Hedi Slimane: The Steve Jobs of Fashion

He turned the way things were done upside down. But he pushed too far, and they pushed him out. He spent years in the wilderness. They asked him to come back. This time, the rebellion was refined, polished, perfected. It made billions, not millions. The world applauded.

I’m not talking about Steve Jobs. Allow me to introduce you to the greatest creative genius you’ve probably never heard of: Hedi Slimane, the just-retired Creative Director of Yves Saint Laurent and probably the closest thing the business world has to a Jobsian figure today. Who else has redefined not one but three great global brands – Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Homme in the 90s, Dior Homme in the 2000s (where he introduced the skinny-leg trouser), and Saint Laurent today reinvigorated a stagnant industry, divided opinion, built a cult, and finally become something like a celebrity in his own right? And yet despite his high profile in the fashion industry, few outside the sector seem to even know who he is.

There are few people in this world I’m envious of. Not for the size of their bank accounts, but the worth of their accomplishments. Slimane’s done more in the four years since he took the helm at YSL than most of us will do in forty. He’s not just made pretty clothes — he’s reimagined what a brand, business, industry, creativity, can be. Slimane made people — especially young people — fall in love with fashion again. I want to emphasize just how remarkable an accomplishment this is. Because the truth is that a lot of young people today disdain and sneer at high fashion. For them normcore’s total rejection of fashion as an evil capitalist machine is what’s cool. And rightly so. For the recession generation, high fashion is about as alluring as “Let them eat cake” was to the Parisian masses. A pointless indulgence. And yet Slimane made fashion relevant to them again. I think it’s a Big, and very under-celebrated, Deal. It’s worth investigating how he did it.

For one, he ignored his critics. Like many industries, Big Fashion companies keep acquiring tiny, money-losing, buzz-worthy brands... that never quite go mainstream. They die silently and perhaps mercifully. But the real question is: why is this a pattern, when it’s both predictable and pointless? Because the fashion industry is making stuff for critics. Like many industries, from tech to media to sports, it’s trying to please them, win them over, even pander to them. But the critics aren’t the people who are buying the stuff. Result: shapeless, gigantic, genderless clothes that critics love... but that are driving the business of fashion to stagnation. They’re out of touch with what people actually want, love, hunger for.

So instead, Slimane broke the rules. It’s easy to say. But it’s rarer than rare to do. Scandalizing the rigid, formalistic world of fashion, Slimane dropped the “Yves” from Saint Laurent, held shows more reminiscent of rock concerts than runway walks in LA, not Paris, cast not just perfect-looking models in his shows, but disheveled musicians and actors, to name just a few tiny acts of rebellion. He also, importantly, made clothes people actually wanted to wear, and that looked better up-close in stores than they did on the runway. The fashion world was shocked. Slimane was savaged by critics, especially in the beginning of his tenure. (Now, even his toughest critics concede he’s “clever.”) But collection by collection, he built a devoted cult of fans precisely because he was ahead of even the critics. The self-referential game of pleasing critics might feel good — but it doesn’t necessarily build a business.

To do that, you have to make products people truly desire. It’s a dirty word in boardrooms, desire. We’re more comfortable with calculative, rational expressions of wants. We can put them in spreadsheets and crunch and process those. There’s just one tiny problem. So can consumers. You don’t pay royally for stuff that you’re running a calculation in the back of your mind about. You pay royally for stuff that enchants, hypnotizes, and entrances you. Stuff you love. Stuff that we love — whether that “stuff” is people or clothes or phones, to be crude — suspends the rational bits of us. It intoxicates us and leaves us giddy. We say to ourselves, “Of course it’s too expensive... but I don’t care. I have to have it.” Saint Laurent’s sales revenues more than doubled in Slimane’s first three years on the job, and in February, they reported a 37.4% fourth-quarter revenue increase and their highest operating margin ever (about 20%).

At the core of this financial success is real artistry. I became a Slimane fanboy myself more than a decade ago. I was a skinny, punky twentysomething. The stuff in luxe boutiques? It was for my granddad’s granddad’s footman’s butler. The trendy stuff in fast-fashion stores? It was for 14-year olds. And then I stumbled upon Slimane’s work. There was a pair of jeans made from crisp Japanese denim. There was a leather jacket tailored as meticulously as a decent suit. Finally. Slimane’s great genius was to elevate stuff. Ripped jeans, biker jackets, grungy shirts...made to perfection, with exacting detail. And that’s why the critics didn’t get it. Instead of unwearable designs that telegraphed well from the runway, Slimane focused on tiny details that shoppers would really care about – the placement of seams on a leather jacket, the silk lining of a sweater. Craftsmanship, not showmanship. Consider: one of Slimane’s great innovations at YSL was a “permanent collection,” a set of stuff that never changed. In an industry and an economy so focused on novelty, that is rebellious.

Clusters like Brooklyn and Detroit are putting artistry and craft back into products from chocolate to coffee to furniture today. But the harsh truth is that Big Corporations see artisanship as marketing. They try to brand it, tricking people into thinking there’s artistry in things – Tesco’s “fictional farms” marketing ploy is a recent example — not really practicing itor investing in it. They should take a lesson from Slimane and actually do it.

Why can’t they? Because so many big institutions have a genius problem. They reject, refuse, and suffocate genius. Slimane is the real thing. He didn’t just design the clothes — he shot the photos for the advertisements and designed the carrier bags for the stores. Most organizations have an allergy to giving that level of control to one person. And in fairness, there aren’t that many geniuses who deserve it. But if you have a Slimane or a Jobs, as an institution you have to do one simple thing: get the hell out of their way.

That’s how you get out of the trap of simply riding trends and cashing in on them: ignoring critics, breaking rules, making things people truly desire, and making them with real artistry. It takes a rare combination of personal genius and organizational risk – which is perhaps why we don’t see that many Slimanes out there. Still, we can always hope for more.

By Umair Haque ©20xx Harvard Business School Publishing Corp

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