When Celine met Kavanaugh: Does nobody care about women in 2018?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 4:03pm

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I am in a group chat with two of my fellow fashion enthusiast friends. Despite harboring interest in what’s consistently touted as a shallow industry, each of us is an avid believer in the intersection of the personal and the political. We’re also all staunch Democrats.

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford took the stand last Thursday to testify against Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee who she says sexually assaulted her, we stopped what we were doing and tuned in from our respective locations. Every time the Senate Judiciary Committee called for a break, we reconvened via text message.

Through our discussion of Ford’s remarkable composure and Kavanaugh’s boyish temper, one particular comment shone through. “I can’t imagine being at Paris Fashion Week right now,” one of my friends wrote. “With all of this happening, the shows seem so unimportant.”

At the time, I felt the same sense of disdain for the fashion set, those I would have admired in any other circumstance. “I couldn’t agree more,” I replied without a second thought. Clothes were significant in their own right, but nothing they could convey was worth shifting my attention away from the American political sphere, even for a moment.

The very next day, I was proven wrong. On Friday, Sept. 28, day five of Paris Fashion Week’s Spring-Summer 2019 season, Hedi Slimane sent his debut collection for Celine down the runway. Everything about it was cold, hard evidence for fashion’s role in representing a singular moment within the global moral landscape. In this case, that moment was sad, demeaning and, in the eyes of some, downright hopeless.

Slimane served as creative director at Saint Laurent from 2012 to 2016. He is often lauded as the brains behind the house’s revival; he introduced an epoch of heroin-chic, all-black-everything, sending emaciated rocker boys and girls down catwalks season after season, outfitting them in minidresses, trim leather jackets and Chelsea boots emblazoned with glittering stars. During Slimane’s tenure, Saint Laurent embodied an unattainable effortlessness that made the fashion industry swoon. After his first few collections at the label, the consensus rang out: This would be known as the era of the tasteful ’90s resurgence, of club kids with legs like baby deer and cigarettes poking through plump crimson lips.

The United States political climate was perfectly poised to embrace Slimane’s Saint Laurent. These were the days of the Obama administration and the rise of Instagram stars like Emily Ratajkowski, whose simultaneous sex appeal and political activism proved to the American public that the human body could serve as a platform for liberation. It made perfect sense, then, that Slimane would choose to relocate the brand’s operations to sunny LA, where critics and admirers alike expected him to grow Saint Laurent for years to come.

But nothing in fashion is ever that simple. On Apr. 4, 2016, just two years after the move to Los Angeles, Saint Laurent announced that Slimane would be leaving the house, succeeded by former Versus Versace designer Anthony Vaccarello, who promptly began a quest toward maintaining the brand’s reputation as the go-to atelier for those who live fast, die young and have the means to shop designer. Meanwhile, the switch left Slimane in fashion’s no-man’s-land of designers departed, joined by the likes of Alber Elbaz, former creative director of Lanvin, and Peter Copping, the successor to Oscar De La Renta at his eponymous label.

Saint Laurent’s switcheroo was no doubt dramatic, but it was nothing compared to the tail end of 2016, when the fashion industry experienced what may have been its most seismic shift in recent history: Phoebe Philo, the illusive creative director of Céline, would be stepping down after nearly a decade at the Parisian label’s helm.

Worn and adored by everyone from the Kardashians to the women of Wall Street, Phoebe Philo’s Céline was smart over everything else, equal parts aesthetic and function. Her tenure turned the brand into a reigning authority on garments made by a real-life woman, for real-life women (albeit rich ones). The “glove shoes” from her spring-summer 2015 collection balanced the grandeur of a chunky block heel with the security and ease of a ballet flat. Season after season, her slip dresses landed impeccably on the curves of every body, offering wearers a glimpse into a world in which beauty was truly effortless. She redefined the “it” bag with the inimitable Luggage tote. She ushered older women back into the fashion spotlight when she cast author Joan Didion, then 80 years old, in a 2015 eyewear campaign.

Everything Philo rolled out felt intimate and relatable, perhaps due in part to the fact that, after convincing parent company LVMH to build a studio for Céline in her native London, she essentially worked from home. According to notorious fashion journalist Cathy Horyn, Philo was known for her insistence that “all her design choices were personal.” When dreaming up a collection, she took not only her own artistic vision into account but expressed concern for how her garments would fit into the lives of those who wore them. Whether such consideration was conscious is not the point; it happened, and it revolutionized the way the 21st century woman wears her clothes.

“Look around this winter, on subways and buses — wherever there’s a woman in a camel coat, gray pants, and white boots — that’s Phoebe Philo who did that,” wrote Sarah Mower, Chief Critic for Vogue.com, in an article following news of the departure. “Even if the wearers have never heard of Céline, it was Philo who put together the uniform which holds working women together today.”

Who could replace a woman of such stature, so acutely in-tune with the modern meaning of femininity?

On Jan. 21, 2018, LVMH officially appointed Slimane as artistic, creative and image director of Céline, along with announcing that the label would be extending its reach into menswear. The proclamation was met with a healthy mix of excitement and apprehension from fashion’s best and brightest. Why enlist Slimane, purveyor of bourgeois glamour, to follow up one of the greatest minimalists fashion has ever seen? Why add menswear to a brand known for its resonance with women across contexts? Writer Haley Mlotek said it best in an interview for Fashion Magazine: “I don’t think the next designer of Céline had to be a woman necessarily, but I had hoped it would be someone with a demonstrated interest in making what women wanted.”

After months of anticipation fueled by media buzz and a shiny new logo — Slimane dropped the accent, rebranding as “Celine” — it came time for fashion’s favorite bad boy to present his latest venture to the world. Last Friday, hordes of industry insiders and Slimane’s closest pals (read: Lady Gaga) gathered at the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, eager to absorb, or perhaps to judge, what the reimagination of Celine had to offer.

It offered nothing.

Though Slimane unleashed a whopping 96 looks for his inaugural collection, not one showed visible recognition of the house’s past. Rather than acknowledge any aspect of Celine’s rich, matriarchal heritage, Slimane used the platform it gave him to pay homage to himself. Look number one, a shoulder-bearing, polka dot shift with a massive bow motif, was reminiscent of the heart-shaped cape he designed in 2016. Sharp-shouldered suit jackets and tapered slacks reproduced Saint Laurent’s favored menswear silhouette. Skirts were short. Boots were made of black leather, accented with buckles and zippers. Sequins and sunglasses abound. Models stomped through the venue to a throbbing techno beat, about as enthused as a crew of high school stoners forced to attend a pep rally. Objectively, everything looked fine, but this was not the Celine anybody knew or loved. It was simply Slimane, doing as he has always done.

Why was Hedi being Hedi suddenly offensive in this context? For starters, he entered a 73-year-old company with no regard for the legacy left by his predecessors, opting instead to mansplain his way through the Celine name, both literally by removing the accent, posthumously stripping founder Céline Vipiana of her power, and figuratively through his stale designs. Slimane doesn’t care what the 2018 Celine woman wants, or that what was cool in his Saint Laurent days can be interpreted completely differently in the present political climate. Philo’s Céline was a tribute to the wants and needs of a customer she deeply understood. Here was an overzealous, privileged man throwing that all by the wayside, shamelessly using his resources and clout to push forward a problematic agenda.

Sounds an awful lot like a certain Supreme Court nominee.

It’s a shame that an attempt to dismantle Philo’s legacy happened in tandem with the Kavanaugh hearings, but the parallels were clear as day. Tweet after tweet, thinkpiece after thinkpiece, has considered the collection within a feminist framework. Leandra Medine, founder of the fashion blog Man Repeller, titled her melancholic review “Why It Matters When Designers Ignore What Women Want.” Fashion journalist Booth Moore went so far as to brand Slimane “the Donald Trump of fashion” in a recent article for The Hollywood Reporter.

“To some people for whom buying a $4000 coat designed by a woman was somehow perceived to be a feminist act, the storyline may be familiar: rob a female of a job she seemed perfect for, and replace her with a man who burns down the house,” Moore wrote. “You almost have to wonder if LVMH, seeing the contentious landscape before them, knew this.”

Clearly, Dr. Ford’s testimony deserved more attention than Paris Fashion Week, but consider this: As we watched a posse of archaic senators dismiss a woman’s recounting of her assault, a Parisian clothier once viewed as the pinnacle of female empowerment was turned into a parade of white-washed models clad in slinky numbers remarkable only for their exposure of thighs. Fashion is political. Nothing is coincidence. Both the Kavanaugh hearings and Slimane’s tone-deaf Celine debut are signs of the times. We are living in the age of pervasive disregard for women’s experiences, whether they come in the form of artistic achievements or searing trauma.

“Ultimately, the clothes at Celine are a continuation of what Slimane was doing at Saint Laurent — a style that proved to be lucrative for the house,” wrote Robin Givhan in her review for The Washington Post. “During his tenure there, Slimane generated double-digit, year-to-year growth. But nearly two years have passed since Slimane left Saint Laurent. In that short time, the fashion industry has changed and so has the broader culture.”

Hedi Slimane needs to wake up and smell the post-apocalyptic roses. Like many of our current decision-makers in American politics, he has soiled a sense of female liberation that generations of women have worked tirelessly to build up.

The worst part? Like Kavanaugh, Slimane is either lying or has no recollection of the harm he’s done.