The past year has been rife with proclamations about what 2022 would bring, most of which haven’t amounted to much. First came the predictions of “indie sleaze,” then the forecast for “Bush era redux,” and the continued relevance of Y2K fashion…. The truth is that so much is happening at once that it’s impossible to say whether anything is really “happening” more than anything else, especially given that TikTok trends often work as self-fulfilling prophecies. If you say “2000s frazzled Englishwoman aesthetic” is going to happen, you better believe that, because of the mimetic nature of the platform’s algorithm, at least three other people are going to jump on the movement. (And, yes, “2000s frazzled Englishwoman aesthetic” is a real TikTok trend.)
But if anyone can sort through the tea leaves of nostalgia, it’s Hedi Slimane. The designer, who’s led Celine since 2018, is a master at isolating the smallest and most specific moments and expanding them into something that feels big and undeniable, from Malibu smoothie-run looks to the early ’80s “lunch-with-grand-mère” bourgeois style he surveyed during his first few seasons at Celine. I’m still sort of reeling with glee over the TikTok collection he made in 2020, before anyone in fashion’s mainstream was even aware that this postmodernism-on-Adderall combination of eras and silhouettes was a particular style.
More recently, he’s become involved in the documentary adaptation of Lizzie Goodman’s 2017 oral history of early 2000s indie rock in New York, Meet Me In the Bathroom (after The Strokes song, of course). Given Slimane’s involvement with indie rock at that time, when he was heading up menswear at Dior, it feels natural. Both indie rock and Slimane’s Dior Homme were exercises in nostalgia, groups of guys gazing wide-eyed at 30-year-old album covers for cues on how to wear jeans and play the guitar, and, to put it more deeply, longing for the provocative spirit of 1970s New York punk, when something dangerous and underground felt inevitable. And when Slimane announced he would reveal his Winter 2023 collection at the Wiltern, in Los Angeles (where he had his studio during his years reinventing Saint Laurent from 2012 to 2016), and that The Strokes, and Iggy Pop, and Interpol would perform, it actually felt heartwarming. Even if the hunger for Cobrasnake photographs and low-rise denim feels just as manufactured to me as anything else, Slimane’s intentions made me wonder if there might be something real to all this. It might not be “happening”—and I don’t see smudgy eyeliner and 2005 Mary-Kate Olsen outfit recreations any more than I see anything else—but, well, why do we want it to?
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Slimane’s collections, as I mentioned, have gotten so documentarian that they tend to bring a feeling of joy where his earlier shows brought a cool menace. I grinned seeing that first model stalk out in her fedora and her sunglasses with her big bag in the crook of her arm; even the way her fist was clenched was pure Rodeo Drive paparazzi shot cosplay. Or the kittenish brunette with a big black faux fur coat and denim cutoffs and knee-high motorcycle boots; even Kate Moss’s fashion faux pas, it seems, are worth enshrining.
Of course, beneath all this feeling are perfect blazers, and gorgeous suits, and terrific jeans, and really sick boots, all classics made with meticulous quality, which is why Slimane’s Celine has been a smash. The show’s finale was a series of about a dozen strappy, hand-beaded and -sequined gowns that transcended the nostalgia trip into a sublime message of pure glamour, of the side-eye romanticism of a lot of glitter under a lot of lights. There are few statements in fashion anymore that have just one interpretation, but the fact that skin-skimming gold sequins is primordially sexy is one of them.
Anyone looking to the Meet Me In the Bathroom documentary for fashion inspiration will be sorely disappointed. What’s amazing about seeing The Moldy Peaches and James Murphy and even The Strokes, whose music was pure style, is how unstyled they seem. The eyeliner is a little smudged; Karen O is in costumes that look homemade, and several were made by her longtime self-taught costumer Christian Joy. Their clothes feel like their own—something they pull on day after day, even week after week, in the same few combinations. Looking cool and struggling to get a record deal—and once the deal came, yanking oneself onstage night after night and killing it—went hand in hand. Everything and everyone look like they smell bad; the Lower East Side still looks gritty.
Of course, The Strokes were no punks (even when they threw themselves around and knocked stuff over in the video for “Last Nite,” they just seemed like a couple of rich kids with bad attitudes who met at boarding school—which indeed, they did), but they had a toothiness to them that feels remote now. You wouldn’t have caught those five dressed in custom Gucci for the Grammys.
I think what Slimane is after is a nostalgia for when things felt real. In a conversation between Goodman and Slimane, the designer talks about how “September 2001 changed everything–the dynamic, our belief that all was possible. From that moment of mourning and despair, I lost faith in a certain digital utopia which was at the heart of the creative energy and sound in Europe at the time. I went back to analog in both photography and design, and to DIY, and developed a style around it.”
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Music did the same. As both Goodman’s book and the documentary lay out, the emergence of The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On the Radio came at a convenient time for the music industry, which was stuck in the saccharine grip of manufactured pop mania from Britney Spears and N*Sync, and a band like The Strokes proved that rock ‘n roll was still alive and well. (Rock bands became just as manufactured as pop groups quickly, and a new garage band with a “The” title seemed to arrive on MTV each morning, and Urban Outfitters, which was founded by a longtime Republican donor, was making a bundle selling pre-distressed Ramones T-shirts at the height of George W. Bush’s second term.)
The clothes followed suit, morphing from distant and sophisticated minimalism of the late ’90s — which frankly felt best for a customer over the age of 40 — to youthful and sexy and trendy and impossible to wear unless you were super young and willing to snarl at anyone who objected to seeing your hip bones or the top of your ass. In a moment of emotional vacancy following 9/11, it was a way to make the balm of consumerism feel decadently rebellious. But we were also yearning then, just as we are now, for anything that felt real, trusted, reliable, even in its raggedness.
It was also a time when, even if attitude was everything, attitude seemed to have a depth. Even Mary-Kate Olsen striding forward in that big handbag like trashed armor seemed like a whole lifestyle philosophy; don’t look at me, but please look at me. It was also the last time a creative person could be sort of parochial, even ones that eventually sold out or became famous: One of my favorite details from Goodman’s book is that David Sitek, one of the founders of TV on the Radio, sold his art on the street in Soho before the band became famous. Can you believe that? Now, anyone who thinks they have a talent for painting is going to hustle, set up some kind of persona on Instagram. There’s an impulse to ascend to the biggest arena as quickly as possible. I suppose that was a social media-fueled transformation; how do you know something is worth doing if it doesn’t make you at least momentarily sort of notorious?
That period was maybe the last time you could make art for art’s sake. Is that crazy to say? Maybe. But it seems like what Slimane is hungering for with his fedoras and skinny jeans, and his scholar’s approach to giving us the music along with the clothes. That’s the other thing that has been driving me nuts about “indie sleaze” dialogue, and about which Slimane set my mind at ease: at the center of all this rough-around-the-edges clothing and photography is music. And if you go back and listen to The White Stripes, and Interpol, and The Strokes—the music is freaking awesome! The music is the feeling and creates the attitude, which is maybe why all these other trends in fashion and culture feel so empty. What’s at the heart of them besides copying something until something else comes along? Yes, The Strokes and The White Stripes were all imitators, doing their best impersonations of Television and the Velvet Underground, but these references were dug up at a moment when they felt vital or newly relevant. Is there a motive for referencing in culture now other than the sheer novelty of the reference?
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That sort of mimesis is a fascinating phenomenon (and something that Slimane himself knows, as a TikTok fashion anthologist), and we have to face that fact that it’s mostly how fashion and culture work nowadays. But there’s nothing wrong with feeling a little pang of longing for what came before once in a while.
Slimane’s Celine is probably the most personal thing he’s ever done, which is striking for a person as private as he is. (My phone lit up this weekend with text from fashion friends when Wiz Khalifa posted a picture of the rapper with Slimane; most of us haven’t seen a photograph of him in years.) His tenderness beams down onto the clothes themselves, and the layers of chain necklaces, the skinny little scarves worn like ties, even the deliberate unfussiness of the women in those fantastic gowns, have a lived-in feeling that much fashion today lacks, often by design. It feels human, fleshy, filled with earned attitude. It’s not conceptual fashion or even that deep. But they’re clothes about a time when carrying your handbag a certain way, or wearing sunglasses inside, or choosing not to wash your hair or your jeans, said everything about what mattered to you in the world.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.