Monday, December 3, 2018

Déjà Vu

Phoebe Philo makes clothes for women. Hedi Slimane makes clothes for "women." 

I tweeted that to someone in the aftermath of the latter's first collection for Céline. Perhaps it was a tad unkind. A bit much. But I was upset. The dread I felt at the initial news of his appointment was so deep that I wiped it from my mind for a time. "I don't like this," I told a friend months after that announcement. She gently reminded me that I had already yelled about this particular subject to her. So I lived it twice, that rage and disappointment, before settling into a resigned posture. But as the fashion elite moved from New York to London to Milan and finally Paris in the early fall, my anxiety returned.

Sitting there at my desk watching the models stomp down the runway in a collection that was not at all new for Slimane, I considered laughing. From the first look with its short length and its oversized bow, it was obvious that we were being served Saint Laurent 2.0.

Can one successfully perform the same trick twice? I don't know although it was apparent on that morning that the decision makers at LVMH and Céline were betting heavily on the possibility. What I did know was that I could be unimpressed twice. When Slimane took over for Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, I didn't have many expectations. I had heard of Slimane here and there in the fashion press before the news of his appointment was announced, but his tenure at Dior Homme ended before I began to turn my attention to menswear. I knew a couple of the buzzwords that circled his work. Skinny. Rocker. To my eye, there was a bit of sameness to all of it but then what did I know? Not much honestly about the business of menswear. And after many nervous seasons of chatter about Pilati's possible ousting, I knew that I would be fairly bitter about whoever replaced him no matter the style direction they chose to take the brand in.

After Céline 's Spring/Summer 2019 show ended, I dug through my tweets in search of my thoughts about his first Saint Laurent collection. I assumed that I had been mildly pissed but mostly indifferent. I was wrong.
Rage stings and it stains and this particular one apparently never left me.

I've never owned any Céline from the Philo era. I've never owned any Céline period. I've never more than touched it, fingertips brushing against a line of dresses on a rack as I walked the sales floor of various luxury department stores like the Barneys that sat in the mall where I spent the back half of my 20s treading water at a retail job. I was there often enough that one of the stylists in the women's ready-to-wear department would warmly greet me before leaving me to my worshipful reverie. These clothes and bags and shoes, so far outside of the reality of my life both then and now, are mostly a thought experiment for me. I look at runway and red carpet pictures and make sometimes delightful, sometimes insightful, sometimes snide assessments. I daydream often. About soft leather pencil skirts and cognac loafers and dresses of various (literal) stripes. In my life, the high fashion world lives in a liminal space between reality and mirage.

In spite of this distance, there are designers who create clothing with which I forge a personal connection. Or maybe that connection springs from said distance. I look but only barely touch and so a bit of the myth surrounding them remains intact. I can revere them because I am not aware of the flaws that live up close. Because of this distance I know that a not insignificant number of my biases are, at times, baseless. When I am being mature and reasonable and a bit cold, I stomp those biases dead as they begin to bloom. When I am none of those things, when I am rash and passionate, I can't help but let them grow.

The tip top of this industry is lacking in women at the fore, but it wasn't only Philo's womanhood that drew me to her designs first at Chloé and then at Céline. There are men who I love unabashedly and with few reservations. Dries Van Noten. Alber Elbaz (formerly of Lanvin). Billy Reid. Scott Sternberg (formerly of Band of Outsiders and currently of Entireworld) to name a few. And much like Slimane, a number of them started in menswear before moving into womenswear.

When the reservations do arise, they often come from the same place as my distaste for Slimane. A frustration when it becomes clear that these men have forgotten that they are designing for women and a woman's body. When it's obvious that just for a moment we became an abstract concept to them. Women are many things and our bodies are as varied as the stars that hang in the night sky so one might think this task wouldn't be all that difficult. Pick a woman, any woman, understand her to be a living, breathing, thinking thing and then continue from there. But that path trips up more people than you might imagine.
A friend and I were sitting on a familiar bar patio talking close that night. When I discuss fashion with people, the conversations are often mundane. This is lovely. That is horrifying. We remain on the surface level because I fear that a push deeper might begin to bore my partner. If not stopped, I can begin to spiral into arcane facts and sweeping pronouncements. I begin to talk about legacies born and history made. About the highly intellectual and the more earthbound emotions. The pieces that make me shriek or clap or shiver in anticipation. But there are times when I don't stop myself and become a different person. A talkative person. An easy person. None of that hard exterior that isn't really hard.

I wasn't expecting the shrieks or the claps or the shivers to appear as I watched the first Slimane for Céline show. I knew it wouldn't be like the morning I stood with my laptop sitting on my mother's ironing board becoming increasingly enthralled by an otherworldly Alexander McQueen show. I knew I wouldn't be consumed by a deep sadness and a deeper appreciation like I was when watching the closing, rainbow light show of Christopher Bailey's final collection for Burberry. I had come to appreciate, like, and even covet some of his work at Saint Laurent. His brief return to couture right before his departure comes to mind. In those proportions and with that craftsmanship, I became enamored with his vision for a moment. But only a moment.

I wanted something different here. Something new. Not necessarily for me and my body but something beyond that limited, stilted concept of a woman. Because I loved Philo's Céline. Because I loved the woman she was making clothes for. Because I had given my heart to the brand. A silly, juvenile move but, as is often the way with such things, it occurred without my knowledge. And when you give your heart to something or someone, you hope for a gift in return.

I wonder what she'll do next and what he'll do next. I hope for a Céline collection in this new era that stirs that joy and that lust, but I'm not sure if I'll ever find it with him.

Saint Laurent, Fall/Winter 2016


Céline, Spring/Summer 2019

Photos via