(This article was written with the participation of Almine Rech and Hervé Mikaelhoff, and with the assistance of Laurence Kleinknecht. Interviews with Mme. Rech and M. Mikaeloff were conducted in French, with quotations translated by the author.)

A New Romanticism

On a sunny afternoon earlier this month, I sat down with Madame Almine Rech on the second floor of her gallery on Rue Saintogne in the Marais district of Paris. It’s a whitewashed space, minimal in conception, though equipped with the latest in Apple technology.

When it comes to the art of Hedi Slimane, Mme. Rech is an expert. "For me the spirit of Hedi's art comes from a mix of two things," she said. "A depression that is romantic in nature and a very strong optimism."

The French use the term “mal de siècle” to describe the anxiety felt each time the century changes, for with the turning of the calendar page comes a longing for the past, an apprehension of the future.

Hedi’s art was born at the end of the last century and carries with it that foreboding, even as it bursts suddenly into unbridled idealism. The resulting friction between the two disparate elements gives his work it’s power. Black and white. Beauty and banality. Darkness and light.

Music of course is much the same, and it’s music that has attracted Hedi. The melancholy of one phrase can lead to the brilliance of another, and so much of the restless brooding found in Romantic piano music, say the Barcarolle of Chopin, can be heard in modern guise in the London rock scene that has been inspiration for “Portrait of a Performer”, as well as previous projects.

The Spirit of a Young Generation

For the better part of the new century, I’ve been following Hedi, from Saint Laurent to Dior, from Paris to Berlin, from gallery to gallery - all in an attempt to understand the spirit of a new generation.

“Hedi has a personal connection with today’s kids,” said Mme. Rech. “He understands their aspirations - those born in the 80s and 90s.”

Like the beginning of the 20th century, there was such hopefulness for the present. As fireworks illumined the Eiffel Tower on that cold and misty New Year 2000, a ray of hope came into the darkness, a desire that things would change for the better. Instead, global and political tensions quickly spread a toxic gloom that settled almost like a fog. The ideology of war and the pervasive destruction of the Earth’s resources have further blemished the opening years of this century.

But despite all of that, young people of today are thirsty for change. Many have already experienced dejection brought on from betrayal, love gone bitter, promises broken.

“It’s the hope of a generation,” explained Mme. Rech. “They are ready for a change of attitude - ready to breathe a little.”

Hope, purity, idealism. Those are the keys. Hedi’s work with it’s cleanness, it’s precision, it’s poignancy reaches out in a powerful way. Everything but the essential is gone. Baroque, Rococo and decorative elements have been banished, and what’s left is not so much minimalism as it is freedom. The senses are left open to capture the next flicker of beauty.

Portraits of Time and Space

For the past 20 years, Hervé Mikaeloff has been following Hedi’s photography. In the book “Berlin”, published in 2003, the series of images speaks in an exotic language - at times shadowy, at times exuberant, at times rippling with eroticism.

“He captures the sense of the city,” Mikaeloff said. “The portraits are like paintings - reminiscent of the Renaissance for their sublime clarity, but with a modern edge. ‘Stage’, and Hedi’s photography of rock groups are the same.”

Elsewhere, it’s the form, the lines, the pure logic of architecture, that give the images their force.

For Mikaeloff, who is an art consultant for LVMH and currently working on Bernard Arnault’s personal collection, this power comes from an interaction between image and spectator. “The style is very unique,” he said. “Close to the Russian avant-garde, a reinterpretation of the beginning of the 20th century, but always unique. Hedi is always looking for new forms.”

A Global Vision

When Almine Rech chose to exhibit Hedi’s work in 2003, she received criticism from some in the artistic community concerned that his position as a world renowned fashion designer in some way polluted the pristine waters of art. Fashion after all is commerce, while art is the heartbeat of humanity. But what she saw in Hedi was different, an artist able to translate a universal language into the total genre - art, architecture, photography, furniture and fashion.

“Hedi is a little different from other artists,” Mme. Rech explained. “He dreams of a complete universe, a global vision. He wants to make everything new.”

Hervé Mikaeloff concurred. “He does work in a global sense, but with freedom. Fashion is strict and bound by codes, but art is free - Hedi is able to speak with his own voice when it comes to art.”

Leaving the Gallerie Almine Rech that afternoon, a cool wind had already begun to stir, a sure sign that northern Europe was about to plunge into six months of wintry gloom. In the dark season daylight is feeble, the nights long and at times depressive. But there is a euphoria in the brightness of art - it transcends that melancholy, singing like music for the human soul.

Washington, October 23, 2006

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