You’ve got Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards (always), even Jimi Hendrix, all dripping in the sueded spirit of Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns, marching down the runway at Saint Laurent. And so Hedi Slimane’s categorical survey of rock and roll iconography and symbolism presses into the late 1960s; an era of rugged romance, drug-induced dandyism, and the rock star as shaman. The veracity of Slimane’s historicist stagings is challenged only by Ralph Lauren whose own attention to detail and ability to realize such romantic fantasies, beyond even the limits of camp, are unparalleled. There is no information left out as Slimane lavishes over his rock god lust. Nothing is left to the imagination. With the extraordinary set design, outrageously specific casting and the harrowing music you can only be in awe of Slimane’s commitment and talent when it comes to telling a story through clothes.
Slimane and Lauren share more in common than one might think. Both are designers who formalized their deepest aspirations and installed them into a brand that could translate it into an arsenal of luxury merchandise. Just as Lauren co-opted the American dream and claimed it for himself Slimane has ensnared rock and roll, weaving its mythology into Saint Laurent’s, extracting its codes and selling them as the classics they have become. This indulgence of rock and roll and the play off its ubiquity is not without precedent. It’s a world John Varvatos has mined and at one point inelegantly bought when he installed a retail location at the former site of CBGB (one wonders if Saint Laurent would have known better). It’s also very much the world of Anna Sui who is perhaps the godmother to Slimane’s rock redux, her signatures were unmistakable in the women’s looks Slimane showed alongside the men’s. Rock and roll is not the most original point of departure but for a brand like Saint Laurent it does make an interesting focus.
Yves Saint Laurent was a great provocateur of the bourgeoisie, an interest nurtured by a love for Schiaparelli. He stayed one step ahead of the status quo, pushing their limits of taste and respectability. At Dior he shocked his employers by designing around beatniks. In 1971 he caused a scandal for glamorizing 1940s prostitutes. He challenged comfort zones just enough to provoke and inspire and move things along. That Slimane has conquered rock and roll under the banner of the esteemed French house is notable. Rock and roll stands for subversion of mainstream Western patriarchal culture, born from the expressions of African Americans treated as second class citizens, as “others,” it has since expanded into countless genres each offering their own contrary view to the conventions of established society. It’s the natural go-to for instant cool. But with this new Saint Laurent collection, and perhaps a few others in the past, a problematic paradox has emerged. As Slimane assimilates rock’s mythology into Saint Laurent’s he has turned it into that very thing which rock chic stood in opposition against: the uniform of the haute bourgeoisie. It is the very thing which wealthy consumers, still invested in conventions of appropriateness, adopt to play the role of rebel without having to actually be one. The rock looks Slimane exploits are no more rebellious than a banker-striped suit or an embroidered polo.
What is the significance of rock and roll in fashion today? Do the youth who Slimane seems to worship with intense devotion still care about it or has it become yet another used-up cliche? Most young kids these days are listening to rap and hip hop. From Shayne Oliver to Riccardo Tisci to Rick Owens, rap and hip hop have become the leading catalyst for subversion in contemporary men’s fashion. Not unlike rock and roll, it was born from the black experience and the hardship of being dejected by society. It implies a sense of strength and resilience and as its own ecology changes (becoming significantly less homophobic and perhaps less misogynistic) it has come to represent a progressive attitude as well. Turned in on itself, subverted in the manner that Shayne Oliver and Rick Owens have carefully mastered, it goes where rock and roll cannot; tackling race, gender and class in a way that speaks to the issues of today. One wonders if Kanye West had it right when he so brashly proclaimed in a tirade against Slimane that “we culture. Rap is the new rock and roll. We the rock stars.” Perhaps rock and roll is still relevant, a number of established and promising contemporary musicians would certainly argue that it is. But if Slimane is to ever make a compelling go of it he’ll have to let go of his historicist antics and theatrical costumes and give it a more vital context. Rock is diverse and there surely are other iterations that might have a bit more urgency. It would behoove Slimane to explore them.