Paris Fashion Week witnessed the spitting of some quite unprecedented bile from the more habitually oleaginous portions of the style press. From the safe confines of a mounting consensus, bloggers, tweeters and inkies rounded with cathartic zeal on their former golden boy Hedi Slimane and his most recent collection for the house of Saint Laurent. Judgements on fashion collections, as aired in public, typically occupy a range between mild ecstasy and multiple orgasm. The critic who hints that a collection stinks like a dead dog is the critic who is not invited to the next show, who is denied access to the designer and whose publication loses a valuable advertiser.
The merit or otherwise of the collection, and the host of other factors at play, are perhaps less interesting than the common method of attack: Slimane was accused of having betrayed the ‘codes of the house’ of Saint Laurent.
‘Codes of the house’ – it’s a phrase with gravitas, bearing a whiff of parliament, the clubs of St James or perhaps a Masonic order; though at root it’s a fancy way of saying ‘brand identity’. It’s a term rich with the mystique and hint of heritage so beloved of the industry, and one that hints too at fashion’s strong and increasingly complicated cult of creative personality.
Yves Saint Laurent’s output is now the stuff of museum exhibitions – indeed one such, Yves Saint Laurent – A Visionary, opened in Brussels earlier this year. He is counted among the Elohim of la mode, alongside Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior and, more recently, Alexander McQueen. Up there, in the oxygen-depleted air of the pantheon, where fashion designers are discussed in terms of archives, permanent collections, vision, legacy and genius, the word ‘artist’ springs easily to the lips. Yet it is at precisely this point where an interesting gulf between the worlds of art and fashion appears.
A fashion house is not an artist’s studio. When a designer dies or retires, providing their house is still in good financial health, it will keep going, putting out new product in his or her absence. Amusing as it is to imagine an artist with the industrial capabilities of, say, Hirst or Koons pulling off a similar trick, such practice is not yet commonplace in the artworld. As the reputation of a designer mutates in his or her absence, the house is left with a conundrum. To keep going without a replacement ‘head’, as happened at Maison Martin Margiela, raises the likelihood of a house degenerating, gorging unsustainably on its own archive. To appoint fresh talent to the post of artistic director, as happed with Slimane at Dior, brings a second strong creative vision into a house, and with it, a potential clash of personalities.
The use of phrases like ‘codes of the house’ conceals the fact that such practice is comparatively recent, and the unquestioning reverence for departed design talents even more so. In the 11 years between the death, in 1971, of Gabrielle Chanel and the appointment of Karl Lagerfeld, the house of Chanel was a fairly toxic proposition. Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his house in 1968 – it was relaunched in the late 1980s, but not considered a high-fashion label again until almost ten years later, under the direction first of Josephus Thimister then Nicolas Ghesquière.
Yves Saint Laurent himself had wilderness years. It would be ridiculous to reduce his output to a neat set of aesthetic codes – Deneuve, safari, Le Smoking, the Mondrian dress, trouser suits, transparency – he was a mutable, fragile, creative human, as is Hedi Slimane. Accusing Slimane of betraying the codes of the house is, in the context of Saint Laurent’s vast and diverse creative output, meaningless. It may be safer for houses to hark back constantly to their iconic output, but National Trust- worthy regard for the preservation of heritage is part of a dogged defence of brand image that can squeeze the spirit out of the very new talents brought in to keep a house alive.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.