Since Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane took the creative reins at Dior and Saint Laurent, respectively, the fashion press has been trying to paint them as rivals. Not so fast, says our guest columnist Markus Ebner. The Achtung magazine founder, who has followed both men since the beginning of their careers, argues that they are less competitors than joint leaders of a new design generation. As Simons prepares to make his Dior Couture debut next week, Ebner charts the connection between these two innovators.
Fashion loves a rivalry. Unforgettable are the days when Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld used to battle it out to be fashion's number one in Paris. Journalist Alicia Drake spun a whole book out of this circumstance called The Beautiful Fall. It is still a must-read on the goings-on of fashion in the French capital in the sixties and seventies. At the moment, the international fashion press seems hell-bent on creating the same type of rivalry between Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane.
This idea has surfaced in articles on the nomination of both designers to their new jobs at Dior and YSL, respectively. The key one was penned in April by the influential critic Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, who got the succession at Saint Laurent wrong one year ago when she predicted Simons going to YSL. Cathy Horyn, the fashion critic from IHT stable mate The New York Times and a longtime Simons champion, also shares the idea of a battle between the two. To enforce the rivalry point, Menkes even suggests in her story that Slimane took his lead from Simons at the end of the nineties, when both were working on their signature slick tailoring silhouette. And yet, in her show reviews of Dior Homme in the first half of the last decade, she always celebrated Slimane as an originator.
Now everyone from Le Monde's magazine M in France to the blogs are jumping on the rivalry idea. I would like to make a point that Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons are not rivals but are united by being the leaders of a new generation of designers. They are much more ambassadors of a new approach to fashion, of seeing the bigger picture versus one dress or a piece of fabric. Sure, it's tempting and headline-making to pit them against each other now that they're helming two of Paris' most prestigious houses, but it does them a disservice.
First of all, they were friends at the start of their careers and would have a glass of wine together in Paris every now and then. From the very beginning, Slimane has stood for a stylized reality. When I moved back to Berlin from New York to start Achtung, he had already mined the best of the German capital's visual arsenal and published a book with Steidl called Berlin. The book featured fantastic photos of young punks and wasted youth all in black-and-white. At the time, Slimane would go to music and nightclubs to find his models for Dior Homme. All of Berlin talked about these famous casting sessions and most kids and young male models hoped to be chosen. Meanwhile, Raf Simons was finding a lot of inspiration in Berlin. He even named his first company Detlef after a character from the teen drug movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. So these designers are informed by the same cultural signposts but have a different approach in filtering them.
Both are members of the postmodern movement, a generation that grew up just before the Internet revolution. But they're still young enough to be comfortable finding inspiration in a myriad of cultural interests that they source from the Web. Let's not forget, Saint Laurent had to get on a plane to go to Studio 54 and see what was happening there.
The most obvious thing they have in common is that both Simons and Slimane started in menswear and are 44 years old. I have been going to their shows since the beginning of their careers. To say that one has copied or followed the other seems wrong. In 1999, when I was fashion director of Details, Slimane was still a low-profile designer. For a short article we did on him, we sent the local WWD staff photographer rather than some superstar lensman to his studio.
Simons was not even on the radar of the American men's press during my time at Details, and so when I went for a studio visit to Antwerp, it was Raf who picked me up from the train station in his beat-up Mercedes station wagon. He gave me a tour of his city with stops at the Ann Demeulemeester store. He was very approachable and down-to-earth and part of the Antwerp community.
Another thing the two men have in common is that they can be very sensitive to criticism by people whose opinion matters to them. Whereas Karl Lagerfeld is a thick-skinned pro who can laugh off a bad article, Slimane and Simons can be rather thin-skinned when it comes to reviews.
Far from rivals then, they are fellow travelers linked now more than ever by a shared career timeline. The new millennium was the moment they both burst onto the scene, and both have preferred to use teenagers plucked from the street versus real models for their shows. This helped them to get an unfiltered and immediate response to their creations, as these young kids would only put something on if they were really into it, unlike a professional model who is used to keeping his mouth shut no matter how garish the outfit. Hence, whoever slashed the sleeve from a jacket first is not really the question here. Both designers mine youth culture for energy and inspiration to fuel their creative process.
If they are in any competition, it's against the fashion establishment, not each other. Slimane elevated his shows to live concert experiences by creating an entire world around a défilé that encompassed his high-gloss minimalist invites, custom-made soundtracks by Europe's leading DJs and bands, rock hero light shows, and culturally diverse show spaces—from the Palais de Tokyo to Frank Gehry's one Paris building. Simons went to the suburbs of Paris to show in defunct soundstages and school basements, staging his agitprop message shows like mock antiglobalization riots. All of this was light-years away from the gilded chairs of a couture salon.
I believe that the upcoming Dior Haute Couture and Saint Laurent shows are most of all a testament to the fashion industry turning a new page and giving its best positions to designers who are not cut from the same old cloth. Rather, they are informed by modern pop culture, the zeitgeist, and most importantly, their own lives and not old-fashioned ideals. And talking about rivalries: Perhaps the real one is at the New York Times company between Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn, as to who is the more scoop-producing fashion critic.