What are your lasting memories of your YSL days?
It was the age of innocence. So much was impossible in menswear at the time, at a Paris couture house in particular. It was therefore totally exciting to be clueless about it, and push the boundaries without looking back a second. I was totally free, although technically the first collections for Rive Gauche were more like a studio thing. The taste was Yves and Pierre’s. I started to really pursue my own design the last two seasons. I developed an obsession about male debutants and defining a balance of a couture tradition transposed within the sartorial tradition, but within a hedonistic youth context. It was impossible at the time for someone young and lean to find a jacket that would fit, and that would not be too much of an uber-design or conceptual statement. The ’90s were still into this obsolete ’80s idea of les createurs, as opposed to les couturiers. The only options were either sportswear or designer clothes à la Japonaise. I was trying this idea of colliding two worlds, like society-couture-glamour-luxury making out with youth culture. Those two worlds had obviously nothing in common, to say the least, and that was the whole point. I wanted to escape any sort of caricature or cliche, like the silver spoon or rebellious youth. I thought the truth, the relevance, the modernity—a suspicious concept—was somewhere in between. Of course this idea—to sum up, my daily tux jacket with a pair of skinny jeans, among many of my style ideas—was later heavily appropriated by the industry. But in the late 90s it was totally a new thing, since no men’s fashion was coming out of couture, which was still stuck in duty free and licensing. And the design coming out of the shows at the time were a bit light in craftsmanship, a little cheaply made. I guess this was my definition of what men’s fashion could be in a couture house. I was and have always been a couturier, not a designer. I was into the long tradition and fashion heritage that I turned inside out and gave to a younger audience as an hedonistic playground, dressing indie kids like young princes.
You moved to Dior Homme after leaving YSL. Did you feel particularly close to Christian Dior’s aesthetic?
Not at all. I was not at all into the Dior aesthetic, which felt a little bourgeois and conventional for my taste, to say the least. I went to Dior for a reason, which might seem irrational. Christian Dior was the closest thing to Yves Saint Laurent. It was the house where he started, together with some of his closest studio team, in particular the honorable Anne Marie Munoz, who used to talk to me about the Yves look for hours, for example the Yves shoulder, whispering in the studio with Yves next door. And it was just a walk down the street from Avenue Marceau to Avenue Montaigne, from one couture house to another. To many, it seemed like the most random choice. It did not make sense at all for any of my friends, who were horrified, but I intimately felt this was the right thing to do, the most natural thing to do. So, there I was at Dior. No one there had any idea of what menswear could be. I started right way to tell them that Christian Dior Monsieur, the name of the brand in 2000, had to go. I proposed a new idea, a new masculine idea, which I called Dior Homme. I started to design the couture salons of Dior Homme, since clearly I was pushing this idea of couture for men, as opposed to made-to-measure tailoring, that I had invented at YSL. I designed silk black robes and decided on my house models. They were those lean figures, despite harsh criticism and sarcasm, that would become a standard in the industry. I always thought it was like a crusade to do menswear when nobody cared about it at the time. It was irrelevant as fashion, and my whole point was to change this perception and push it as much as I could, no matter the consequences for me. So the birth of Dior Homme was a nightmare, because of the pressure. I felt reassured when Pierre Bergé told me Yves wanted to come to support me for my first show. It was symbolic, the first and last time he reappeared at Dior.
At what point did you realize you’d started a menswear revolution at Dior Homme?
It was always a struggle when I was there. The press was often oblique or controversial, and I always felt quite remote in some way. I actually could not have cared less, but I had to protect my team from all this. I always assumed we were not seeing the same thing, most of the traditional press and I, that we were living in different worlds. It was a total pain for me. I also remember the summer ’04 collection, with its nonchalant skinny jeans with suspended jackets. Beck had done the music for the show, and the boys were not even groomed. Most of the critics were about how it would be impossible for anyone to wear those jeans. But that show ended up changing the way guys dressed for the next ten years, and influenced the entire fast-fashion business. I mean, everything during the Dior years was like this—too skinny, too ambiguous, too hedonistic, too feminine. It was like a generation gap. This was certainly true musically, a strong focus for me, which is always a mirror of the time, where youth is concerned, and the evolution of its wardrobe. This translates into fashion for a decade. Therefore, it was only when I left Dior that I could forget about the noise and see my principles, or style, translated to the street. The Internet of course had given it a global scope. Funnily enough, the industry, acting as if I would never return to design, took over my principles, from Burberry’s promotion of Brit bands to Topman and Oxford Street, and even Balmain discovering stage-wear, glam-rock jackets or tux jackets worn with skinny jeans. It was of course a good outcome. I did not really have to design for a few years, since my design was still around, and still the subject of interpretation and appropriation.
How do you go about scouting for models, or as you call it, boy safaris? Did they take you seriously at first? Do you still go on boy safaris?
The boy safari thing was an expression my team used at the time of Dior Homme. We might have used it twice, maximum. God knows how it ended up randomly in the New Yorker, and lately in the Guardian. One of those things, I guess. There was also a rumor about baby food. Regardless, I really started street-casting seriously when I was about 18. But even before then I remember sitting down in the subway in Paris, going to high school as a teenager, and always finding the perfect subject right in front of me, or next to me. I always had an idea of what they were about, how they would be on camera, or what they should really look like if I could photograph or dress them. I guess I was seeing a sort of grace or beauty they were not aware of. This weird behavior was always there in me. Also, at the time of YSL, and particularly Dior, I could organically find one of my future models in a crowd. I still cast constantly for photographs, boys and girls. This is always more interesting to me, as I find it totally preserved. For instance, I’m just finishing a special L.A. issue of Man About Town, and most of the characters were street-cast. I’m really attached to all the characters I found over decades. I designed entirely for them, with them in mind. There would be no photographs or fashion without them. They are the only thing that matters. The rest, I guess, is irrelevant.
Looking back, which collections did you like the most? And the least?
I am not fond of my first collection at Dior. The premier d’atelier was a nightmare and did not get it right. I changed the second season, but it really started to feel right technically, in the proportions, in the fourth season. YSL was even more difficult. The first seasons did not have much to do with me, but were a slow progression to avoid any unnecessary discussion within the house. I only started to really design the last year—maybe three seasons, but not more. The last YSL collection was obviously the most significant season since I knew I was leaving. It became something like a lexicon. The principles of the skinny jeans actually started in ’99, in the Black Tie YSL collection. On the other hand, at Dior I was mostly attached to the London years, and the glam-rock collection of January ’04. An entire generation of musicians was in the show, either playing, or on the runway. They were still totally unknown, but they were about to take over. It would become the London scene, which I defined in a special issue of the newspaper Liberation in May ’04. That show was therefore a moment in time, in music and fashion, not only men’s fashion as this collection was one of the most influential Dior Homme collections in womenswear as well. There was something like freedom in it, an ease. I don’t think I could ever do a show like that now, unless a movement in music shows up this decade.
How did people react when you left Dior Homme to pursue a career in the arts? Did you receive desperate fan letters?
I never left to pursue a career in the arts, or any other career in fact, which did not have any appeal for me at all, but to stay free and passionate about what I was doing. I left to focus on my own work, and to go back to photography for a few years. The reaction was of course terrible. No one could understand why I would leave Dior at that moment and let anyone else use my style like a free commodity. But this was the right thing to do for me, the most healthy thing to do. I felt so relieved and happy about it, and it just shows how detached I was during these years. I started to go very often to the U.S., and California in particular. I always felt something about America and decided in 2010 to settle in Los Angeles.
You told me many years ago that you didn’t really archive clothes. Do you still own many Dior items? How do you dress today?
No, I don’t. It is quite sad in a way, but I guess I did that on purpose, not to get attached. I had just a few clothes, but a lot have disappeared over the years, lost or stolen. I still own some suits, and I keep wearing them. They actually look better now. I always like when clothes age. I also wear vintage clothes, which I sometimes have to correct. L.A. is pretty good for vintage.
Most of the models you photographed during that decade were skinny and streetwise. Are you now interested in different types of models?
I’m interested in anyone, really. Even if I’m consistent with a certain physique, I do sometimes, above all in U.S., photograph girls or guys a little more physical, or classic in proportions. This is never about beauty per se, or some sort of aesthetic, but about a character that moves me and that silently belongs to the same world. I photograph a lot of older men as well, mostly creative minds, artists or writers, and it is precisely the same thing for me. This diary format gives the idea of a ritual, a repetitive process where one subject follows another subject, and where they all belong equally.