After a furore of divisive reception, Hedi Slimane braved the critics. Old Céline, meet new Celine

On a Friday night in Paris, as the moon rose over the gold dome of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides and a giant black box specially constructed in its backyard loomed in the shadows, Hedi Slimane, the much-admired, much-decried designer who left Yves Saint Laurent in 2016 and whose ghost had been haunting fashion ever since, made his return to the catwalk.

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He did it under the auspices of the house of Celine, and he did it with Celine-branded beverage miniatures and a (literal) drumroll, thanks to members of the Republican Guard. He did it with a specially constructed backdrop of his own design made from transmuting silver squares that looked like they had beamed in from planet Krypton. He did it with 96 looks on concave, skinny boys and cranky, baby-faced girls.

And fashion, which had been on the edge of its seat, fell off. Déjà vu! It was disorienting: what year was this? But at least some questions had been answered.

For those who, upon hearing that Slimane had been named Lord Chief Overseer (OK: artistic, creative and image director) of Celine, feared that the days when this brand defined what it meant to be a smart, adult, self-sufficient, ambitious and elegantly neurotic woman were at an end – you were right.

 

For those who worried that maybe, after reinventing Dior Homme in his own Thin Dark Duke image, and Saint Laurent in the shape of dissolute morning-after Los Angeles teenagers, perhaps Slimane did not have another brand vision in him – you were right, too. And for those who asked whether brand Slimane would take precedence over brand Celine – well, yes.

Celine

None of this was really surprising. Nor was the fact that the collection was almost entirely in black and white, plus a bit of gold and silver, with a dash of green and red thrown in. Or that for girls, it mostly consisted of super short 1980s baby doll prom dresses with metallic poofs, motorcycle boleros and some very slick tailoring (oh – and one pair of baggy acid-washed jeans with a little fur).

Or that for boys, it was the tailoring again: narrow pleated trousers hiked high on the waist and cropped in at the ankle; razor-sharp jackets, both double-and single-breasted, long and short; skinny ties.

Or that the distinguishing characteristic between the two was mainly black trapezoidal glasses for the boys and little haute flea-market fascinator veils for the girls. Plus some nicely bourgeois chain handbags. Slimane has done all this before.

It was the essence of his YSL, which he rechristened Saint Laurent, just as he rechristened Céline as Celine, dropping the accent. In both cases, Slimane was going back to an earlier incarnation of the logo, because – well, it was never entirely clear. Because he could. It sold very well for YSL. Celine’s owners are probably assuming it will do the same for them. If they have to sacrifice all that the brand used to stand for in the process, so be it. It’s fashion! Things change.

Celine

Except not Slimane. Generally, when designers hop from heritage house to heritage house they make some nod to that heritage. Celine’s has been fuzzier than most, granted – it doesn’t have the same logo totems or design iconography. And when Slimane’s predecessor, Phoebe Philo, arrived, she, too, swept away what had been before. Remember that? Didn’t think so. It wasn’t much, which was why she could. But she gave Celine an identity that for women meant a great deal, because it was clearly for them, not an image of them caught in a black and white photo of back alleys and nightclubs and the damage done after dusk.

And it does beg the question: Why not just give Slimane a brand under his own name? That’s effectively what’s happened here. Why not just call it what it is? Why hedge your bets with a pseudonym?

For a while, it was possible to hold out hope that Slimane might have lived up to all the hype around his reputation. That instead of repeating himself, he really would have been able to evolve his sense of form into something new, something that spoke more generously to those with multidimensional lives. It’s rare for a designer to be able to change how people use dress to express themselves more than once in their career – Yves Saint Laurent (the man) did it, but he was an outlier. It turns out Slimane isn’t. He had his moment. It mattered. Now he’s just reliving it.

Will the rest of us want to, also? The whippet like suiting, which will be available equally for women as well as men (though the treatment does not apply to dresses): yes. But the pouty, infantilising rest of it? The lack of diversity of any kind? No, thank you. Two years ago when Slimane departed fashion, the world was a different place. Women were different. Hell, they were different a few days ago. They have moved on. But he has not. And it meant that, despite an audience crammed with rock’s hipster elite, the lyrics that most came to mind were Mamma Mia! Here we go again.

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Media: New York Times News Service, Getty, Supplied 

Words: Vanessa Friedman