meet hedi slimane's reluctant 81-year-old artist muse

We caught up with Billy Al Bengston, the painter and former professional motorcycle racer who outfitted Saint Laurent’s most recent teen tribe.

by Emily Manning
23 July 2015, 4:20pm

Lately, the fashion industry has been staring off towards the West Coast. Native son Rick Owens is soon to open his first Southern California store "on a seedy stretch of La Brea Avenue," Nicolas Ghesquiere transplanted his Louis Vuitton cruise collection from Paris to Palm Springs, and Jeremy Scott is helming Moschino from the Hollywood Hills. But perhaps no designer is more at home in the City of Angels than Hedi Slimane.

Since taking the reigns at Saint Laurent in 2012, the French designer has injected the brand's couture sensibilities with the codes of California cool. Upon relocating the house's Paris headquarters to the SoCal epicenter, he's mined the city's subcultural scenes for exciting, youthful talents -- making campaign stars of DIY punk outfits Cherry Glazerr and The Garden. Hedi has also paid homage to the region's rich art history. Fall/winter 14 womenswear saw a nod to John Baldessari in a series of glittery dresses rocked by Grace Hartzel and Edie Campbell. This season, painter, sculptor and total badass Billy Al Bengston was spring/summer 16's star, with his work inspiring jackets, buttons, patches, and more.

PUERTO DEL CIELO, 1991. Acrylic on silkscreen, 13 1/2 x 30in.

Although Billy was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, he's California to the core. He began his migration to the Golden State in the summer of 44, settling permanently four years later. Between attending various LA art schools, Otis and LACC among them, he surfed at a time when there weren't any wetsuits, raced motorcycles professionally, and worked odd jobs.

It's easy to see why Hedi is compelled by the octogenarian's oeuvre; Billy's paintings are deeply connected to this involvement in both surf and motorcycle culture. Many of his pieces incorporate industrial materials like top grade aluminum sourced directly from Douglas Aircraft. His techniques stem from motorcycle tank and surfboard production methods. But in Billy's hands, spraypaint splatters result in magnificent celestial planes.

HONOLULU WATERCOLOR, 1991. Watercolor on paper, 31 x 30in.

"When I was young, I did have ambition," Billy told me over the phone from Honolulu at 4 am local time, looking out over an ocean he described "as dark as the inside of a cow's stomach." His first shows were mounted at the storied Ferus Gallery, where Warhol staged his first real exhibition four years following Billy's debut. He bagged grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 67 and the Guggenheim Foundation in 75.

Back in 62, a 28-year-old Billy was packing up after a successful solo show at New York's Martha Jackson Gallery when the renowned art dealer encouraged him to stay in the city -- she'd buy him a studio and make his work famous. "I said, 'What good is fame? I don't want to be famous, I want to be respected. In California, I have a sponsor to race motorcycles professionally, I can go surfing, and my friends in the art world admire what I do.'" He wasn't wrong. Six years later, one of his solo shows traveled from the LACMA to The Corcoran in DC. Ed Ruscha even did the catalogue design.

UNTITLED, 1978. Acrylic on board, 2 x 4in.

Although Billy's direct involvement with the Saint Laurent team was limited -- "I'm really lazy," -- "there was quite a bit of curatorial work done. Hedi Slimane is a real hands-on character from what I can tell." His gallerist, Samuel Freeman, and wife, Wendy, helped Hedi translate Billy's paintings as vibrant prints on bold bombers, floral dresses, and patchy leather jackets. But Billy himself is no stranger to the brand: "I must admit, I bought a Saint Laurent suit back when I was young and cared and had a 28-inch waist! I thought Saint Laurent was great, and that fashion 25 or 30 years ago was pretty damn good."

As we discussed Donald Trump's combover and Hawaii's lack of solid Mexican food options, it's clear that being feted by one of the fashion industry's brightest stars isn't phasing Billy a bit. "It's interesting because I've avoided any celebrity as much as I possibly can, and now all of a sudden, I'm a demi-celebrity," he laughed. "But I haven't had on a pair of long pants, or shoes even, in two months!"

APRIL WATERCOLOR 12:12:03, 1997. Watercolor on paper, 12 1/2 x 30in.


Text Emily Manning
All artwork © Billy Al Bengston, Images courtesy of the artist an Samuel Freeman Gallery, Venice, CA & Honolulu
Lead artwork LOLI DRACULAS, 1982. Silkscreen, 30 x 25in.
Runway photography Mitchell Sams

Los Angeles
Hedi Slimane
Saint Laurent
spring/summer 16
ss 16
billy al bengston