By now, everyone who follows fashion closely will know that Hedi Slimane did a U-turn last night on the Place Vauban in Paris.
That’s where he held his second Celine women’s show. Instead of continuing with the skinny suits for the guys and chic party clothes for the girls that he proposed last fall, Slimane sent out a medley of conservative blazers with either pleated wool skirts or culottes, ladylike blouses, plain high-heeled boots, and discreet jewelry. There were also jeans with wool ponchos, one or two bombers or baseball jackets (with a cursive “Celine” above the left breast), and some tasteful belted dresses in tweed or chain-print silk. The models, who had on minimal makeup — a touch of pink on the lips — all wore gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and, of course, a perfect little scowl.
During the show, I thought: Well, he has a plan. And later I was told, though I didn’t hear it myself, that the words repeating like a hammer on the soundtrack were: Look at me, I’ve got a plan.
Well, it seems obvious to me that Slimane used his Celine debut in September to test-drive — or perhaps extend — the sleek elegance of his final show for Saint Laurent, in March 2016. I first covered Slimane in the late ’90s, when he was the men’s designer at Saint Laurent (Alber Elbaz did the women’s, then Tom Ford before Slimane himself decamped for Dior Homme). He is intuitive, competitive, and very sensitive to the vibrations in fashion and culture that often signal a broader change in desires. And he’s great at unpacking the aesthetics of a house — and eliminating the stuff that is boring. When he was creative director at Saint Laurent, from 2012–16, I thought he picked out the period when Saint Laurent was truly cool, 1965–70, and then married the original revolutionary baby-doll dresses and tuxedos with see-through blouses to his own skinny-rocker look. The results were enormously successful.
But Celine is a very different and in some ways opposite brand to Saint Laurent, and the reaction to that first show in some quarters treated it almost as a betrayal — would Slimane be trampling on the house’s history with another round of his sexy-waif thing? It’s still early, but this second collection suggests that the answer is no. Since September, he’s had time to consider the style of Celine. Founded at the end of the Second World War by Céline Vipiana, the brand has had five designers since LVMH took it over in the late ’90s. It has always been viewed as a bourgeois brand — that is, a clothing and accessories label for upper- and middle-class Frenchwomen who prized tastefulness over the trendiness of designer fashion. Each modern Celine designer has done some twist on that “bourgeois” style, with Phoebe Philo taking it the furthest — actually into the territory of trendiness.
The girls who paraded out at Place Vauban last night in pleated tweed skirts and neat blousons with silk scarves at the neck suggested that Slimane might depart from his own history in favor of Celine’s bourgeois, anti-trendy legacy. The show demonstrated for me several things. One is that Slimane can offer clothes that aren’t cruelly restrictive in the fit, as they often were at YSL. A lot of the blazers, coats, and dresses would look great on women of various body types and ages. Another thing is that it might be sane — and good business — for a luxury brand nowadays to put some distance between itself and the mass of brands on the scene. Many of them use the same approach to design — that is, they manipulate familiar forms. Let’s take a classic wool car coat and hyperextend the collar or add weird flaps to the pockets. Let’s grab a puffed sleeve from a 17th-century Dutch painting or a bit of snowflake lace from an Italian portrait, and rework them as a “modern” shirt — with a fat modern price tag to boot.
Slimane, by contrast, simply offered the luxe car coat, in camel with dark buttons. And he literally finished up with an exclamation point: a sleek black evening trouser suit with a sparkly black shell. Whatever the style, his approach is straightforward, without hidden meanings or dark references to politics, and in today’s world that can seem a virtue.
This is not to suggest that it’s honest or pure. Those skirts and print dresses are not too far from styles shown in Celine ads in the ’70s, though the fabrics and proportions have been updated. There is a calculation here, not just of brand history but of business and the role Celine will play in the Paris luxury universe. There’s a significantly underdeveloped space between Chloé and Hermès — and an opportunity, as the chiefs at LVMH know, to move into rival Hermès’ conservative turf, minus the horses and saddles.
That’s the big picture that I was thinking about during the show.