Byline: Miles Socha

PARIS — The picture of intensity and modern Parisian chic, Hedi Slimane strode into the restaurant at the grand Hotel Crillon here last Friday with his shoulders slightly hunched, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his sharp-shouldered suit.
He was, as is his custom, dressed head-to-toe in black, but his spirit was undeniably light, having just accepted a design post at the helm of Christian Dior men’s wear — a business ripe for reinvention.
Even as the European fashion world awaits the summer slowdown and fixates on vacation plans, Slimane is champing at the bit to get started on the fall-winter 2001 collection he’ll show here next January. His official start date at Dior headquarters on Avenue Montaigne is July 17, but he admits he’s at work already. The guy can’t help himself.
“I love design so much it’s almost painful not to have a show,” he confessed. “I missed a whole season.”
In an interview with WWD, Slimane finally spoke about the tumultuous events of the past six months: his battle for creative control after Gucci Group acquired Yves Saint Laurent late last year; his resignation as men’s designer of YSL, where he cemented his reputation, and the ensuing months of uncertainty, during which he weighed a number of options, including a Gucci Group-sponsored signature collection or a post at Prada-controlled Jil Sander.
Slimane apologized for his silence over the last few months while speculation swirled about where he might land.
“It was a difficult period,” he said, alluding to the outside pressures he faced from various advisers. “But ultimately it was not a difficult decision. I really tried hard to stay completely focused on my own way of thinking.”
Slimane gave few specifics about his various negotiations, but he made it clear that the prospect of working at the legendary house of Dior, and continuing his work redefining and challenging traditional notions of men’s fashion, emerged as the most attractive option for this moment in his career.
“There is a psychological problem with men’s wear, this sense that men can’t wear this or that. The way things are now, if you change one button, it’s considered revolutionary,” he said. “It’s not that I’m political about men’s wear, but there are some statements to make.”
Not that Slimane is interested in shocking. In fact, he said he prefers, for the moment, to work within the “institutional” setting of a legendary fashion house with a rich history and heritage. It not only lends his work a certain credibility and clout, but he said he enjoys the challenge of finding something new to say within a somewhat set vocabulary.
“Somehow, I believe you can sometimes have more freedom working within a framework,” he said.
Slimane did not rule out launching his own label, which was the focus of his “exclusive negotiations” with Gucci Group, which commenced last March. Women’s wear would have been part of that package, he confirmed, but his decision to remake Dior men’s wear does not rule out other possibilities for the future.
“I don’t intend to stop designing in a few years,” the 32-year-old said. “And I’m not saying ‘no’ to women’s, not at all. But once you do your own label, you have to be sure you can do it exactly the right way. If I want to do my own collection, I want to be completely sure of the future of it.
“The projects I have in mind for Dior — to me it was much more appealing and much more exciting.”
Again, Slimane provided few specifics, but he said his new concept for Christian Dior men’s will be a complete departure for the house, but also a continuation of his work at YSL, where he always attempted to put his sexy, sharply tailored and provocative style in a broader cultural context. For example, he once threw a black-tie dance party at the 19th century Opera Garnier that he pronounced as important as his collection that season.
“I always think more about a universe rather than just clothes,” he said. “It’s more about the big picture. I’m interested in this man in the sense of where he lives, what sort of house, what kind of car he drives, where he goes to eat or to dance. In America, you call it lifestyle.”
In the midst of his negotiations with Gucci, Slimane confirmed that he met Bernard Arnault, chief of luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who minds very closely the house of Dior. Slimane said he found Arnault very “open, pleasant and accessible — and completely in sync with his vision for the house. “It was one of the elements that was very important to my final decision,” he said.
And so was the connection he established with Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior Couture.
“He understood completely what I was proposing to do,” he said. “It’s going to be a big change.”
Toledano said the classic, business-suit-focused men’s wear of Christian Dior, designed for the past nine years by Patrick Lavoix, will continue, albeit tweaked by Slimane’s sensibility. But Slimane will also introduce a new collection, yet unnamed, which will be launched on a global basis, with advertising support and a separate retail network. The first location is slated to open before the end of 2001, with Paris and New York top priorities.
“We needed somebody with a vision to work on this global project,” Toledano said. “There’s a huge potential worldwide to develop this business.”
In hiring Slimane, Toledano aims for a makeover on the scale of the one accomplished by John Galliano, brought over to head Christian Dior couture and women’s wear in 1996
At present, men’s wear accounts for perhaps 20 percent of the Dior business, Toledano said, but the product is not widely available outside of Europe and almost nonexistent in the U.S.
Slimane characterized moving from YSL to Christian Dior as a “natural” next step in his career, given his fascination with the tradition of French fashion and what he perceives as a broad cultural renaissance in Paris, spanning popular music, literature, the visual arts and fashion.
He vowed to preserve the classic nature of the Dior style and its legendary rigor, while thrusting it into the modern age. And don’t expect a rerun of his work at YSL.
“I don’t think it is ever possible to do the same thing again,” he said. “Obviously, when you work within a house you have certain codes that emanate from the house and you have certain sensibilities that will come from the designer. This will not change.”
But will Slimane himself change? Will he, for example, shed his all-black YSL wardrobe and embrace the flannel associated with Dior?
“Don’t worry,” he said with a chuckle. ” I love the color gray.”

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