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How Saint Laurent Designer Hedi Slimane Became Fashion's Music Kingpin

Once Slimane put Marilyn Manson front and center in his pre-fall 2013 campaign—dark lipstick and all—all bets were off.

Liza Darwin

Music and fashion's intertwining relationship is nothing new, but it’s one thing to pay a buzzed-about artist to perform at a brand-sponsored Fashion Week event; it’s another thing entirely to champion a musician the way Hedi Slimane does. Just over his one-year tenure at Saint Laurent, the creative director and photographer has showed that he gets music better than any of his designer peers, and even more impressive is the fact that he’s willing to take risks on near-unknowns.

In 2013, Slimane was recruited to revamp the iconic Parisian fashion house Yves Saint Laurent and he didn't go about it quietly. After a rocky start, pissing off everyone when he removed the classic “Yves” from the name, he shocked the industry once more by subbing musicians for models in his ad campaigns and runway shows. And not just superstars like Kim Gordon and Courtney Love, either. (Although he did use them for his Rock Diary, an ongoing photo project featuring musicians and fans.)

Slimane tapped indie artists like Citizens! frontman Tom Burke, California twins The Garden, Ariel Pink, and even a handful of small-time rockers to walk in his debut Saint Laurent runway presentation, who were so anonymous, most journalists weren't even able to identify them in their reviews of the show.

Other brands have followed this musicians-as-models strategy, to a degree. But while designers like Coach, DKNY, or Maison Kitsuné approach music by playing it safe with pretty young It girls, it doesn’t even matter to Slimane if these mannequins are so-called “model material.” Once Slimane put Marilyn Manson front and center in his pre-fall 2013 campaign—dark lipstick and all—all bets were off. On the other end of the music spectrum, he's collaborated with Top 40 favorites like Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, but in his work for Saint Laurent, Slimane is more focused on giving shine to music's underdogs.

Take his current music obsession, LA trio Cherry Glazerr. After soundtracking his first Saint Laurent fashion film back in 2013 with teenage frontwoman Clementine Creevy’s haunting track “Trick or Treat,” the designer commissioned a song from the entire band for his fall 2014 runway show. The result is “Had Ten Dollaz,” a captivating blend of laid-back California garage rock—which the band went on to release a new studio version of as their latest single. (Listen to it above.)

Another one of his favorite artists, Christopher Owens, has spoken about how Slimane's relationship with musicians is mutually beneficial. "I think it’s a very genuine issue right now for artists to find other ways to make money," he told Style.com. Sky Ferreira, who starred in Saint Laurent's pre-fall 2013 lookbook before her album Night Time, My Time was released has similarly gone on record to defend the importance of Slimane's relationship with musicians. "Fashion is just a part of what I do. Musicians want to work with designers. Luckily, I got to do that first," she said in an interview with Bullett. It all happened at the same time, but the modeling just took off faster. A lot of the people I know who are in bands have to work in restaurants and bars when they’re not touring. I model instead."

Clearly Slimane is onto something, and he knows it. He’ll remind us yet again of his good taste in “Sonic,” a brand new art exhibition of his black and white rockstar portraits, which coincides nicely with the start Paris Fashion Week, which kicks off this week. And when Slimane finally does show his Saint Laurent collection next Monday, pay close attention to the music as well as the models on the runway—because judging from his track record, it’s going to be good.

Liza Darwin is a writer living in New York. She's on Twitter - @lizadarwin.