Earlier this week, shots were fired. Well, that’s a pretty general statement considering the state of the world, but this is more specific. New York Times fashion columnist Cathy Horyn came down on Saint Laurent's first runway show. For the uninformed or ignorant, Saint Laurent is the newly rebranded successor to Yves Saint Laurent, the venerable house of Parisian fashion, headed by former Dior Homme wunderkind Hedi Slimane. Ms. Horyn’s chief criticism of the show, not to mention her distinct lack of invitation, was that no innovation was being shown in the newly rechristened brand, and what audiences and fashionologists were getting was “a nice but frozen vision of a bohemian chick at the Chateau Marmont,” and that Slimane’s update “lacked a new fashion spirit.” While no style historian myself, I don’t see anything wrong with Horyn’s criticism, especially when held up to stills from the runway and pictures of Jim Morrison with a girl on his arm at the Chateau in the late '60s—big hats, small jackets, tight pants, mysterious oeuvre, it’s all there.
Mr. Slimane has since fired back in an open letter addressing Horyn’s criticism and how he really feels about her, calling her a “schoolyard bully,” and “a publicist in disguise.” Considering all’s fair in love, war and fashion, these comments are somewhat proper, but also very telling of a greater relationship at play, which is that of the critic and the artist and how the two must co-exist as well as co-habitate in the same space—the aesthetic realm. On one hand, you have the artist, creating the beholden object (in this case, a collection of clothes for a fashion house) and on the other, you have the critic, who’s body of work revolves around interpolating and considering that artists’ body of work as something that demands analysis, not for the artist themselves, but for the people who may not necessarily be able to formulate a greater understanding and context for the place the art holds in culture.
What it ultimately comes down to is an equal case of 'U MAD.'
This is not a strange occurrence, and in fact, it exists on every level of the aesthetic and intellectual realm. Artists create art, critics critique art. It’s the definitive debate within any sort of modernism: what is the artist’s relationship with an institution and how can both work to progress the goals of aesthetic practice in order to inform successive generations of artists and critics, and chiefly, the people? What it ultimately comes down to is an equal case of “U MAD.”
Most people will jump behind Hedi in this match-up. Having built up such an immense and irreconcilable following in his career thus far, despite the fact that his “innovation” to the field relies directly on reinterpreting and adjusting the climate in which fashion itself operates—perhaps, also known as bringing sexy back. Hedi Slimane will remain the golden boy of the fashion world from now until the end of time for those exact reasons. He played the right cards at the right time and has gone on to influence successive generations and inspire a culture of adherents to his name regardless of what particular brand he is working for.
Horyn, on the other hand, only serves to bolster Slimane’s popularity by making known, from time to time, that this card can only be played so many times. Sure, she’s already contested that Slimane didn’t in fact come up with the “skinny suit,” but rather brought the trend back with Dior Homme, which at the time was in direct opposition to the course of contemporary style, and simply just re-popularized it for a new generation of consumers.
It should be noted that without beef, there wouldn’t be anything more interesting in fashion than the clothes, and to be perfectly honest, the clothes are far less interesting than the people behind them.
In any of the criticism of him or his work that you read, she is only disingenuous so far as the clothes themselves are concerned and seems to be quite taken with Slimane’s ability to meld style, celebrity, commodity fetishism and art, even if it is but a ploy to bring in consumers and impress editors. I believe that to be a completely valid criticism, keeping in mind that despite the fact that there’s nothing particularly innovative about readjusting proportions of a suit, Slimane did in fact make it as insanely popular as we know it is and will forever be. Without him, would we have such an immense interest and turn toward certain stylistic tendencies now? Probably not. But proofing Slimane’s popularity is not Horyn’s goal—rather, it is to challenge the artist from the perspective of greater culture to be more than just what the public expects and conceives them as. Horyn never said his Saint Laurent debut was bad. She simply, and accurately, said that “the collection was a nice but frozen vision,” and that all expectations, both critical and artistic, had built up this debut to be something of a powerhouse change-up. Looking at the pictures myself, and knowing what I know both about YSL and Slimane, I’d say he did exactly what we, or anyone, could have expected, and that’s why Horyn’s criticism is so essential. She is boldly challenging the artist’s embrace of their own brand and status quo saying, “If I can see this, than anyone else can too.”
Personally, I’ve never thought Hedi was above the law. For me, his photography and sense of aesthetics is more compelling than his clothes have ever been, and Horyn’s right—Saint Laurent is not a reinvention so much as it is a retooling of the same forms and ideals that YSL embodied, there being a distinct lack of imagination that was put into this first outing. I don’t necessarily see a problem with this, but I do think there’s a certain stagnation that comes from an artists’ expectation of positive critical reception. It builds a hubris in them so that when they are held to a candle and inspected much more closely, they tend to feel burned when the universal reception of their work is not what they expected. I don’t decry Slimane for his response, because with all due respect, it was entertaining and is one of the more interesting things going on in the culture and reportage of fashion currently. It should be noted that without beef, there wouldn’t be anything more interesting in fashion than the clothes, and to be perfectly honest, the clothes are far less interesting than the people behind them. So the question I pose to both of them is this: "U MAD?"
Max Gardner is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. Read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.