This is a strange and wonderful industry, ruled at least as much by emotion as pragmatism. Or many of us want to believe so, somehow keeping ourselves under an umbrella of adult romanticism well past its sell-by date. In this most peculiar of seasons, that umbrella sprung a leak, and the truth poured in: Fashion is a business, and like most others, it can be brutal. Not once but twice, a designer was axed within days of presenting his collection, the industry equivalent of handing the family breadwinner a pink slip on December 23rd.
After last week’s announcement of his impending departure, Stefano Pilati showed his sign-off collection for Yves Saint Laurent Monday night. Unlike the season’s first designer casualty, Raf Simons, Pilati had worked under the rumor of possible dismissal almost from the day he assumed the role of creative director seven years ago. It’s not clear when he learned this would be his swan song; he maintained that fact did not determine the design process. “It’s not a collection for celebration [of the YSL tenure],” Pilati said backstage before his show. “It’s just a phase of my creation.”
Perhaps so, but one rooted in a dark sensuality, albeit not unfamiliar to the designer’s oeuvre. His models were done up to glam perfection, their hair pulled into tight chignons, their lips, high-lacquer blood red. Pilati cloaked them in the trappings of aggressive femininity, reed-thin black silhouettes, cinched waists and liberal use of leather feeding their aura of woman-in-control. Jackets were strong-shouldered, often with demonstrative lapels, trousers and skirts, lean and ultrasleek. Pilati had recently used metal accents in his accessories, a concept he incorporated here into his clothes, determined to create “light [effects] beyond the cliché of sequins and embroideries.” The result, dresses in color-tinged mesh, was steamy fare for cool customers. Deepening the show’s deliberate sensuality: a Mapplethorpe-inspired calla lily motif, used for moody prints and sculptural 3-D jewelry.
Though this spoke to Pilati’s stated poetic current, the collection felt less high-drama punctuation mark than logical, if imperfect, progression. Whatever one thought of his work for Yves Saint Laurent, and it sometimes seemed heavy-handed, the brand benefited from Pilati’s tenure. Largely on the strength of his facility with accessories — years later, the Tribute shoe is still going strong — the house returned to profitability after years in the red.
If Pilati feels at all bitter over his treatment, he gave no indication on Monday night. “I accomplished what I’ve been asked to. I accomplished what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t really see myself in 25 years at Yves Saint Laurent. It was an experiment, but I’m happy either way…
“I’ve been here seven years, and my contract expires, and I’m fine to move on,” he continued. “I had the time to understand that certain things could change. I love fashion, I probably will love it forever, but it is a medium to be maybe somewhere else, or maybe interact with other aspects of our business.”
Pilati stressed that he leaves with his integrity intact, and having left his mark on the studio. “My team responded very well to my influence and my needs, and in a high way. You can really feel it. People keep telling me that they’ve learned a lot, and that makes me really proud,” he said and added with a serious laugh, “I’m proud the house is profitable.”
Accomplishments aside, he acknowledged that fashion, specifically the role of the designer within a major-name brand system, has changed since he took the helm at Saint Laurent.
“I don’t want to be too sentimental or too romantic,” he offered. “For me, I believe the success of the brand comes from the heart — the heart of the designer. Somebody that wants to work with the designer needs to put the same heart into it. It requires a total understanding, not just understanding in terms of liking each other, but really understanding what passion means. There are role models from the past that I admire — Armani, Prada.” (He worked at both houses before Tom Ford hired him at Gucci.) “There [was] the situation where you could believe every single day and every single moment that there was a heart put in there. Now, it’s a bit more — not sterile, but antiseptic. The approach is very objective. It has changed for sure.”
About 30 minutes later, Pilati took his final bow for Yves Saint Laurent to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. François-Henri Pinault and Salma Hayek were first to their feet.