IT’S OFFICIAL: TOM FORD TAKES DESIGN REINS AT SAINT LAURENT RTW

Byline: Sarah Raper

PARIS — It was only a matter of time. Now, after months of fierce and bitter legal wrangling, Tom Ford is taking over as the new ready-to-wear designer at Yves Saint Laurent.
Today, the house will announce the departure of current Rive Gauche designer Alber Elbaz, WWD has learned. Elbaz presented his third collection for Saint Laurent on Monday.
The company will also announce that Ford will personally design women’s ready-to-wear line and will present his first collection in Paris in October. Both a spokesman and Ford declined to comment on Wednesday.
The changing of the guard at YSL comes as no surprise. Ever since Gucci officially acquired the house in November, it seemed clear that Ford would be designing Saint Laurent. Then in January, the new YSL management named him creative director with both Elbaz and the men’s designer Hedi Slimane reporting to him.
As for Gucci, Ford isn’t expected to back off his creative responsibilities there anytime soon. However, at both houses, he continues to shore up the creative teams. Recent appointments at Gucci Group include Milan Vukmirovik, a former buyer for the trendy Paris boutique, Colette; Matthias Vriens, former editor of Dutch magazine, and Stefano Pilati, who was on the design staff of Miu Miu.
But right from the start of the alliance between Gucci and Saint Laurent, fashion watchers could see that there was no room for Elbaz, and reportedly the new management tried vigorously to dissuade him from going ahead with a fall-winter 2000-2001 collection. He insisted on continuing, however, invoking his contract — which had not yet expired — and his legal right to complete the collection, which was already under way. Elbaz, who worked under Geoffrey Beene for 7 1/2 years and was then designer at Guy Laroche for two years, could not be reached for comment and his future plans could not be learned.
At the presentation Monday, diplomatic intrigue competed with the clothes for attention and the mood was strange. Even the seating chart reflected how, after 40 years of solidarity under founders Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent, the house was now split into factions.
There was Berge and the old couture gang on the right. (The couture business was spun off when Gucci acquired control of the house last year and now operates independently.)
There was Ford and new YSL president Mark Lee with the Gucci crowd on the left. Ford explained that he’d come ”to support Alber.” And finally, men’s designer Slimane was far away from them all. No surprise there — Slimane is at the center of another drama currently playing out at the house. Although his collections have won critical raves and praise from Ford and he was widely expected to stay on under the new regime, it now looks like he’s going too.
In the end, it was Elbaz who managed to dispel the tension. He took his final bow for YSL to the sounds of a laughing Elvis belting out “Are you lonesome tonight…Are you sorry we’ve drifted apart ?”
Despite the tremendous pressure of negotiating his departure while designing a farewell collection, Elbaz showed his best work so far for the house. Even Yves Saint Laurent, who did not attend the show but saw photos Tuesday morning, gave it a thumbs up, according to Berge. “Alber Elbaz has made so much progress since the first collection,” Saint Laurent told Berge. “The collection on Monday was completely in the spirit of Saint Laurent.”
Asked about the design switch on Wednesday, Berge said: “I know nothing. I sold this house and therefore I cannot express myself about the situation. What I can say is that Monday’s collection by Alber is the best that he has done for Rive Gauche. He has an immense talent that will flourish in new times and new places. If he is leaving, I am very sad.”
Today’s changes were triggered last year when French billionaire Francois Pinault stepped in to rescue Gucci Group N.V. from a hostile takeover by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. In addition to taking a minority stake in Gucci, Pinault scooped up Saint Laurent, which had been put up for sale by its parent, the French pharmaceuticals concern Sanofi. The legendary house was a sweetener for Ford and Gucci chief executive Domenico De Sole and the first step in Pinault’s campaign to help them build a new luxury goods group around Gucci.
Since then, Gucci has also acquired Sergio Rossi and is on the prowl for other names.
For Ford, a ringleader of fashion’s Saint Laurent fan club, it was the gift of a lifetime. After so many years as a disciple, Ford was now Saint Laurent’s official heir. But there were several obstacles. Pinault had personally acquired the company to get it off the market and a long-due diligence period was required before it could be transferred to Gucci.
When that hurdle was cleared in November, lawyers for Elbaz immediately opposed efforts to terminate his contract. Some in the Elbaz entourage thought he should take the money and go quietly, but he wanted to redeem himself after his first two outings for Rive Gauche earned only mediocre reviews.
On Tuesday, the day after his collection, Elbaz told WWD that he could “sense the goodwill in the air” and was happy he went through with the show.
“I know I made the right decision.”

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