25-Apr, 00:07

05:50, January 22 221 0

2018-01-22 05:50:03
Critic’s Notebook: Céline, Hedi Slimane, and the Grown-Up Woman

PARIS — In the 24 hours since the news broke that the designer Hedi Slimane would be returning to the runway as artistic, creative and image director of Céline, the fashion world, much of which is in Paris for the men’s and couture shows, has been largely swept up in a feverish state of anticipatory delight.

“Are you as excited as I am?” texted one retailer friend.

“This is going to be BIG,” said another.

The announcement was viewed, almost immediately, as a coup for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury group that owns Céline and that has been engaged in something of a tug of war over Mr. Slimane with its rival group, Kering, owner of Yves Saint Laurent, Mr. Slimane’s last place of work. He transformed pretty much every aspect of that brand, from its name (the ready-to-wear line was changed to Saint Laurent) to its stores to its audience, and while all those changes caused a lot of tsoris, they also made YSL among the most talked-about brands in the industry and led to a period of major growth.

The assumption is he will do the same for Céline: not make it Saint Laurent (duh) but change a lot, cause controversy, make it huge. He’s that kind of guy.

But for all that is exciting, Céline has stood for something very specific for the past 10 years under its former designer, Phoebe Philo — something that to many women was very valuable and that was increasingly in tune with the times — and I’m not sure we are paying enough attention to how important it was in our psychic landscape.

At a time when women are increasingly not just finding their voice but using it, demanding parity and flexing their power, Céline consistently gave them something to wear — or at least to aspire to. Ms. Philo was interested not in what would attract the male gaze, but the female gaze (I can’t tell you how many shows I left with male colleagues who were shaking their heads and saying, “I just don’t get it,” while all the women in the audience were making fantasy shopping lists). And even more important: the grown-up female gaze. And in her clothes — deep pile, no-nonsense, swaddling, streamlined — many of them recognized themselves.

Céline wasn’t overly politicized, the way Dior has become under Maria Grazia Chiuri, or locked into ye olde power suit, but it was assertive and unapologetic. It was where adult women went to understand how to dress. It didn’t play the celebrity game; it played the contemporary C-suite game. That’s a pretty rare identity to possess, and it’s a potentially resonant one. Now more than ever.

It’s possible Mr. Slimane understands this and will serve the same constituency, at least partly. His skinny suits at Dior Homme, after all, were adopted by many women, and his tuxedos at Saint Laurent were ageless. He’s a merchandiser and image-maker extraordinaire, and a creative polymath. He’s very smart.

But it’s also impossible to ignore his fascination with youth culture, and a certain emaciated, up-all-night aesthetic. Or his somewhat childish tendency to refuse to speak to the press, and to ban critics he didn’t like from his shows. Or the fact that the millennial consumer has been name-checked as a target. Or that by introducing men’s wear to the mix, as is the plan, the message will necessarily change.

That’s part of the point of fashion, I know; as reliable as the rise and fall of hemlines. I am not advocating stasis or blind loyalty to the status quo. That way lies irrelevance. And other houses that were once the go-to brand of executive women everywhere have evolved in different directions (Jil Sander springs to mind), and other designers have stepped up to fill in the gap.

And it may well mean, as the owners believe, a much bigger brand, one remade in Mr. Slimane’s mind. He has already, after all, remade an old title (“designer”) into one that encompasses pretty much every single synonym for that post in recent memory. Some designers are creative directors and some are artistic directors, but he’s going to be both — and more. All at the same time!

It is the first signal of the brave new brand that is to come, as well as the designer’s global ambitions. But whatever that is — and you can believe the buzz by this fall, and his first show will be deafening — here’s hoping that Mr. Slimane’s Céline remembers the women who built it to the size it is now, and who felt that rare thing in modern fashion: a personal connection to the clothing. As Nicole Kidman said at Sunday night’s SAG Awards, apropos of her 40-plus age cohort: “We’ve proven that we’re potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us.” Fashion too.

And, on those lines, here’s hoping that every critic gets invited to the show, and that Mr. Slimane is willing to talk about it — not ad infinitum, but every once in awhile, and without restrictions. Here’s hoping he stays at Céline longer than the three years he stayed at Saint Laurent, and sticks with whatever it is his vision becomes. Here’s hoping that instead of symbolizing the recent industry trend toward designers leaving brands after increasingly abbreviated, disruptive stints, he comes to symbolize a new kind of commitment. A radical maturity, you could call it.

Here’s hoping.