How Hedi Slimane Brought Back Tailoring

Saint Laurent's tinker, tailor.

BY JANIE CAI | Jan 1, 2016 | Fashion

Photograph by Saint Laurent

“It was necessary to abandon this concept of a men’s universe, recapture/rebuild the Saint Laurent silhouette and return to his own creative work. I had in mind this fluid silhouette, elongated like a line.”—Hedi Slimane

According to the highly secretive Saint Laurent treatise on tailoring (a copy may or may not exist, we can’t say, we’ve sworn to keep mum), tailoring is an ensemble of specific techniques and savoir-faire used to fabricate a structured garment such as a jacket or a suit. It is a precise and measured art, one honed by years of experience, and though not immune to fashion’s eccentricities, it still adheres to an immutable set of rules at its core.

But first, a little context; after all, the art of tailoring is generations old, pre-dating the venerable Savile Row tailors and harking back to the royal courts. The word itself originates form the French tailleur, meaning “to cut”, and appeared in its English form only around the 14th century. It is not a new métier at YSL either. From 1996, Hedi Slimane revolutionised the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche men’s collections by introducing the ateliers de couture and a renewed focus on tailoring, combining the heritage of the brand and Slimane’s creative vision. It was an immediate success.

Slimane would not be the first to incorporate the elements of tailoring into his RTW collections, but he would do so with an acute understanding of how to modernise the cut to make it appeal to the younger generation, whose understanding of tailored clothing up to that point was limited to the stuffy suits of their fathers and grandfathers.

After all, the principles of le tailleur were to create, through cut, silhouette, layering and padding, a soft structure over the body that accentuated its positives, while hiding or disguising its flaws. 

What characterised his early vision for menswear and suiting at the label back in early 2000 was the sartorial approach that focused on black tie and brought back the fundamentals of tailoring to the collection to create a sharp and elongated look. After all, the principles of le tailleur were to create, through cut, silhouette, layering and padding, a soft structure over the body that accentuated its positives, while hiding or disguising its flaws.

Fiona Ffoulkes, fashion and textile lecturer at the famed fashion college Central Saint Martins in London, makes the case for this in her book How To Read Fashion: “Layers of canvas, wadding, and pads, plus the skilled use of an iron, mould a shape that emphasises areas such as the shoulders and the chest, disguising an imperfections.” Slimane’s take produced a look that was both unisex and egalitarian, while retaining the essence of luxury in both material and construction.

The Saint Laurent tailoring is based on the principles of identity; its motif is to create a timeless signature that is in line with a modern way of life, constructed to the highest level. Or to put it simply, it makes you look damn fine.

After joining as creative director in 2012 and assuming total creative responsibility for the brand, Slimane has redefined menswear for Saint Laurent, drawing on inspirations from the origin of the Saint Laurent Rive Gauche RTW as well as Yves Saint Laurent’s bold vision.

The jacket itself is deceptive.

At first glance, it seems so simple, so basic that you wonder what all the fuss is about. But aficionados of the cloth will understand that it is at its most simple and pared down that the true workmanship of the artisan is put to the test. The cut must be perfect, the stitching minute and hidden yet pliable enough to allow freedom of movement.

Inside, the canvas construction forms the backbone of the jacket. Italian artisans shape the garment using an inside padding and a canvas. Most of the construction is done by hand, reflecting both the garment’s status as a handmade luxury item, as well as the wealth of experience and heritage at the house.

Over time, it [the jacket] softens and drapes like a lightweight second skin, yet maintains its structure and doesn’t wrinkle with age.

From this canvas construction stems the jacket’s quality and durability. Over time, it softens and drapes like a lightweight second skin, yet maintains its structure and doesn’t wrinkle with age. Most of the jackets are constructed from natural fibres and the tailors draw from a large selection of fabrics made exclusively for the house, and in some cases, developed specially for Saint Laurent based on heritage yarns or fabrics.

The majority of the textiles are matte, to highlight the perfection of the cut. Names like Garbardine de laine, Grain de Poudre and Sablé de Laine Saint Laurent roll off the tongue.

Sharply cut, the body of the Saint Laurent jacket is fitted, with a single vent at the back to allow for movement while maintaining the original proportions of the jacket. It also results in a flat back for a leaner silhouette. The sleeve’s volume is fitted to elongate the silhouette; here, there is no excess, like a Giacometti sculpture, there is nothing superfluous to detract from the essence of the artwork.

Men who wear Saint Laurent tell me that they like it because it makes them feel sleek. Part of the secret is in the drop—the difference between the shoulder and the waist width—as a higher drop results in a more fitted jacket. Saint Laurent proportions are mostly a drop 10, with selected fabrics proffered in a drop 8. The shoulder of the suiting, often the most difficult part of the suit to realise, is clean and sharp. It has also been cut and shaped by hand.

When you don a Saint Laurent suit, you slip into a battle-ready ensemble that will take you from day to night, event to occasion.

The variety of styles is concise and curated: available in one-, two- and three-button single-breasted designs, along with an additional six-button double-breasted option. The discerning gent has the option of three lapels: the notch lapel, the peak lapel and the black tie elegance of the shawl collar.

Three lengths also define the Saint Laurent jacket silhouette, from 69cm to 73cm, to their version of the boxy cut with a signature rounded front at 77cm. Finally, a hand-stitched metallic chain and silk embroidered label—a tailoring-inspired detail that is also on most of the Saint Laurent RTW—finish off the suit.

In terms of substance, Saint Laurent tailoring carries on the traditions in full glory. Put one on and you know it’s party time.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2016 issue.