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Why Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Just Might Work

His clothes may be reviled in some fashion circles, but experts argue the brand is simply “in transition” — and Slimane’s reign could turn out to be amazing.

If we’re not Courtney Love, we’re not supposed to like what’s happening to YSL. Or excuse me — Saint Laurent. Since Hedi Slimane took over the label from Stefano Pilati and scrapped the classy if somewhat bland work-friendly clothes of his predecessor, things have been confusing to a lot of fashion people. Two seasons into Hedi’s reign, here’s what we know about the new SL so far:

1. Yves is no longer part of the label’s name. Now we’re supposed to call it “Saint Laurent by Hedi Silmane.” What this means is that the label is no longer filed under “Yves Saint Laurent” on Style.com, so if you want to peruse the runway archives, you have to rememeber to go to “Saint Laurent” instead. Could life be worse? Well yes, obviously this isn’t a legit “problem,” but it seems like it could be confusing from a brand messaging standpoint.

2. The name thing really gets people hung up. The Twitter handle is still @YSL and the website is still YSL.com. So if you type “SaintLaurent.com” into your browser, it redirects to “YSL.com.” What sense does that make? To fashion obsessives, none at all.

3. The clothes look like average L.A. streetwear. And I type that at the risk of having the label ban me from life from their shows (not that I go anyway, but still! Ban threats are always scary). Anyway, few possesseth the balls to say what they really think of the clothes, but suffice it to say that in private quarters, plenty of people are not happy. (Saint Laurent did not respond to email request for comment for this article, maybe because of this post I did around Paris Fashion Week.) Slimane’s first collection was heavy on the floppy hat/caftan/Rachel Zoe feel, which was very vintage YSL. It seemed like he could evolve and do something less derivatively archival in the coming seasons. And then, his second collection seemed like a bizarre homage to Courtney Love/grunge/drunk dressing. And, well, what was that? This isn’t Urban Outfitters or Rihanna for River Island — It’s Y S L! cried fashion devotees.

So is the label on a downward spiral to becoming nothing more than an overpriced Forever 21? Like Intermix but all black and more shredded?

No. The label is not on a slippery downward slope toward only producing clothes that look like they’re on drugs. And I’m not defending it like Courtney Love did because I’m going to be in the next ad campaign. (Hahaha. Haha. Ha.) But sometimes, things just look wrong before they look right. (See: Marc Jacobs’ Perry Ellis grunge collection.)

What’s happening to the label now is that it’s in transition. “YSL” logos may be on the facades of the stores, and the website and Twitter handle may still be “YSL,” but do average shoppers care? Probably not. Those of us who work in the fashion industry or spend all day every day looking at fashion on the internet notice, but that is NOT average behavior. One luxury branding expert (who didn’t want to go on the record due to the brand’s aforementioned ban-happiness) said none of the “YSL”/”SL” inconsistency seemed like a big concern. These image transformations take time, and normal people who aren’t in the business don’t give a crap about whether or not “Yves” is in the name or “Y”s are lingering in various places.

The other thing is, YSL isn’t even technically “rebranding.” “Changing the name, packaging and a new collection does not qualify for rebranding,” reads an email from Kaled Hameide, assistant professor of fashion studies at Montclair State University and author of Fashion Branding Unraveled. “What YSL did is best described as an attempt to ‘Revamp’ or ‘Rejuvenate’ the brand. Rebranding refers to changing what the brand stands for specifically in the minds of the consumer. It is like changing the DNA.” Even the name change itself isn’t actually that big of a deal — especially since it pays homage to “Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,” the name of Yves Saint Laurent’s first ready-to-wear store in Paris, “which is actually a very interesting idea that was never trumpeted enough by the company,” Hameide writes.

Slimane has also brought something invaluable to the brand: buzz. Since he took over, Saint Laurent’s runway slideshows have been the second most-viewed and Facebook-liked on Style.com. “It’s only with Slimane in the past two seasons that it’s made the top 10 list,” the site’s deputy editor, Matthew Schneier, told me. “I think in some ways you have to trace that to Hedi.”

And Slimane may get flack now for his designs, but some of today’s best, most celebrated designers have been positively eviscerated by the press. Just look at Karl Lagerfeld: In 1989, six years after he took over at Chanel, the New Yorker’s Holly Burbauch lambasted him for “desecrating the Chanel style with sight gags and overkill, with a tarty sex appeal and crass sensationalism.” When Lagerfeld was at Fendi, he used porn stars as models in a 1993 show, which reportedly offended Anna Wintour so much that she walked out of the show. Now look at Lagerfeld: He turns runway models into furries and the critics come away heralding the spectacle and his “outstanding” knitwear.

Also, just look at Slimane’s new ad campaigns with Courtney Love, Kim Gordon, and Daft Punk. They’re AWESOME, and they fit perfectly into the edgy, black-and-white, rock ‘n’ roll image Slimane is crafting for the brand.

Ultimately, the sales will have to be there for this brand rejuvenation to work. The New York Times made it sound like they were doing pretty well so far. Saint Laurent certainly has the name recognition — and now the buzz — to keep those going strong.

Besides, can’t you just see American Apparel knocking this sparkly body stocking off?

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Saint Laurent, fall 2013.

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