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Homme Alone

An interview with designer Hedi Slimane

Hedi Slimane refuses to let anyone see his new clothes — save for the wedding suit he designed for Brad Pitt last summer — until his Dior Homme debut show in late January. When I asked him what the clothes would look like, he took me to his atelier, where everything in production had been discreetly hidden.

“They will look like this,” he said, gesturing at the empty rooms.

Recent articles in the American press have called the 32-year-old designer “hot,” “sizzling hot,” “red hot,” and “white hot.” Slimane is the Parisian It Boy of the moment, and, unlike previous Parisian It Boys, he has risen entirely on the strength of his designs for men. Slimane likes it when women buy his clothes — Catherine Deneuve and Madonna have worn them — but he has no plans to cross over to women’s fashion. Reviews often call his work androgynous, but Slimane says he isn’t interesting in feminizing men; he’d rather liberate them from the conventions of the bourgeois male uniform. His final collection for Yves Saint Laurent, where he worked from 1996 until autumn 2000, was called Black Tie, and it played off an old YSL theme: While the master himself had put women in tuxedo jackets, Slimane gave men access to the detailed, elaborate, fantastical elements of couture, which had always been the province of women. All black, except for a finale of gold lamé, the clothing was modeled in front of a gigantic light box, so that viewers appreciated the architecture of the stuff rather than its surface. The tailoring was impeccable, the shapes complicated and unorthodox: sheer silk shirts; a superfine sleeveless top covered with rectangular paillettes; a necklace of waist-length leather fringe; a black leather coat cut to an hourglass figure and closed with a single hook at the waist.

Slimane also produced a number of one-off pieces, including a fantastically elegant coat of black pigeon feathers. I loved that coat; I would be wearing it now if it didn’t cost $50,000. Of course, the collection also included more moderately priced items: a long formal coat of black satin; quilted leather jackets and pullovers; a floor-length dinner jacket of black wool; molded boots with knee-high leather spats. “It’s not that I’m political about men’s fashion,” Slimane said after the show. “But there are some statements to make. Sometimes you really want a bit of fantasy, you want to dress up, become a demimondain.”

When the Gucci Group gobbled up Yves Saint Laurent in November of 1999, Slimane was one of the crown jewels. Tom Ford, the man who reanimated Gucci, called him “smart, articulate, charming, good-looking, and very sexy” and praised his work for its real point of view. Despite this panegyric, Slimane refused to stay on at a company where he would have had to report directly to Ford. He turned down a Prada Group offer to be chief designer for Jil Sander, a post that Sander herself had recently given up over issues of creative control. Then Ford tried again, declaring, “Hedi Slimane’s talent is so strong that he deserves his own label.” But Slimane again turned him down.

“To use my own name, at this stage of my career — there is something a little bit vulgar and arrogant about that,” Slimane says. “I enjoyed holding to the traditions of Saint Laurent at Saint Laurent, and now I intend to do men’s clothing with the feeling of Christian Dior behind it.” The material will differ as the house differ, he says. “Yves Saint Laurent has always been about exoticism. Christian Dior is as French as you can get. This will not change.”

Sliman’s work, no matter how extreme, is always refined, and though Dior Homme has for decades been an exceedingly dowdy institution, the association with Dior himself — and with John Galliano, who revived women’s designs for Dior — is full of potential. Robert Burke Jr., vice president of fashion merchandising at Bergdorf Goodman, says, “We’re keeping a very close eye on Slimane. He’s a tremendous talent.”

“I like to know the rules and then to go to the very edge of them,” Slimane says. “On the other hand, I deplore nostalgia and revivals; I like the instant.” Dior’s New Look of the late forties may have had more influence than any other single innovation on how women dress. Now the New Look for men is at hand: something highly conceptual but not bizarre; dressy but not formal; fresh but not ahistorical. But it will not be floppy or soft: “So much of what has happened for men has derived from Armani’s deconstruction of the jacket,” Slimane says pointedly. “I am reconstructing it.”

Sliman’s ideal client is interesting rather than beautiful. “I would much rather see an ugly person with magnetism in my clothes than a beautiful person without it,” he says.

“Would you like men wearing your clothes to seem sexy?” I ask.

“I don’t want anyone to seem at all,” he says. “I want everyone to be.”

Hedi Slimane has a face he could have designed himself: intense in its colors (the skin anemically pale, the eyes arrestingly blue), asymmetrical (a wildly crooked nose that betrays his Arabian heritage), architectonic (his profile seems to be completely different from the full-face view), slightly absurd (he brushes his hair up into a foppish, affected Mohawk), and, all in all, curiously pleasing. His body is as vertical as a Giacometti, and he dresses in black, accentuating his narrowness. He keeps his collar turned up and his hands in his pockets, and he has a look of intensity that masks a rather touching shyness. Slimane, who grew up in Paris, has an aura that recalls the eminently Parisian Michel Foucault, the wildman cultural theorist. Foucault transcended every convention to bring style to the world of the mind; Slimane transcends every convention to bring the mind to the world of style. “I make cerebral fashion,” Slimane says. “Allure comes out of your mind: It is the product of the brain.”

Slimane studied art history at the École du Louvre; he speaks fondly of hanging out in the library in the Pompidou Center. Ultimately, he dropped out of school, took a few odd jobs, and toiled as a fashion assistant; he worked his way up, and in 1996 arrived at Saint Laurent with an assignment to revitalize the men’s line, which he famously did. These days he shuttles between Paris and Berlin, where he keeps a weekend apartment.

That cold, rainy evening in December, we toured Slimane’s empty atelier. His style certainly speaks for itself in the suite of rooms, which he designed down to the smallest details, and which are as sensual, severe, elegant, and controlled as his clothes. The space, upstairs from Courrèges on the Rue François Ier, is from that nonspecific high-ceilinged moment when most of Paris was built. Through double doors, you enter a corridor with walls lacquered in Dior gray to almost car-paint gloss. On one side, the assistants work at white desks, lit primarily by light boxes. On the other is the studio, which featured gigantic mirrored blocks on pivot hinges. The ceiling consists of row upon row of speakers, from which techno music plays perpetually. Everything is as symmetrical as Versailles and nearly as burnished. Slimane even designed the matchstick-legged furniture. In the dressing room there’s a throwback: one classic Dior chair straight out of the couture showroom on the Avenue Montaigne, lest you forget where you are.

It is typical of Slimane to reveal much while keeping everything secret. He insisted that I not bring a tape recorder, but laid our night out with an almost fanatical precision — this is his characteristic mode of self-mystification and irony. After leaving his studio, we moved to a waiting car, which whisked us off to two of Slimane’s favorite galleries on the gallery-heavy Rue Louise Weiss in the newly fashionable 13th arrondissement. We were greeted by Emmanuel Perrotin, who became perhaps the most visible dealer in Paris when he spent three weeks dressed as a pink rabbit for a show by controversial artist Maurizio Cattelan. Then we went on to dinner at Chez Georges, the buzzy restaurant at the top of the Pompidou, where we drank margaritas and Château Margaux with our meal. Finally, we headed to Chez Prune, a hip café in the 10th, for a last coffee. Slimane returned me to my house at 1:30 a.m.

Slimane seems anomalously kind in this fierce trade. He is extremely polite: He is the sort of man who asks questions and listens to the answers. The people who work for him like him. His chic and efficient assistant, Sabisha, accompanied us for our entire December outing; she produced the evening as if it were a little opera, leaving just ahead of us to find the car, making sure we all had umbrellas, seeing to it that we had the best table. She and Slimane have a gentle, teasing relationship, a dynamic that is attractively unpretentious and enthusiastic, that seems to relax Slimane out of his usual highly strung state. When we emerged from Chez Georges, she said, “Now everything is perfect; the rain has stopped.”

Slimane laughed and put an arm around her shoulder.

“But, Sabisha,” he said, gesturing at the dark night, “what about the rainbow?”