Three years later, in 1999, when Tom Ford rode in from Italy on the back of Gucci Group and annexed Saint Laurent ready-to-wear, Slimane decided to call it quits. "I was really sad because I loved very much to be around the original house," he says. "They were really wonderful people. Difficult, but so amazing, so true. But it was my choice to leave. I could have stayed, but I felt the new house would just become a branding opportunity. I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. They (Gucci Group) were trying to tell me, but I couldn't feel for what they had in mind. As a result, I thought 'Let's get out of here.'"
And get out, he did. Although Ford offered him his own line under the auspices of Gucci, and Prada offered him its Jil Sander line, it was LVMH chief Bernard Arnault's offer of Dior Homme that made the cut. "Although Dior has a wonderful history of couture, it has never been applied to menswear. There wasn't a men's vocabulary already in place. That was the deciding factor for me."
Slimane's debut outing at Dior Homme was nothing short of a tectonic shift, a hit of seismic proportions that had even Yves Saint Laurent himself applauding, in a rare public appearance, leaving Ford without his support. Sleeveless shirts, architecturally strict blazers, black leather straps and military overtones made their first of many subsequent appearances. Vaguely gothic but faithfully Edwardian in cut, the collection was an entirely fresh proposition for men.
"I am not at all into traditional technique," proclaims Slimane, who also does not rely on stylists, directors or even a line-up backstage. "Dior Homme is not a construction of the mind, but a gut feelingalmost non-design. For me, it's so much about the way people wear clothes, the way they behave, not so much about the clothes themselves. In France, it's called le porté. It's a very old-school way of dressing based on how the clothes fall on the body. I work on this natural level of understanding clothes. It comes from getting so into my own world and chasing my own moods. I pay attention to movement, the way the clothes translate on the body, even the way they translate to a girl.
"Actually, I've been thinking about a women's line of my own," he divulges. "I have to find the right way to do it, though, and I'm not in a hurry to do anything. I've gone through a lot of studies, business plans and investment plans, and I have lots of offers, but I'm very protective with the idea, especially if I decide it should be under my name. At that point, the issue of privacy comes into play."
The painfully shy Slimane, who he says, as a kid, "was completely quiet, almost autistic, and still am sometimes," carries a lot of stock in privacy. Not that it's stopped the press from taking ill-informed jabs. Though he gets off better than most, the nothing-but-benevolent designer has been dogged by persistent rumors of a fashion feud with John Galliano, his women's counterpart at Christian Dior, a notion at which he scoffs, but remains dignified. "What does not bother me is how people see a collection, because it's subjective. From the set to the music, which is composed, and even to the casting, which takes place over six months, I have to accept the consequences if it sucks. But the press does get to me when it comes to integrity, and that includes my relationships with other people.
"My integrity is most important to me," he continues, wrapping up the subject. "I don't talk about this much, but I was an intern at Martin Margiela when I was a kid, at almost the beginning of the house. And for me he was the original one. For me, he invented integrity."
Ironically, it was the field of journalism, with a political emphasis, that held Slimane's interest before those fateful, pearl-menacing art history courses at L'Ecole du Louvre. It's still his favorite part of the day, he says, "to wake up in my Left Bank apartment at 7:30 am (not that he likes it, but he lives in a place that's very light), go to the local cafe and read the morning papers. I love newspapers and magazines. I like to feel in touch." In case you're wondering, he has no intention of entering politics one day. In fact, the question drew the biggest guffaw of the morning.
For the record, Vanity Fair ranks as his favorite glossy, not least of which because "they're very courageous for what they do (exposing Bush). The French hate the idea that Bush has created such a misunderstanding with the American people, creating an abyss between our two countries. And we hate when we hear that your government has to tell Americans to be careful. It's really horrible."
"But with anything you do," he waxes philosophical, "it's very important to try to understand the time you are living in, to be a part of the present. I always just try to know the spirit of the time." How would he like people to remember his work? "I don't know, it would be very presumptuous of me to think about it. It's only when you look back years and years later that you can see somebody's work clearly."
Suddenly, a spark. "There's one thing I'm really militant about. And that's trying to get more people interested in men's fashion, and studying and teaching men's fashion. I'm really happy to see more menswear lines coming out from other designers. More people creating men's lines will make the whole industry better. Paris will benefit."
If not, there's always New York.