No schism in fashion is as broad as the one Hedi Slimane created. Controversial and forward-facing at the same time, his work has fuelled divisive opinions for the past two decades of his career.

Slimane’s portfolio at Dior Homme, where he introduced the ultra-skinny silhouette, catalysed menswear at warp speed. It became a full-fledged epoch, an aura which bled into mainstream culture. When he returned to Saint Laurent in 2012, he rebooted the label’s five-decade legacy with a clean slate. Unflinchingly wiping the “Yves” out of YSL in the process.

When Slimane was named as successor to the creative throne of Céline earlier this year — his title spanned Artistic, Creative and Image Director and product range saw the addition of menswear and fragrance — the fashion world was once again swept up in a feverish state of anticipation. The likely possibilities of a total brand revamp were speculated, sparking either mass delight or outrage.

Contrary to his grand persona, the press-shy Frenchman generally declines interviews, preferring to speak about himself or his work through email. As today marks half a century since one of the most eminent radical design voices of our time came into existence, we celebrate his 50th birthday by unearthing the best of his past interviews. Below, the history and design philosophy of the ever-polarising Hedi Slimane, in his own words.

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Kate Moss, January 2008. (Photo: Hedi Slimane)

On his monochrome art form

“I started at 11 with black-and-white photography. It has always been a natural and defining part of my life, a personal, intimate process. I am deeply attached to each of the characters I depict, and to my photography archive. ” New York Times, 2017

Without his continual black-and-white campaign photos, the Slimane-reformed Saint Laurent wouldn’t have the punch-packing visual identity which it still has seasons after his exit. His persistence in monochromatic imageries started from a tender age. He had a fantasy of becoming a reporter for Le Monde, the French national newspaper, an archivist of his time. Hence the signature “photo reportage” style.

Throughout his tenures at Saint Laurent and Dior Homme, photography had been — and now inching closer to his Céline debut, still is — a side obsession, running integral to his macro creative directorship.

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A shot from Slimane’s California photo diary. (Photo: Hedi Slimane)

On being saved by music

“I would turn to my music heroes, and this was comforting. They looked the same and I wanted to do everything to be like them, and not hide myself in baggy clothes to avoid negative comments. David Bowie, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Mick Jones, Paul Weller, I felt connected to their allure, aesthetic and style.” Yahoo Style, 2015

Both at home and in school, he was bullied for his “queer” lean build — for not being manly enough. Music became his safe haven. Idolising David Bowie, Slimane’s admiration for the gender-bending musician went full circle when Bowie enlisted him to supply his tour wardrobe with Dior Homme. In 2002, it was Bowie, too, who awarded Slimane with the CFDA’s first-ever International Designer Award given to a menswear designer.

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From left to right: Yves Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane and Pierre Berge.

On working with Yves Saint Laurent in the ’90s

“Yves was really shy, and I was way younger and quite impressed by his elegance, aura and kindness. I keep a vibrant souvenir of the portraits of him I missed, stuck forever in my head. I remember Yves’ attitude when we were discussing men’s fashion in the Deco Salon of Avenue Marceau. Yves had a very specific way to hold his cigarette and move, wearing an impeccable double-breasted brown suit from Charvet.” Yahoo Style, 2015

In this tell-all interview, he waxed lyrical on his relationship with Yves Saint Laurent and business partner-cum-lover Pierre Bergé. Slimane divulged the importance of the two figures during his time as menswear creative director of the brand in the ’90s., which he dubbed his “age of innocence”. The pair guided and trusted him to experiment, propelling him into the next stage of his career at Dior Homme. At his first show for Dior Homme, both Yves and Pierre sat in the audience in support of their protege. Slimane said, “Pierre had called me the day before to let me know Yves wanted to come. The day of the show, it was the only thing I could think about and that mattered to me.”

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Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme. (Photo: Richard Avedon)

On his iconic Dior Homme silhouette

“I started to work on my silhouette since the end of my Saint Laurent years, when I had the option to pursue my own style. I also started it because it was the only thing that would fit me, to be totally honest.” The Fashion Law, 2011

Slimane’s storied Dior Homme silhouette was an answer to the personal struggle with his own body. It was a reflection of the disparity, or lack thereof, of gender definition when he grew up. Wanting to link an idea of androgyny to his silhouette, he took inspiration from “The Thin White Duke” character of Bowie.

This alternative male image — stick-thin and pale, sexually ambiguous — was a revolutionary antithesis of the ideal masculine archetypes championed by Versace and Gucci at the time. He created his own cult army of indie boys. The silhouette became the origin of whatever he did, following to even his period at Saint Laurent later on.

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Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson as the fronting faces of Saint Laurent’s campaigns.

On calling Los Angeles home

“Los Angeles has been my home for almost eight years now. I trust I cannot live anywhere else at this point. It was for me a perfect observatory of popular culture and inspiring sub-cultures. The influence of California is now at so many levels besides the entertainment industry. Los Angeles is about making things. Being here helps me tremendously.” Yahoo Style, 2015

After leaving Dior Homme, Slimane moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to be behind the lens full-time. He became closely acquainted with the music scene, of which influence saturated his work at Saint Laurent as he tailored campaigns around iconic L.A. musicians, ditched Paris for a show at the Palladium, and dreamed up clothes rock stars aspire of wearing.

In a post-Saint Laurent interview with Vogue Italia, the designer and photographer introduced his “secret society” in L.A.: A tribe of musicians, artists, surfers and skaters he documented in a special portfolio for the magazine’s August issue. On the city he continued to be mesmerised of, he said, “I presume the juxtaposition of distinctive scenes, the sense of isolation of each creative pocket, is what makes California rather unique, compared to all other territories I have explored over the last two decades. To document it, you need to become a part of it, and it can only happen over a long period of time.”

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Saint Laurent Spring 2016 collection. (Photo: Virginia Arcaro)

On the blotting out of “Yves”

“It is interesting to see how much reaction this ‘retro branding’ has created. Clearly, this period of the history of the house was not well-known, which I trust was a surprise for Pierre Bergé [Yves Saint Laurent’s former romantic and business partner].” Vanity Fair, 2012

A mere month after his appointment in 2012, Slimane announced his “Reform Project”, starting by changing the brand’s name from Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent Paris. It spurred a furore as well as, never forget, the ubiquitous parody t-shirt “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves”. The rage, though understandable, was unfortunately misinformed: The brand’s new guise was inspired by the one Yves himself used — Saint Laurent Rive Gauche — when he launched his namesake in 1966. Yves wanted a clear dichotomy with his couture line. Like the brand’s originator, Slimane chose the Helvetica font for the new logo as a move towards modernity.

(Illustration: Nadine Christmas)