Hedi Slimane (2002)
In 2001 Hedi Slimane's first paris collection for Dior Homme felt urgently new to everyone. His razor-slim silhouettes, exquisite haute couture tailoring, and luxurious fabrics epitomized sophistication and sensuality. Hidden details— like the clear sequins he sewed inside trouser pleats — delighted even jaded critics.
Two more inventive collections have followed. For Spring/Summer, 2002, Slimane showed very low-slung pants and white button-down shirts embroidered with red-sequined "love wounds." For his most recent show, he reinterpreted the tuxedo with triple lapels and embellished elegant shirts and jackets with heraldic crests. After three pitch-perfect collections, Slimane is now rightfully considered Men's Fashion's most important new voice.
Klaus Biesenbach is chief curator of New York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center — which has recently formed an intriguing partnership with MoMA. He founded and still directs the Kunst-Werke contemporary arts complex in Berlin, where Hedi also keeps a shoebox-sized studio/apartment.
KLAUS: In Paris you’re surrounded by so many people, and you drive around with a crew. But in Berlin I see you dragging your stuff to the neighborhood laundromat in plastic bags. How do you survive that jump? I mean, what is it that you like about Berlin?
HEDI: Berlin is an open space for me — I don’t feel like I need to make any effort when I am here. I take the overnight train from Paris, and I arrive really early in the morning, when the city is only slightly awake and silent. The train going from west to east creates a sort of urban intimacy. It’s a very pleasant, slow journey.
KLAUS: Not needing to make an effort doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing. What do you really appreciate about the city?
HEDI: Well, I don’t know many people in Berlin. In addition, I don’t speak German. So my rapport with the city is quite easy and immediate, without any particular expectations. It’s almost as if I were autistic.
KLAUS: So you go there to escape — Berlin is your countryside.
HEDI: Yes, my friend Jean Jacques Picart always jokes that the Kunst-Werke is my country house! When I arrive here, I feel like my time is really my own.
KLAUS: You actually prefer the city to the beach or the mountains?
HEDI: When people say they’ve found an incredible, empty beach with no one around, I understand why they’re excited. But to me, the idea of a holiday by myself on a beach — I’d have a nervous breakdown! I need to have lots of things around to observe. I don’t necessarily need to interact with people — in fact, I usually don’t — but I need to see people interacting.
KLAUS: Do you like Berlin because it’s a young, wild, improvised, vacant space?
HEDI: It offers a totally different perspective from Paris. Berlin is constantly being reinvented. It draws a very individualistic crowd. Also, it doesn’t seem like anyone there was actually born a Berliner, so that makes me feel at ease. It has a particular mood that the East Village had in the mid and late ’80s. Of course, there’s a very strong youth culture in Berlin, which is totally nonexistent in Paris. There’s a feeling of activism, and yet there’s also a side that appears disenchanted. I find all of that attractive.
KLAUS: What is your ambition?
HEDI: I don’t really have one, I’m afraid. Everything I’ve done is part of a chain reaction. But I’m naturally determined, so I guess you could say that my ambition is just to make the next day interesting. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to meet people with whom I have a good understanding. So another ambition is to meet the people with whom I might develop future projects. Things arrive by accident. I really believe that.
KLAUS: Who got you started in fashion?
HEDI: Actually, Jean Jacques Picart pushed me.
KLAUS: How did he know you would be a great designer?
HEDI: It’s not for me to say. I was twenty-three, and I was a little bit lost, doing things like street casting, anything. I was all over the map. He’s been involved with fashion for so many years. He did the same with Christian Lacroix — he started Lacroix.
KLAUS: He just had the instinct?
HEDI: Some people care about you, and are really able to see you, and other people will never see you, even if you’re standing in front of them and waving. It’s like I said about ambition — who you meet next is so important. That’s how ideas get translated into a project. What makes it wonderful is that you never know what will happen next.
KLAUS: Did you grow up in Paris?
HEDI: Yes, I was born and raised there. I didn’t leave much when I was growing up, so I think that’s what makes it difficult for me to spend more than a few days outside of a big city now. I get really nervous.
KLAUS: Which area did you grow up in?
HEDI: Near Buttes Chaumont, a small garden that was built at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a beautiful garden, even if it is a bit kitschy.
KLAUS: Do you have any fashion background in your family?
HEDI: Not fashion, but mother’s family had a lot of tailors. She’s Italian.
KLAUS: And your father — isn’t he Tunisian?
HEDI: Yes he is, and I actually feel closer to those roots, somehow.
KLAUS: What do they think of all of the attention you’ve been getting since you started at Dior?
HEDI: My parents are very discreet. They’re more concerned about how I’m doing, and if I’m working too hard.
KLAUS: You said that you like to observe. Is that why you take a lot of photographs?
HEDI: Since I was eleven, I’ve always carried a camera with me. I’m always taking pictures for my archives.
KLAUS: Are they part of your design process?
HEDI: It depends. When I work on collections, I always photograph more. I’m trying to get a sense of composition and proportion within the frame. That’s very important in terms of the construction of the clothes.
KLAUS: What is most inspiring for you in terms of your design — is it color, architecture, people walking around?
HEDI: Oh, anything. It’s difficult to say, because I don’t like to start with a narrative, the way some designers do. I don’t like focusing on themes at all.
KLAUS: Are you thinking of Yves Saint Laurent?
HEDI: Totally. He would work like that, going from a Russian collection to a Chinese one ...
KLAUS: So when you talk about composition, are you coming from a formal point of view?
HEDI: Strictly formal. For me, most of the composition comes from the atelier. In order to design, I have to be inside the workroom. I need technical people around. I need to build the clothes.
KLAUS: What do you mean by technical people?
HEDI: I have a very traditional haute couture studio. So there is a Premier d’Atelier, who is the head of the studio. There’s a Seconde d’Atelier, who goes between the Premier d’Atelier and the seamstresses and pattern makers. There are three tailors, etc. I didn’t build my studio from my old team at Saint Laurent, because I didn’t want any references from the past. The only person I brought from Saint Laurent is the Premier d’Atelier — but he came from Haute Couture, not Men’s. I had never worked with him before.
KLAUS: When you started at Dior Homme, didn’t you redesign the whole atelier, from the furniture to the layout of the floors?
HEDI: We had no choice but to build the whole thing. When I arrived at Dior, there was only a little atelier for the store, but no bureau d’études for studying new ideas and proportions. I started by designing the studio, which had to be ethereal, almost without physicality, because the collection changes every season. I’d rather not see the space at all.
KLAUS: So when you went to Dior, you started from scratch in every way.
HEDI: Yes. Building the space, and inside it, the team.
KLAUS: Your process seems quite structured. Do you go to the atelier for eight or twelve hours every day?
HEDI: Yes. I could easily stay away a for a while, but I prefer to be there to keep things moving.
KLAUS: So you don’t show up three weeks before you need to finish a collection, work day and night until it’s done, then spend the rest of the time traveling around the world?
HEDI: No, I don’t like that. Other people work that way, but I’d have the collection prepared a month before the show if I could. I prefer not to change things at the last minute.
KLAUS: Can you describe your relationship to your team? It sounds like a family, or a soccer team, where everybody has an integral role.
HEDI: Yes, totally. Christian Dior is quite a big corporation, and within it Dior Homme is really small. That gives us the feeling of being a very tight group, which is so important. Since the beginning, everybody has been really involved and committed, so you just feel that spirit.
KLAUS: You must be a very disciplined worker.
HEDI: I have requirements — not just for myself, but for my team as well. I don’t want to rush the studio just because I’m not ready. I start up again right away after I’ve done a show, because the team needs a regular schedule.
KLAUS: People ask me how you can be in Berlin so often.
HEDI: I’m not here that often. I wish I were, because I’m more comfortable here than in Paris. A good rhythm for me would be four days in Berlin, every two weeks. I only regret that I can’t — I’m always stuck in Paris.
KLAUS: A few years ago, Paris didn’t have any exciting young designers or artists. Now there’s a whole new generation — people like yourself and the artists Pierre Huyghe and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. There’s a lot of hope and expectation invested in the new Palais de Tokyo art center. Would you say it’s an exciting city again?
HEDI: It’s hard for me to say. I feel a little bit constrained there at the moment. I find the whole situation a bit upsetting and heavy.
KLAUS: Because you’re becoming more famous?
HEDI: No, it’s the work. So much work. It’s sad, but I don’t really go out in Paris anymore. But I’m not sure new things are emerging there anyway. Paris is about being established. If you want to be able to push new ideas in Paris, there’s only one way to do it — use your position within the establishment as a tool. That’s why I like working collaboratively.
KLAUS: Paris rewards success and makes it official early. In New York you have to fight longer. And Berlin is kind of against individual success anyway!
HEDI: It takes a while in Paris too. And you don’t get success from the French anyway. They’re more influenced by the opinions of people in other countries. My first press came from America. It wasn’t until the French press saw that there was interest coming from somewhere else that they started to pay attention.
KLAUS: What do you think of New York these days?
HEDI: I think New York will be more interesting in the next few years than it has been recently. New York was in a vertigo of success and money during the late ’90s, and consequently there was a lot of inauthenticity in people’s creative processes. People were not true to themselves. They were jaded. Everything looked formulaic. Since September 11th, it’s a different world. I think the way people relate to each other has changed a lot. It feels more like the city that I remember from ten years ago. There’s more doubt, and that means, eventually, a place for more creativity.
KLAUS: Could you envision living there?
HEDI: I love New York. But I’m not the sort of person who could design the clothes in Manhattan, then send them to Paris just before the shows. I joined Dior because of its proximity to the whole tradition of couture, which you can only have in Paris. There would be no authenticity anywhere else.
KLAUS: Have you seen anything inspiring coming from New York yet? Any new music or new films?
HEDI: I don’t really think that way. Unless it’s something really striking, I usually integrate and move on. It’s always hard to mention any one film or band. I find that sort of thinking restrictive
KLAUS: Well, do you have a favorite movie?
HEDI: No. There are lots of movies that I like very much, such as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. That’s a movie that impressed me as a kid.
HEDI: I suppose David Bowie had a lot to do with it.
KLAUS: I like that movie too, because anyone who makes art sometimes feels like they’ve fallen down in one place and landed somewhere else. The movie reminds me of Pasolini’s Teorema, where a young man, played by Terrence Stamp, comes to visit a conservative Italian family, causing every person in the household to question who they are, and why.
HEDI: In Teorema, the Terrence Stamp character changes a whole family — his arrival is totally cataclysmic to them. Whereas in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Bowie character doesn’t make a difference. He can’t connect.
KLAUS. Do you want to make a difference?
HEDI: What do you mean?
KLAUS: In terms of your art, are you trying to create beauty, or clearness, or truth?
HEDI: As an objective? Not so much. I’m quite day to day.
KLAUS: You’re not a missionary for minimalism, or beauty?
HEDI: No, no. In fact, I’m always thinking that something will come along to destroy whatever credo I have. I’m most interested in that moment when my entire perspective changes, and I have to reconsider everything.