also singled out the tailoring, as well as wrap dresses and pleated skirts with longer hemlines.
“I was very pleasantly surprised by my visit to the showroom. I discovered a very well-thought-out collection,” she said.
“Obviously not everyone can wear the ultra-short, rock-inspired looks in the show, so it was very smart to have in the showroom pieces with a strong commercial potential that the customer wants and that will still be very current next season. And obviously, those biker jackets and jeans will sell like hotcakes,” Lucas added.
Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, noted that while the show had a whiff of déjà vu, Slimane’s designs still have plenty of appeal.
“It was a little shocking because the presentation felt so similar to where he had been in the past, and the clothes definitely felt familiar from the collections he had done in the past. We had hoped that he would maybe go a little beyond where he had been, but it wasn’t an enormous surprise that he didn’t,” he said.
“At the end of the day, perhaps that was the entire plan of the designer to make it as controversial as it was by doing what he does well, and making it almost referential with other brands, because we are all sitting around talking about it,” Downing added.
“Now, in the showroom, the clothes are exquisite. They are exceptionally made, the quality is outstanding, and amongst the pieces that certainly were an obvious nod to collections from the past that he has created, there are beautiful clothes there,” he said.
He noted that items such as the classic biker jacket, which Slimane made a mainstay of his collections during his stint at Saint Laurent, were priced very competitively compared to other houses offering similar looks. “I’m sure that was on purpose,” he added, in a nod to the competition brewing between the two houses.
While Slimane preserved existing Celine handbag styles such as the Luggage, Classic and Belt, his clothing marked a radical departure from the brand’s previous aesthetic, much to the chagrin of Philo-philes.
An Instagram tribute account, @oldceline, has garnered 123,000 followers since launching in September, and a group of women dressed in Philo’s designs for the brand gathered on the day of Slimane’s debut during Paris Fashion Week to mark the end of an era.
“All of this is pretty symptomatic of the fact that come next summer, many of these women will be looking for new labels to wear,” said Alix Morabito, fashion director at Galeries Lafayette. “The showroom was as much of a break with past collections as the catwalk show was.”
Describing Slimane’s tailoring as “slick,” she compared it with Philo’s textural approach. “The brand had a little more softness and depth in terms of materials. There was something very feminine about it,” she said. “It suggested a woman who was both sensual and soft, yet strong-minded. It was quite a finely tuned balance.”
As a result, she expects Celine to lose its old customers but gain a new following. “I think the old Celine customer will have a hard time recognizing the brand,” she said. “She won’t have an emotional response to the brand, but on the other hand, many other customers will have a very strong emotional response to the brand.”
It remains to be seen whether those customers will gravitate toward the house’s historic handbag styles, now available in fresh colorways, or Slimane’s new designs. These include the 16, which Lady Gaga debuted on Instagram on Aug. 30, becoming the first celebrity to wear Slimane’s inaugural Celine looks.
“What made Celine’s handbag business successful was a strong coherence in the aesthetic between clothing and accessories,” noted Morabito.
“They have kept the bestsellers of that era but ushered in a totally new esthetic, which casts those bags in a completely different light. I wonder if those best-selling bags, which have been kept on to ensure a period of transition, will continue to have the same appeal,” she added.
Lucas at Printemps felt, on the other hand, that the handbag selection provided something for everyone.
“I thought it had a strong commercial potential, since the bulk of Celine’s revenues are generated by leather goods. They kept all the iconic Celine styles and have cleverly developed an offering of more structured bags that may appeal to customers looking for more chic and timeless options,” she said.
“At the same time, there are new Triomphe bags with the brand’s vintage logo clasp that have clear commercial potential, since that branding is quite new for house, and then you have the bumbags for younger customers who were not necessarily in Phoebe Philo’s sights before,” she said.
Bernard Arnault, chairman and ceo of parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said earlier this year that sales at Celine are close to 1 billion euros. That places it just behind Fendi as among the group’s most powerful luxury brands, with Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior heading the pack.
“The objective with [Hedi Slimane] is to reach at least 2 billion to 3 billion euros, and perhaps more, within five years,” Arnault told analysts and reporters in January, after LVMH reported record results for 2017. “Everything is in place for this brand to achieve quite exceptional growth.”
Sarah Easley, chief executive officer of MaisonMarché.com, said she arrived at the showroom with “a more open mind and possibly lower expectations” than she did at the show, but still found the brand’s evolution quite drastic.
“On one hand, there are still beautiful, real pieces to wardrobe women, but many of these pieces were worn by men on the runway. So there is a lot of creativity required by the buyer to pull together a cohesive story that will tempt and sell,” she said.
“But this story will not sell to previous clients. It’s for new clients, and who are they? Have we met them and are they shopping for luxury products? And what brand will stores choose to satisfy the Philophiles? There may not yet be a brand, and this customer will repurpose pieces from seasons past in new ways. She’s savvy and the quality is excellent, so why not?” Easley added.
Francesco Galli, ceo of Folli Follie, saw a good opportunity in the launch of Celine’s first men’s wear collection. “The new Celine male customer will be the one who has always followed Slimane since the Dior Homme times. At the same time, I think the average Celine female customer will be very different,” he predicted.
“In the showroom, I found the right product offering for all the categories, which featured the right details,” he added.
Regarding the sensitive topic of overlap between Celine and Saint Laurent, which has remained broadly faithful to the template established by Slimane during his tenure, opinions were divided.
“I don’t think the Saint Laurent and Celine collections overlap,” said Riccardo Tortato, e-commerce and men’s fashion director at Tsum.
“As expected, Heidi Slimane did what he has always done, but I think that his first Celine collection had more in common with what he used to do at Dior Homme than at Saint Laurent. At the Celine showroom, I found a big, rich collection, well structured and executed,” he added.
Anthony Vaccarello, creative director at Saint Laurent, lasered in on sexy dressing à la française in his spring collection, and some industry onlookers predict an epic battle between LVMH and Kering, the owner of Saint Laurent, for market share among the Millennial demographic.
“Slimane definitely paved the way at Saint Laurent but Anthony Vaccarello’s accessories offering is the biggest in the market and is greatly positioned. To be general, Saint Laurent is younger and more sexy, while Celine is more minimal and rigorous,” Tortato opined.
Morabito at Galeries Lafayette wondered about potential overlap.
“Is there room for two brands that are that close in terms of their storytelling and global aesthetic? I don’t know,” she said, though she noted that Saint Laurent has grown much faster than Celine in recent years, suggesting there is a bigger audience for that segment. “So perhaps there is enough room for two brands within that universe,” she mused.
Federica Montelli, head of fashion at La Rinascente, felt confident the new Celine would find its customer.
“After Celine’s show there was definitely an industry-wide turmoil with pro-Hedi enthusiasts and Phoebe-mourners. The visit to the showroom provided a different point of view of the brand offering,” she said.
“We see a strong commercial potential coming from both accessories and men’s wear, which will be available in our Milan store. A completely new, different woman will be attracted to the brand, sometimes overlapping with Saint Laurent. I strongly believe both brands will carve out a strong statement next season,” Montelli added.
Downing at Neiman Marcus pointed out that while the drama has gripped fashion circles, regular shoppers simply don’t care.
“I know that many people are weeping because it’s not what the designer in the past had done, but anyone that thought that bringing Hedi Slimane to Celine, that he was going to pick up the mantel where the last one left, is obviously not seeing the world through a clear lens,” he said.
“I believe Hedi has a huge fan base, but I also know — at the end of the day — many customers outside of the tight circle of fashion followers have no idea of who’s designing those brands,” Downing added.
“At the end of the day, the customer responds to beautiful clothes. And there are certainly customers who are loyal to a label, but that’s really becoming less and less every day,” he said. “They buy it because they love how it makes them feel, they love how it makes them look, and whoever designs it, it’s irrelevant.”