This is a strange and wonderful industry, ruled at least as much byemotion as pragmatism. Or many of us want to believe so, somehow keepingourselves under an umbrella of adult romanticism well past its sell-bydate. In this most peculiar of seasons, that umbrella sprung a leak, andthe truth poured in: Fashion is a business, and like most others, itcan be brutal. Not once but twice, a designer was axed within days ofpresenting his collection, the industry equivalent of handing the familybreadwinner a pink slip on December 23rd.

After last week’sannouncement of his impending departure, Stefano Pilati showed hissign-off collection for Yves Saint Laurent Monday night. Unlike theseason’s first designer casualty, Raf Simons, Pilati had worked underthe rumor of possible dismissal almost from the day he assumed the roleof creative director seven years ago. It’s not clear when he learnedthis would be his swan song; he maintained that fact did not determinethe design process. “It’s not a collection for celebration [of the YSLtenure],” Pilati said backstage before his show. “It’s just a phase ofmy creation.”

Perhaps so, but one rooted in a dark sensuality,albeit not unfamiliar to the designer’s oeuvre. His models were done upto glam perfection, their hair pulled into tight chignons, their lips,high-lacquer blood red. Pilati cloaked them in the trappings ofaggressive femininity, reed-thin black silhouettes, cinched waists andliberal use of leather feeding their aura of woman-in-control. Jacketswere strong-shouldered, often with demonstrative lapels, trousers andskirts, lean and ultrasleek. Pilati had recently used metal accents inhis accessories, a concept he incorporated here into his clothes,determined to create “light [effects] beyond the cliché of sequins andembroideries.” The result, dresses in color-tinged mesh, was steamy farefor cool customers. Deepening the show’s deliberate sensuality: aMapplethorpe-inspired calla lily motif, used for moody prints andsculptural 3-D jewelry.

Though this spoke to Pilati’s statedpoetic current, the collection felt less high-drama punctuation markthan logical, if imperfect, progression. Whatever one thought of hiswork for Yves Saint Laurent, and it sometimes seemed heavy-handed, thebrand benefited from Pilati’s tenure. Largely on the strength of hisfacility with accessories — years later, the Tribute shoe is still goingstrong — the house returned to profitability after years in the red.

IfPilati feels at all bitter over his treatment, he gave no indication onMonday night. “I accomplished what I’ve been asked to. I accomplishedwhat I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t really see myself in 25 years at YvesSaint Laurent. It was an experiment, but I’m happy either way…

“I’vebeen here seven years, and my contract expires, and I’m fine to moveon,” he continued. “I had the time to understand that certain thingscould change. I love fashion, I probably will love it forever, but it isa medium to be maybe somewhere else, or maybe interact with otheraspects of our business.”

Pilati stressed that he leaves with hisintegrity intact, and having left his mark on the studio. “My teamresponded very well to my influence and my needs, and in a high way. Youcan 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, heacknowledged that fashion, specifically the role of the designer within amajor-name brand system, has changed since he took the helm at SaintLaurent.

“I don’t want to be too sentimental or too romantic,”he offered. “For me, I believe the success of the brand comes from theheart — the heart of the designer. Somebody that wants to work with thedesigner needs to put the same heart into it. It requires a totalunderstanding, not just understanding in terms of liking each other, butreally understanding what passion means. There are role models from thepast that I admire — Armani, Prada.” (He worked at both houses beforeTom Ford hired him at Gucci.) “There [was] the situation where you couldbelieve every single day and every single moment that there was a heartput in there. Now, it’s a bit more — not sterile, but antiseptic. Theapproach is very objective. It has changed for sure.”

About 30minutes later, Pilati took his final bow for Yves Saint Laurent tothunderous applause and a standing ovation. François-Henri Pinault andSalma Hayek were first to their feet.

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