YSL TO GIVE UP RIVE GAUCHE
Byline: Sarah Raper
PARIS — The house of Yves Saint Laurent is about to drop a bombshell: Saint Laurent is retiring from ready-to-wear, and Alber Elbaz, of Guy Laroche, has been tapped as his successor.
According to sources here, Elbaz will take over the plum Rive Gauche rtw post at the end of this year and will show his first collection for YSL in March 1999. Saint Laurent, who is celebrating his 40th year as a designer, will continue to do haute couture.
“For the moment, this is a rumor,” said YSL chief Pierre Berge. “That’s not to say that I have not met with Mr. Elbaz, and that’s not to say that I am not looking for someone for ready-to-wear.”
He was adamant that “Mr. Saint Laurent would continue to do couture.
“But it is not impossible that someone else will eventually do the ready-to-wear.”
Reached at the Laroche studio, Elbaz said: “For the moment, I cannot give any comment. I am working on the collection for Guy Laroche for summer 1999, which will be shown on Oct. 15, and I hope you will like it.”
Ask younger designers who their inspiration is and most fire back, “YSL.” Saint Laurent was the first designer to understand the power of ready-to-wear and to seize on it, opening his first Rive Gauche boutique in September 1966. Today there are 50 freestanding Rive Gauche stores worldwide, including three in the U.S., and 100 in-store shops. Sales for the line last year were $28 million wholesale, unchanged from 1996, according to the manufacturer Mendes.
YSL has been owned by the French pharmaceuticals and beauty group Sanofi SA since May 1993 when Sanofi acquired the fashion and beauty business for $650 million. Under the terms of the deal, Sanofi rolled the YSL fragrance and beauty activities into its own beauty division but left control of the fashion business in the hands of Berge and the designer.
YSL fashion sales, including royalties from licenses, totaled $93 million worldwide in 1997, and the wholesale volume for fragrances, including blockbusters Opium and Paris, was $451 million, according to Sanofi.
The company estimates the weight of the YSL fashion brand name at $762 million worldwide, if wholesale volume of all the licenses is totaled, and Rive Gauche is seen as a key motor of the business.
The choice of Elbaz, 36, is not surprising: Berge was in the front row at the Laroche show in March at the Bercy ice skating rink. The YSL chief is hardly reluctant when it comes to criticizing the work of the newer waves of designers. One of his favorites targets is Christian Dior’s John Galliano, whom Berge has blasted for creating “unwearable” clothing and turning fashion into a “circus.” However, Berge has in the past spoken warmly of Elbaz’s work as well as of Marc Jacobs’s.
Elbaz’s three collections for Guy Laroche have been enthusiastically received by the press and snapped up by department and specialty store buyers. Moreover, executives at Laroche and buyers have observed that Elbaz not only delivers creatively on the runway but also takes a keen interest in what happens when the clothes hit the stores.
At the time of his first collection for Laroche, Elbaz remarked, “It’s great to have a beautiful dress on a hanger in a store, but in the end, it needs to sell. A designer should not be embarrassed to admit wanting to sell.”
Making a personal appearance at Bergdorf Goodman in New York to pitch his Laroche collection this winter, Elbaz, microphone in hand, did his own commentary as the models paraded by in a mini-fashion show.
“I’m not afraid to be commercial,” he said. “It’s my dream to be like a doctor. I want the people around me to feel good.”
Elbaz also expressed admiration for Saint Laurent while attending the opening this spring of the retrospective of photographs of YSL clothes in New York.
“Some designers try to laugh at women, some try to laugh with them,” said Elbaz. “Some try to elevate women, some try to put them down. Saint Laurent makes women beautiful. I adore what he does.”
Elbaz, who was born in Morocco and lived most of his life in Israel, spent seven years as a design assistant to Geoffrey Beene before he joined Laroche. In an interview last year with WWD he explained his design philosophy: “For me it was not about ‘OK, let’s do hip clothes, let’s do young and have someone style the show’…because to begin with I am not a hip person.
“I don’t want to be a star. I don’t want to play games…I just want to make beautiful clothes.”
The change will be one more development in an already packed year at YSL. There’s the celebration of the designer’s 40 years of work — first, as successor to Dior beginning in 1958 and then at his own house, which he and Berge founded in 1961.
There has been generous editorial coverage of the anniversary internationally, and YSL Parfums launched a special limited-edition fragrance and makeup collection for the occasion.
The couturier and Berge recently inaugurated a newly renovated French wing at London’s National Gallery. The house made a hefty donation for the restoration.
And the house, along with Berge and the designer, just financed the regilding of the crown of the obelisk in the center of the Place de la Concorde.
The most spectacular event comes in July, when the house puts on a fashion show as the pre-game entertainment for the World Cup soccer finals. The event will feature on the field 300 models wearing couture dresses from throughout Saint Laurent’s career, and it is expected to be seen by 1.7 billion TV viewers worldwide.