Men’s fashion in Paris was moribund, but then Hedi Slimane came along.
by NICK PAUMGARTEN
Issue of 2006-03-20
Hedi Slimane sits alone in his room, in a pleasant but not very fashionable part of Paris, mooning over an album cover. He has just turned six. The year is 1974. The record, a birthday gift from a friend of his older sister, is “David Live”—David Bowie, recorded at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. The friend, Véronique, likes to put on a blue jumpsuit and imitate Bowie. She does a good Mick Jagger, too. Slimane is captivated by her. He is also captivated by the album cover, which features a photograph of Bowie onstage, dressed in a powder-blue double-breasted suit: the jacket is cut short, with narrow but square shoulders, and the pants, although pleated and billowy in the legs, are tight at the crotch. Bowie looks bloodless and emaciated, well on his way to his “Thin White Duke” phase, during which he subsisted, as he later said, on “peppers, cocaine, and milk.”
Taste has to come from somewhere. Thirty years later, after Slimane has become a celebrated fashion designer who occasionally claims that he has no precedents or influences—who declares, “I have no nostalgia”—he allows that his sensibility owes a lot to “David Live” and to the early sight of this cool and cadaverous androgyne striking an angular pose. “When you’re a kid, you stare at things like this,” he says. “There is a moment of isolation in your room—a moment, maybe, of boredom.” There are many things that can contribute to a boy’s sense that another world exists out there, but, in 1974, nothing quite beat album covers, David Bowie, or older girls in blue jumpsuits.
Slimane designs menswear for Christian Dior, the venerable Paris fashion house. It is often said that he has transformed the male silhouette. Slimane’s clothes are generally made for and modelled by whip-thin young men, and among the tastemaking classes—rock stars, magazine editors, sugar daddies—the enthusiasm for his slender cuts has helped the scrawny lad displace the beefy gent as the body type of the age. (Slimane believes in what he once called a “morphology of decades.”) The extent to which this transformation has affected either the general public or the bottom line of LVMH, the company that controls Christian Dior and Slimane’s division, Dior Homme, is debatable, but such considerations hardly rate with the sophisticates who see him as a standard-bearer for a movement to infuse the old male armor—suits, tuxedos, jeans—with the insouciance and youth of rock and roll. “Some designers are more like stylists,” his friend Neil Tennant, of the pop band Pet Shop Boys, told me. “ ‘Heh-heh, they’re doing pirates.’ Or ‘disco New York.’ Hedi is one of those people who create a world.”
Hedi’s world is well edited and diligently curated, with the man himself at the center of it. You might say, although he wouldn’t, that he’s sort of a cross between Martha Stewart (everything just so) and Andy Warhol (anything’s possible). He is reticent and shy, and his pared-down approach to the presentation of himself applies also to the presentation of his work. He will not talk about a show beforehand, or even about what ideas or motifs are occupying his mind at the time, as they may relate to the clothes. He allows almost no one to visit his atelier, on Rue François 1er, in Paris. He doesn’t like to talk about a show when it’s over, either. He says that he can easily articulate what he is up to—he just prefers not to.
Fashion people talk for him. They describe his clothes as “modern,” “cerebral,” even “futuristic.” What such windy accolades reveal about a jacket is hard to say. Slimane also takes photographs, and designs furniture, and dabbles in architecture and graphic design, and his prevailing aesthetic is sleek and spare, but the clothes themselves are not merely minimal. They turn the sincere but desultory magpie style of a teen-age boy into high fashion, by means of the materials, proportions, and craftsmanship of couture. As a result, the clothes are a little challenging, as women’s clothes are.
Slimane’s menswear lines have drawn on the sartorial style of various movements in rock music, chief among them the recent revival of British guitar rock, which in turn harks back to the punk, glam, and post-punk eras of the seventies and early eighties. In turn, the bands that inspire him end up wearing his clothes: newer acts like Razorlight and Franz Ferdinand, mid-careerists like the White Stripes and Beck, and old-timers like Bowie and Jagger, who have become friends as well as clients.
Another hero of Slimane’s youth was Paul Simonon, of the Clash. When the Clash was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2003, Slimane had Dior send Simonon a couple of suits; he wore one of them to the induction ceremony. Simonon is an adherent of the idea that, as he put it, “you can’t have a situation where the audience dresses better than the group.” Soon afterward, Slimane went to Simonon’s studio, to photograph his bass guitar. They got on well. “I like narrow trousers,” Simonon explained. “I don’t like flares.”
Slimane, who met Bowie while out to dinner with (as he put it in an e-mail) “Boy Georges,” once asked him about “David Live.” Slimane told me, “I got the impression from him he didn’t like that album.”
Among the advances that have been attributed to Hedi Slimane is the hair style known as the “faux-hawk”—a coxcombical variation on the Mohawk, in which the hair is swept up toward the top from the sides. He says that he wound up with this haircut by accident, which is hard to believe, considering how particular he is. Hair stylists began to press it on their customers. It was eventually adopted by such widely photographed men as the soccer star David Beckham and the pop singer Robbie Williams, and by young urbanites, gay men, and celebrity toddlers around the world. Slimane abandoned his own faux-hawk when he encountered one on a desk clerk at a hotel in Prague.
Slimane’s most recent haircut has not been widely imitated. It consists of a wad brushed thickly forward over the top of his forehead and cropped straight across. It looks, frankly, a little like a toupee. Slimane’s friend Janet Street-Porter, the British writer and broadcaster, said, “He looks like a demented monk.”
It matters what Slimane looks like, because he is, in a way, his own best model. Being Hedi, he is the apotheosis of Hedi-ness. He has fine features and large, sad-seeming eyes and a melancholic expression that calls to mind Edward Scissorhands. He often furrows his brow. He is very slight, and he wears his clothes the way he would have others wear them: jeans low on the hips, jacket tight in the shoulders and short in the arms, silk scarf, Converse Chucks. Because he’s so thin and others would like to be, his eating habits are a source of curiosity. He says that he eats baby food, and some stories have suggested that he hardly eats at all. But the fashion designer who can do without food is a mythical beast, like the business executive who never sleeps. (Slimane’s friend and mentor Karl Lagerfeld supposedly survives on Pepsi Max, and has said that the reason he lost eighty pounds, not long ago, was to fit into clothes designed by Slimane.) “Hedi eats loads,” Street-Porter told me. Tennant recalled, “One time at his hotel in London, Hedi had chicken goujons as a starter. Then, for his main course, he had a larger portion of chicken goujons. I told him I thought this was strange, and he said, ‘But they’re very good.’ ” Slimane doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. He merely fetishizes the appearance of those who do.
“When I was a teen-ager, people used to comment on how dreadfully skinny I was,” Slimane told me. “I used to take pills to put on weight.” Since no clothes fit him, he began designing his own. His mother was a seamstress, so he knew his way around a sewing machine. “I also always thought clothes looked better on a lean figure,” he said. “Life was not that unfair after all. There was a future for skinny people.”
Slimane was born in Paris and grew up in the Buttes-Chaumont district. His father, who is Tunisian and a retired accountant, had been a boxer in Bordeaux (poids léger, of course), and he met Hedi’s mother, an Italian, when she was working as a coat-check girl in a club in Saint Germain des Près. (“He won her over with a great dance,” Slimane told me.) He hardly keeps in touch with them. In his early teens, he spent vacations with an uncle who lived in Geneva and hung out with a “free-spirited” cousin and her brother, “who was quite the opposite,” Slimane said. “Something like the Patrick Bateman character in ‘American Psycho.’ I was stuck between indie kids and call girls, squats and palace hotels.”
After high school, Slimane studied art for three years and then began helping friends on fashion shoots and shows, as a freelance art director and casting scout. In the early nineties, he spent a couple of penniless but fond years in New York, going to night clubs with Stephen Gan, who is now the creative director of Harper’s Bazaar and the editor of Visionaire, and passing through phases, including a haut-preppy stage, in which, as Gan recalls, he insisted on the “perfect polo shirt, the perfect khakis.” One day, doing fittings for a friend’s fashion show, Slimane was noticed by the LVMH consultant and talent-trawler Jean-Jacques Picart, who on a hunch hired him as his assistant. Three years later, Pierre Bergé, the C.E.O. of Yves Saint Laurent, and Saint Laurent’s longtime companion, noticed Slimane, too—actually, he’d merely heard about him—and tapped him to be the menswear designer at Yves Saint Laurent, even though he had very little experience or training. “All of a sudden, Hedi was designing,” Gan said. “It was a fluke.”
Saint Laurent’s menswear line was moribund at the time. “Milan was menswear, and French houses were not interested in men’s fashion,” Slimane said. “To hire me was an insignificant decision, if you think in concrete terms. But, from a different perspective, I really had as a kid a natural attraction to the house of Saint Laurent, and when Pierre Bergé took the chance I thought I was extremely blessed. I remember sitting down in his stunning office on the Avenue Marceau, totally petrified. It didn’t last more than ten minutes. I just went straight to the atelier a couple of days later, walking on tiptoes, and designed my first collection.”
It took him a few seasons to start doing things the way he wanted to. By 1998, he was attracting acclaim. Then, in 1999, Gucci took over Y.S.L., which meant that Slimane would have a new boss: Tom Ford, the creative director at Gucci, who insisted that Slimane report to him. “It was a totally new idea to me, this story of ‘reporting,’ ” Slimane told me. (His English is good but not perfect.) “I might have never heard the word ‘reporting’ before. Reporting to Tom was not going to happen.” Bergé objected to the arrangement, too. “I was absolutely against it,” he told me. “Tom Ford is not my cup of tea. I don’t respect him, not at all. He is not a designer. He is a marketing man.” After meeting with Ford at the Ritz (“The situation became unpleasant,” Slimane said), Slimane resigned.
When Slimane went to Dior, the women’s line (guided, since 1996, by John Galliano) was its strength; the men’s line consisted basically of ties and socks sold in airport duty-free shops. It was, Slimane has said, “a blank slate.” He redesigned the atelier, hired a new team, and sought to apply some of the couture division’s verve and craftsmanship. He also installed two hundred speakers in the atelier’s ceiling, turning it into a canopy of sound.
In 2001, he presented his first Dior collection, in Paris, a day after Ford showed his first for Y.S.L. When Saint Laurent himself, who had skipped Ford’s show, not only attended Slimane’s but led a standing ovation, fashion people, eager Kremlinologists all, deemed it a volcanic incident, right up there with Khrushchev and the shoe.
Hedi Slimane can’t drive. He’d like to learn how, but he can’t find the time. While in Paris, he keeps a car and driver on call around the clock, in case he decides to go out searching for models in the early-morning hours. The car is a Jaguar. The driver wears Dior. “It would be a bit strange for him to show up in a funny suit,” Slimane said.
Slimane is distinguished from most other designers by his practice of casting unknowns or nonprofessionals for his shows. Like everyone else in the trade, he calls them “boys.” He spots them on the street or in clubs—a process that Slimane calls “boy safari.” He won’t really say what the right attributes are, and they can vary from show to show, but generally he prefers his boys tall, lean, slightly androgynous, and English. Usually, he has an assistant make the approach, but if he is alone he will do it himself. He then summons all the candidates to a photography studio and whittles them down to three or four dozen, whom he invites to Paris for fittings. Casting is a year-round job.
One day last September, Slimane was riding around Covent Garden, in London, when a lanky boy caught his eye. The boy was twirling around a lamppost, as people sometimes do in the movies. Slimane had the driver stop the car. He got out and asked the boy if he’d ever modelled and, when the answer was no, whether he’d be interested in trying. The boy’s name was Chris Ulyatt. He was eighteen years old, and it was his first day ever in London. He was from Stratford-Upon-Avon. “I just recognized a type of character,” Slimane told me later. “He was very precisely it.” Ulyatt was wary at first, fearing that this was just “some London bloke,” but he took Slimane’s card. The next day, while Slimane was riding through another neighborhood, he saw Ulyatt again, walking in the street—a coincidence that struck even Slimane, who is not an especially spiritual man, as providential. Ulyatt took the job.
Slimane is renowned for his runway shows. He takes every aspect of them—lighting, casting, set design—very seriously, but perhaps nothing, after the clothes themselves, is as important to him as the music. In years past, he has used either established artists, such as Beck, or little-known bands, such as Razorlight and the Rakes. He will also sometimes cast band members as models, or seat them in the front row, so that the aging pashas of Paris couture (and aging rock stars) get to witness the youth-infusing pallor of honest, grotty rockers whose greatest thrill at these things may be the free champagne.
And so when Ulyatt travelled to Paris for his fittings he found himself talking to Slimane about music for the show, specifically about how appropriate the Smiths’ song “This Charming Man” would be for the clothes. Slimane thought it overused. Ulyatt recommended a Smiths-inspired band called Superheroes, whose members, he declined to mention, were his closest friends in Stratford, and whose biggest gig so far had been in the local lumberyard. Slimane seemed interested. They sent him a tape, and he liked it. They had no recording contract. In fact, they didn’t even have a name, because Superheroes was already taken by a band in Denmark. As they set about coming up with a new one, Slimane sent the band an e-mail outlining what he was after, musically. “He repeated the words ‘melancholy’ and ‘nonchalant’ about a hundred times,” the lead singer, Sam, told me.
One afternoon in January, a few weeks before the show, the band went to London to meet Slimane, at his hotel. They had been in the studio recording a song for the show; Dior had paid for studio time, in return for their work. Slimane had reserved the library on the hotel’s second floor. He sat in the corner, next to a gas fire, his slender form swallowed up by a giant wingback chair, which made him look a bit like a punked-up Alistair Cooke.
The band arrived: four shaggy but polite young men—Sam, Adam, Jack, and Jack—who, like Slimane, all wore Converse Chucks, and jeans low on their hips. In the John Bonham tradition, the drummer, a Jack, was the only one who clearly outweighed Slimane, and he said nothing except “It’s the new cool thing to have a new band.” (“Yeah, so now we’re an old band,” the bassist, Adam, said.) Three of them sat on a couch facing Slimane, and Sam sat on a chair next to them. Slimane said that he liked the first six minutes of their song, a catchy number entitled “These Grey Days” (melancholy: “I’ve been short of logic, so / I’m passed out on the patio”; and nonchalant: “I’ll send a nasty text / To show I’m not impressed”), but that they needed to develop it a bit more and write more lyrics, so it could last around sixteen minutes.
“It needs to fit with all the elements, the whole atmosphere we have in mind,” Slimane said. “For me, when it’s not quite right, it’s hard to explain it, but I know it’s not. I really love these first six minutes.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sam said.
“Your voice is amazing—I love it,” Slimane said. “I don’t want you to get too intimidated by the project.”
The guitar player, Jack, mentioned some bands that Slimane had used in the past.
Slimane said, “You shouldn’t listen to those bands”—not, at any rate, for guidance. “It should be organic, natural. I think you’ll find your sound and logic. It just can’t be forcé.” By now, Slimane had moved to the floor and was sitting at their feet.
The band still needed a name in time for the show. Slimane told them the story of his discovery of the Rakes. He had seen the drummer in the street and cast him in a show. The drummer gave him a flyer with an illustration of a rake. “I said, ‘What is this, gardening?’ ”
After they’d gone, Slimane returned to the wingback and ate a potato chip. He was expecting some prospective models. Agencies, hearing that he was seeing a few, would send over more. There was a knock on the door, and two stringy young men in the obligatory low-slung jeans walked in. Slimane studied them from the wingback, with a kind of nervous, avid smile, as they put down their backpacks and stood against a wall. A moment or two passed. Slimane said, “Thank you very much,” and they gathered their belongings and left.
“You sort of know if it’s working or not,” Slimane said. “For those two, I’m afraid the answer is no. It’s contrived. I don’t like it contrived.”
Three more appeared. One of them, a severe-looking dark-haired young Dane named Mons, seemed to attract Slimane’s keen attention, a widening of the eyes. Mons was six feet two and a half inches tall, with a thirty-and-a-half-inch waist.
“Would you mind just dropping your bag?” Slimane said. “I’m going to ask you to walk.” Slimane watched Mons go, and an assistant took pictures.
“I like that boy a lot,” Slimane said, after they’d left. “The allure—something within his way of moving. He will translate well for my clothes.”
Hedi Slimane sends out illegible notes—white cards with his name printed in the center, in Helvetica type, and horizontal lines scribbled above and below. He assures friends that these lines are actually words and sentences and that the sentiments they express are warm ones. Slimane is painstakingly courteous, improbably so in a business not known for civility. He asks questions and hangs on the answers. He is an exacting but quiet boss. You will never see him pass through a doorway first.
Slimane has become a core member of that global fellowship of artists, designers, filmmakers, and pop musicians who seem always to run into one another at hotels and parties, at film festivals and art fairs, and who speak constantly of working together on projects. His friends tend to be engaged in what Klaus Biesenbach, the P.S. 1 chief curator (and Friend of Hedi), called contemporary visual culture—a lenient category. (Slimane does not call himself an artist.) He sometimes photographs his visual-culture friends for magazines, or they photograph him, and they take him on as a sort of idol and charm. Slimane, for example, has photographed his friend the filmmaker Gus Van Sant for Vogue—they met at Cannes a few years ago and seem to share an interest, aesthetically speaking, in postpubescent male degenerates and mopes—and Van Sant has filmed Slimane, although to no particular end. (“Rather than having no cameras, I had some cameras,” Van Sant explained.) When I suggested to Neil Tennant that Hedi seems to collect people, he said, “People collect Hedi.”
Tennant, his fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe, and Janet Street-Porter first met Slimane in 2002, in Venice, at the fortieth-birthday party for David Furnish, Elton John’s companion. “Chris and I noticed him around,” Tennant said. “He had all these Hedi clothes on. We were intrigued by him.” Later, on the way back to the hotel, they found themselves on the same boat. Together, they went up to Street-Porter’s room and had hot chocolate and ham sandwiches. They stayed up late, discussing music and air travel, and soon Slimane was spending more time in London with his new friends.
“London’s a pretty hard place to crack,” Street-Porter said. “People are very choosy. And yet he has penetrated all that. His English has got better, and he’s brilliant at text messages.”
Slimane also collects places. Paris bores him; it lacks a youth culture, or a sense of energetic disenchantment. He lives there because it is his home, and couture’s. (He has an apartment on the Quai Voltaire, overlooking the Seine and the Louvre.) And so for stimulus he chooses other cities. Like David Bowie’s humanoid alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” who came here to procure water for his own planet, Slimane spends a lot of his time in this or that town, quietly observing its citizens and ways, in order to extract its visual resources. In recent years, it’s been London. He distills some kind of Londonness, filters it through a Paris atelier, and offers it back, in suspenders and fancy boots.
Last year, Slimane put out a book called “London: Birth of a Cult.” It contained photographs of Pete Doherty, the drug-addled front man of the Libertines and Babyshambles. Slimane has spent years taking pictures in rock clubs, and he followed Doherty around for more than a year, chronicling him in all his sallow, big-pupilled glory. “At first we thought, Here’s some weird French bloke taking photographs,” Alan McGee, who managed the Libertines, said. “But Hedi’s very nice and very sweet. He’s not a leech, not a user.” Doherty is the perfect incarnation of Byronic rock-and-roll dissolution and of what the British papers have called skank chic, and he and the Libertines helped usher in a fervid rock revival. For a time, Slimane’s shows and designs were very much influenced by this scene. As McGee put it, “Every fucking model looked like a Libertine, know what I mean?”
The band broke up in 2004, a year after Doherty served time in jail for burgling the apartment of his bandmate Carl Barat, and Doherty soon descended into tabloid notoriety, for his relationships with cocaine, heroin, and Kate Moss. Slimane’s fascination with him predates this descent, and he aims to outflank it as well. “It’s all a total bore,” Slimane told me. “I was doing this project for over a year before any of this started happening. This phenomenon of the Libertines, it belonged to a small microcosm of people. The thing made sense in time. The attention came for the wrong reasons. It displaced an honest thing with a different context.”
This winter, he put together a sort of photographic elegy for this recontextualized thing, at the Galerie Almine Rech, in Paris. The invitation to the opening measured five feet by three feet—fifteen square feet of heavy paper stock. Printed on both sides, blown up to elephant scale, was Slimane’s photograph of a fan’s sweaty neck, ear, and hair, with moles. The show was called “As Tears Go By,” after the first song that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote together, and its theme was fan devotion. There were giant prints of crowd-surfing, stage-invading fans, next to black Lucite panels that bore the names of songs sung by Doherty: “For Lovers,” “Time for Heroes.” On the floor, two microphones, one belonging to Doherty and the other to Barat, were connected by a single cord—a fantasy gesture. Slimane chose not to attend the opening.
Before London, there was Berlin. When he left Y.S.L., in 2000, he was invited by Biesenbach to do a two-year residency at the Kunst-Werke Institute there. Biesenbach remembers Slimane arriving with his own light bulbs: “He didn’t want exactly white light.” Over the next two years, he took pictures of Berlin citizens and street kids. The ensuing exhibition, and book, his first, was called “Berlin.” In Germany, he also got to know a new crop of eclectic personages with project potential. “We had these dinner parties,” Biesenbach said. “Everyone would come—Malcolm McLaren, Fischerspooner, Susan Sontag.”
Biesenbach also introduced Slimane to Doug Aitken, an artist from Los Angeles. One day, he called them on two separate phone lines and then held the two receivers up against each other, so that they could talk. Since then, there have been projects: for example, Aitken created an architectural installation for the Dior Homme store in Tokyo, which was designed by Slimane (he has designed about a dozen Dior Homme stores around the world, including the one in New York). The two are supposed to do an art book this spring.
Los Angeles may also have become Slimane’s latest urban crush. The problem is that, unlike London or Berlin, it cannot be reached by train, and Slimane is terrified of flying. When he is in Los Angeles, he likes to hang around Aitken’s studio, in Venice Beach, or join Aitken for drives up and down the coast. One day, Slimane said that he would like to learn how to surf, so Aitken took him to a secluded break north of Malibu. “The surf is pretty big, and good,” Aitken recalled. “Hedi’s lagging behind. I notice he’s standing there admiring his wetsuit. He’s saying, ‘This is the ultimate suit. This is the wetsuit suit.’ It was like watching this strange creature trying on a new skin. I think the cut of the wetsuit suit may have snuck into his designs a bit.” Aitken gave him some pointers and began paddling out with some friends. “After two minutes, we looked back and saw two legs sticking out of the foam. He likes to think he almost died that day—‘Doooug, I almost drowned!’ ”
One evening, while riding in his car, Slimane and I got to talking about how amplified rock music can lead to hearing problems, and this brought us, inevitably, to the subject of whitewater kayaking. “Kayaking,” Slimane said, furrowing his brow as if neither the word nor the deed had ever occurred to him. “I would like to try kayaking.”
A Boston punk band named Keys to the Streets of Fear released a song last year called “Hedi Slimane”:
I want pants like Hedi Slimane
I wanna dance like Hedi Slimane
Live in France like Hedi Slimane
I wanna fuck like Hedi Slimane.
Slimane has listened to it but says, “I could not hear or understand the lyrics at all.”
Three years ago, Slimane considered leaving Dior. “I felt a bit dry,” he told me. Instead, he negotiated a nonexclusive contract, which enabled him to pursue other things, as a diversion from menswear’s semiannual cycle (fall collection, spring collection, ad infinitum). He can indulge his other aspirations and interests. Projects. Slimane is an embodiment of the contemporary notion that if you are good at one thing you can be considered good at others. All related printed materials share a typeface, and that is Helvetica.
Not long ago, the Architecture Foundation, in London, invited him to collaborate on a project—an installation outside its gallery, on Old Street. The gallery’s curator had seen a Slimane installation at P.S. 1 and had thought that he might bring a fresh perspective to the task of building a building just for the sake of it. Slimane made sketches of a structure he had in mind, and a team of architects and engineers, from the firm Building Design Partnership (BDP), which typically designs large-scale projects such as hospitals and office buildings, set to work, pro bono, turning them into an edifice that would abide by the laws of physics.
With projects come meetings. One morning in January, the team received Slimane in a conference room on the ground floor of BDP’s headquarters, in London’s East End. The view through the window was of an old brick brewers’ yard traversed by young Londoners in stovepipe trousers. Slimane came from Paris by train. He wore low-slung Dior jeans, high-heeled boots, a black leather jacket, a hooded sweatshirt, a silk scarf, and a serious expression. Slimane’s idea was to render a stage vertically. He envisioned a black steel structure, four stories tall, each floor a platform with room for one member of a rock band, his instrument, and not much else—the drummer on the top floor, the bassist on three, and so forth. It would be fronted with glass, preferably seamless, so that you could see inside, and a giant speaker would hang off it, to amplify a performance for passersby.
The architects had made four cardboard maquettes, each about the size of a shoebox, and arrayed them at one end of a conference table. The maquettes brought to mind the tiny Stonehenge stage set from “This Is Spinal Tap,” mistakenly built to the proportions of a sketch on a napkin. Slimane and the architects clustered around them. The atmosphere was solemn. Quickly it became clear that this was a complicated undertaking, that it would require hundreds of hours of work by dozens of people. The structure would stand for just twelve weeks.
The architects ran through questions and complications not addressed in Slimane’s original sketches: for example, how to keep the structure from falling down, and how to get people from one floor to the next. Regarding the circulation problem, one of the architects ran through the options: a standard stairway, a spiral stairway (“No,” Slimane said at once), or ladders.
“I don’t like the ladders,” Slimane said. “They create a tension within the space. I’d rather have the stages kept free.”
The architects made a push for ladders, while Slimane, hands plunged into the pockets of his leather jacket, considered the maquettes. “It’s a lot of constraints,” he said. “Is this the right word? ‘Constraints’? ”
Someone presented another constraint. As currently imagined, the structure would be too heavy and would crush its foundation. One solution was to make it shorter.
“I’m always working with elongation,” Slimane said. “It’s a principle that’s very important to me.” After further discussion, he declared, “The height is something I would not like to change. If the staircase is an issue, with the weight, we can do the ladders.”
One of the architects reached for the maquette with the spiral staircase.
Another said, “If Hedi’s not happy with a spiral staircase, let’s let it go.”
That maquette was pushed away, like a plate of cold eggs. Still, the constraints kept coming.
“There are issues having to do with weather.”
“At the moment, we’d advise that it’s better to enclose it.”
“You’d need some kind of guardrail or cage.”
“We don’t want to kill anyone.”
The next day, they met again, to look at a new round of maquettes that the architects had stayed up into the night preparing. “This is a first for us,” one of them told me. “One of the great pleasures in this business is building for longevity. It’s fascinating, to be giving the same consideration to something temporary.” I asked him how much the project would cost. He paused and said, “It’s costing a lot more than we thought it was going to.”
Another architect was talking about what material to use in order to enclose each platform. Half-seriously, he suggested chicken wire.
“What is chicken wire?” Slimane said. Something about hearing him say this, in his French accent, made everyone laugh, gently.
The first person down the runway at Slimane’s show this winter, in an abandoned tennis center in Paris, was Chris Ulyatt, the Stratford boy. Male models, unlike their female counterparts, aren’t asked to walk like Lipizzaners; Ulyatt strode up and back like a normal human being, although he was uncommonly long and lean, as bony as a giraffe. His hair was dyed red, pomaded, and slicked flatly back, what you might see on a woman impersonating a man in a musical about Oxford. (Or, for that matter, Bowie impersonating the man who fell to earth.) He was dressed in a tuxedo with a jacket that was cut extremely short and a loopy black bow tie and was accompanied by the recorded voice of his Stratford mate Sam singing the opening lines of “These Grey Days.” A fire flickered at the head of the runway. Certain lyrics—“I know I’m strange / I know I’ve changed / I’m being brave / For no one’s sake”—seemed apposite, in the way that a song by the Cure might to a gloomy teen.
The cavalcade of models was purposeful and persistent. They all had the same slicked-back hair and some variation on the refugee-in-his-awkward-stage build. Many of them had improbably large ears, including one whose ears looked like prosthetics. The clothes were strange and beautiful. There were keyhole coats, satin trenches, billowy trousers, cummerbunds that looked like corsets: even to the untrained eye, everything seemed flawlessly made. To that same untrained eye, however, a great deal of it seemed more appropriate for a woman than for a man. (Women—Madonna, Jeanne Moreau, Siouxsie Sioux—love wearing Slimane’s clothes. Slimane has said that he would like to design for women, although he also likes to say that he already does, at Dior Homme.) In general, the clothes in this collection, which will reach stores in August, were more formal and elegant than Slimane’s previous collections: less street, more studio. A return, if you will, to Paris. Regardless of whether you might wear these things, the discipline of the presentation, its coherence and conviction, was winning, as was the spectacle: extreme pretentiousness leavened by tact. A model came out in a giant cape, and “These Grey Days” gave way to a long spell of darkness and quiet, after which, up on a dimly lit balcony, a string trio appeared on a conveyor belt, the players positioned fifteen metres apart. The strings reprised the melody, although in an arrangement that owed more to Mozart than to Morrissey, and the entire cast reëmerged for an evening-wear encore, a procession of lovely, ludicrous tuxedos. As Slimane finally leaned out for a bow, the audience delivered a standing ovation.
The band had settled on the name Eight Legs. Its four members sat in the front row, opposite the usual panel of distinguished Parisians (Lagerfeld, Bergé, Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve) and rockers (Razorlight, Michael Stipe—“an interesting bloke,” according to one of the Jacks). People came over to meet them. “There were so many beautiful, chic ladies there,” this Jack reported afterward. One observer, seated a few rows behind the band members, said later, “They seemed in imminent danger of getting laid.”
The fashion press was more interested in the collection. It was, as usual, almost unanimously enthusiastic. A rumor had been going around Paris that Slimane, whose contract with Dior expires in July, was considering returning to Yves Saint Laurent, to take over not only its menswear line but its women’s line as well. And so the latest collection’s “erotic formality,” as Cathy Horyn put it in the Times, was interpreted by some as a kind of audition for Y.S.L. and its bosses at the Gucci group. The reasoning was that since Tom Ford had left Gucci (he did so in 2004), and John Galliano stood in Slimane’s way at Dior, Y.S.L. was the natural place for Slimane to design a women’s line. When I asked him about some of this later, in an e-mail, he sent back a photograph of Ulyatt, hair slicked back, and an MP3 of a demo by an obscure new band called the Holloways, the chorus of which was “Why should I reinvent myself / When the world that I see / Will not change, for you and me?” He wouldn’t talk about whether he will be staying at Dior.
As for Eight Legs, after the show the band followed Ulyatt and the other models out for a few drinks, and then they all got lost in the Métro—two dozen lanky lads with slicked-back hair clustering around a subway map—on their way to the after-party, in the basement of the Highlander, a Scottish pub. Slimane soon joined them at the pub and began quietly taking pictures. He and Jack the guitar player hugged, and Slimane said, regarding the string trio’s version of “These Grey Days,” “That was my present to you, boys.” A videotape of the show played on a giant screen, and all the models sang along with the lyrics. The band and the models had to pay their own way at the bar, and they drank themselves broke. One model passed out under a table; another danced naked in the middle of the pub.
Since then, Eight Legs’s prospects have improved. They’ve been approached by potential managers. They played a London gig not long after the Dior show, and Slimane was there, with his camera. “We were nobodies,” Sam told me. “But now that Hedi Slimane’s given us the thumbs-up it seems there are a lot of people who want a slice of the pie.”
crossposted to my own journal