Women's Fashion

Pilati’s class

Yves Saint Laurent was deep in the red when Stefano Pilati was asked to step into Tom Ford’s shoes. Five years on, he’ s brought it back into the black. Vanessa Friedman reports.

September 19 2009
Vanessa Friedman

If you are a woman in Paris this month, strolling down Avenue Montaigne, or perhaps passing by the Louvre or the Musée Rodin, or if you are a woman in London on Bond Street, or a woman in New York skipping through SoHo, or, for that matter, a woman in Tokyo or Milan or any of the other fashion capitals around the world, chances are very high that at some point you will run into another young woman handing out folios of newsprint, kind of like Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle. And though you may be inclined to toss said folio in the recycling bin without looking at it, assuming it to be yet another free city newspaper, if you, in fact, take a moment to examine it, you will see inside page after page of clothing surrounding a text. And there, in the small print on the bottom of the last page, the words “Yves Saint Laurent Manifesto, September, 2010”. And then you might think, “Huh?”

And then, like First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and actress Julianne Moore before you, you might take a second look at the grey pleated trousers pictured within, the subversively sexy black leather jacket and white blouse, the perfect egg-shaped, powerful-but-promising grey shift. Then you might have a second think: about how such clothes might work in your wardrobe and how they have somehow worked their silhouettes into your head.

Which is, of course, exactly what Yves Saint Laurent’s designer and creative director, Stefano Pilati, wants. “I am constantly looking for the thing that is missing: having a dialogue with women,” says the 43-year-old, Italian-born Pilati, sitting in his office in the YSL headquarters on Avenue George V, a long embroidered black kimono/cardigan on his back, a cigarette in his hand and seven music stands holding seven notebooks of charcoal drawings of fluttering hands by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed beside him. “The manifesto is a way to go to women directly, without the mediation of a magazine editor who may decide it’s all about a bustier this season, even if I have designed 50 other pieces that to me are just as important. It’s my way of going outside the usual fashion channels.”

In this, the manifesto (currently in its fourth incarnation) is representative of the way Pilati has been reshaping both the house that Yves built and his role therein since becoming creative director of Saint Laurent in 2004. In many ways, however, he didn’t have a choice; when the relatively unknown Pilati inherited the top spot after the resignation of his boss, Tom Ford, Saint Laurent was deep in the red, and clearly a different approach was mandated. But in finding a new solution to a new problem, Pilati has not only found the answers to his own challenges, helping YSL reach break-even for the first time in a decade, but may, in fact, be creating an alternative model for how to be a creative director in a post-recession world. Much like his predecessors did for their own eras before him.

“When I first met Stefano I found him very elegant and very intense,” says Valérie Hermann, YSL’s chief executive. “But it was clear he also has an incredibly broad vision, not just of the house, but of the world; he wasn’t just sitting around colouring his sketches. Which made me think he was the right person for this job.”

François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), Gucci Group’s parent company, agrees: “He has captured the French essence of Yves Saint Laurent while still managing to establish his own aesthetic proposal, cultivating an identity for the house that is at once true to its heritage and decidedly contemporary.”

No house has been quite as controversial an icon as YSL; after all, no house has been as closely watched, criticised and claimed. From the beginning, its eponymous founder rewrote the rules of fashion, not just creatively via his extraordinary sartorial imagination that gave the world such closet building blocks as the tuxedo for women (le smoking), the safari suit, luxe kaftans, and Mondrian shifts, but corporately, popularising the concept of ready-to-wear and the idea that high fashion should not be the sole province of the tiny group that can afford couture.

Saint Laurent was the first designer as superstar, putting himself in his perfume ads and being photographed out with his coterie of beautiful people, such as Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux. The brand and its founder became national treasures, synonymous with French fashion, its power and breadth, and they stayed that way, even as other designers gradually stole the sartorial spotlight and Saint Laurent himself became ill. So when the designer sold the house to beauty group Elf Sanofi (who in turn sold the business on to PPR for $1bn), then retired, it seemed only fitting that superstar designer Tom Ford took his place: the man who formed fashion in the 1960s and 1970s passing on the reins to the man who formed it in the 1980s and 90s.

It was Ford, after all, who had invented the whole idea of “creative director”, who envisioned global brands where control was centralised in the hands of one designer/manager, whose vision informed the ethos of products, if not their actual invention. It was Ford who gave us, in part, the luxury industry as we know it. And he was as much of a personality and a celebrity as Saint Laurent before him. Yet Ford could not, at the fin de siècle, make Saint Laurent work: in buying back licences and opening stores, he created a sink hole in the balance sheet that suggested, perhaps, that his way was not the only way. By 2004 Saint Laurent was losing millions each year, yet failure was really not an option: the name was too national and too public, and everyone was too interested. (When Yves died in 2008, even though he had not worked in a number of years, his funeral was a global event.) The very qualities that made the house the prize brand of the fashion world also made it a serious problem.

And then, in 2004, a dispute over control with PPR led both Ford and the Gucci Group’s chairman Domenico de Sole to resign, and Pilati, who had been Ford’s design director, working always in the shadows, was asked to take over. The fashion world had been expecting Alexander McQueen or former Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane, but neither wanted to deal with the expectations, or the mess. Being an insider, of course, Pilati knew exactly what they were reacting to – and what he was getting into. He said yes anyway.

“I knew we were minus a lot,” he says now. “But there I was, and I didn’t want to leave Paris. I needed to work and no other job really interested me. But it’s much harder to start from a big negative number than zero. If you start from zero and you sell two, everyone says ‘Hooray!’ But if you start from minus 75 and you sell two, you are still minus 73. And meanwhile everyone is comparing you to your peers, who are in a totally different situation: ‘Chanel is doing this! Vuitton is doing this! Why aren’t you?’ And you want to compare yourself to that too. It’s very depressing. At the same time, the only way to combat it is to act.”

Still, although he had the look of an aesthetic figurehead – his closely cropped curly blond hair and beard as sculpted as a Roman coin – nothing Pilati had experienced had necessarily prepared him for what was to come.

Raised in Milan with his two sisters, Pilati left school at 17 to intern for the menswear designer Nino Cerruti. From there he went to a fabric company, where he worked on projects for designers such as Dries Van Noten and Valentino, until Giorgio Armani hired him as a menswear assistant in 1993. (“I was always told that menswear was the best training for someone who wanted to be a womenswear designer,” says Pilati. “It’s all about structure. And it’s true that no matter if you are making a jacket, a dress, or a shirt, it ultimately needs to relate to the shoulder.”)

Two years later, Miuccia Prada lured him away to work for her on fabric innovation and later Pilati became a womenswear designer at Miu Miu where, he says, “it was all about Miuccia; what would she wear? We would sketch but we would also question: are skirts still relevant? Why not trousers this season?” Then in 2000, Ford found him and convinced him to come to Paris for Saint Laurent. Somewhere in there he also managed two stints in rehab – for heroin addiction.

“Tom had one very precise idea of the YSL woman, very visual and very specific,” says Pilati, who dutifully set to work realising the Ford idea; so dutifully, in fact, that when it was his turn to step into the spotlight, the difference between what he did for Ford and what he did on his own was, in some ways, shocking. Unlike many male designers, Pilati has not adopted a female “muse” whom he keeps nearby to tell him what women want. Rather, he thinks about women as a sort of abstract concept, along with certain qualities that he feels describe the conversation they might have with his brand: elegance, a push-pull of genders and functionality.

“I wanted to address my clothes to women, not girls,” he says. “To listen to them, not just look at them. I wanted to focus on what I wanted to say, even if it went against trends.” And indeed it did. From the very first show for spring/summer 2005, a parade of tulip skirts, wide belts and polka dots had many critics (myself included) cringing in their seats and crying, “Foul! Decoration!” But within a few months, the pieces turned up on the backs of many fashion people, including Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, and US Vogue’s Anna Wintour – an occurrence that doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Fashion people tend to be examples of those who teach rather than do (or dress models rather than themselves).

But one of the odder things about Pilati’s collections is that, though they don’t always succeed on the runway (the spring/summer 2007 show, which involved girls teetering and slipping down a runway of violets, being a case in point), they often look very good in real life. Hermann, for example, a skinny mid-40-something mother of three, always wears the clothes, and always looks so good and so comfortable in them that any critic is forced to reconsider his or her view after seeing her. Not only that, but YSL collections have a way of seeping out into the fashion world at large and shaping other designers’ collections: the tulip skirt, the tunic and skinny trouser, the wide belt and the banana trouser, all of which Pilati introduced first, are all now H&M and Topshop staples.

“I was trying to establish a vocabulary for the house,” says the designer, “so that everything contains certain values. I’m much more seduced by women who are elegant, for example, than women who are sexy; there’s an intimidation to elegance that intrigues me.”

However, his influence did not translate into sales until he and Hermann developed a new approach to the business. “When I was asked to take over, everyone said how lucky I was, how wonderful the brand was, but I said, ‘What was the last thing you bought from YSL?’ And there were always these long silences,” says Hermann, who arrived at YSL from Dior the year after Pilati was promoted. “We needed a bag, and a shoe.”

And they needed this because they had to effect the house’s turnaround not via expansion – the Pilati/Hermann team has opened no new stores, simply revamped, slowly and over time, the existing network of 64 – but via product. Which, says Pilati, “can be very hard for a creative person. We do a different kind of maths. Business people say one plus one is two. But to me, I can add one plus one, and get three. And they say, ‘We want two!’ And I say, ‘But I gave you three!’”

Nevertheless, he also gave Hermann bags – often in supple leather with minimal adornment, from the crescent-shaped Muse (from £960) to the bucket-shaped Downtown (from £1,065), which anticipated the logo backlash and have become perennial hits – as well as shoes, most notably the towering, yet comfortable, Tribute platform sandal (from £415). Leather goods now account for 36 per cent of turnover.

“We are very different people,” says Hermann of herself and Pilati, “not least because I am a woman and he is a man. But we share a real respect for each other and a real interest in each other’s point of view. Stefano will always want to know about how certain products sell, and he listens to the answer.”

Indeed, a result of the dialogue between creative and corporate has been a series of niche collections that exist outside the normal show schedule and allow YSL to cover all bases in terms of its product offering. These collections are direct responses to the need to balance market demands and reactivity with creative impulse. Edition 24 is a line of YSL “basics”, such as a white cotton-satin T-shirt (£320) or silk drawstring dress (£780), produced annually and stocked for a full year – the idea being that certain clothes should not change with the seasons.

Then there’s Edition Soir, set to fill the need of French women for “cocktail and evening dress” (and to free Pilati from having to show a certain number of evening dresses on the catwalk if, as with this autumn/winter’s collection, he doesn’t want to); Edition Unisex, developed because so many of Pilati’s female clients were buying his men’s suiting; and, most recently, YSL New Vintage, a collection that nodded to sustainability, being created from “vintage” fabric (ie leftovers from previous seasons), and which was so popular that 42 of the 60 pieces delivered to Barneys New York were sold in 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, Pilati himself is free to concentrate his creative energies on the shows, which are positioned as the house’s thesis statements (or, if you will, manifestos). He has reorganised his atelier to reflect a new way of working. “One of the problems with working today is that there is no chance to make mistakes,” he says. “I think something and – boom! It gets made. You can’t experiment because there is a need for so much product. But experimentation also leads to the most interesting things, the unexpected things. So what I had to do was completely revamp our way of working. Now I have two separate ateliers: a ‘lab’ atelier, which is all about trying things out, and a regular one, which produces the samples. And I have an assistant whose job it is just to follow me around and capture what I think, because there really is no season any more; it’s a constant process and one feeds the other. Then we have also repositioned the show to be just an expression of the idea, so that I can be as free creatively as I want.”

Indeed, unlike other designers, who show a bag per dress in a clear nod to market reality, Pilati often doesn’t show any bags at all on the runway. “And to do that [ie to be free creatively], first I isolate myself totally for a certain amount of time, to give myself time simply to think.”

Pilati often begins each collection with fabric – fabric and a sense of a need. “It felt like a time to go back to the essence,” he says, for example, referring to the current autumn/winter collection. Then he layers, not in the sense of winter dressing but in the way you build a story: this leads to this, which leads to that. So black leather – “which I was thinking about because I realised I couldn’t find it any more, and why not?” – led to pinstripes, which led to grey flannel (“but double grey flannel, which had actually never existed before and is very interesting because it’s very light but keeps its shape, and has almost invisible finishing”), which led to white poplin. And then there it was: a group of pieces that were serious without being staid, practical and still chic, that said, “This is not time to horse around” but, conversely, also conveyed that it is possible to find elation in looking great. And to walk at the same time.

“People say sometimes that maybe we will go back to having two seasons a year. A collection every six months? It would be wonderful,” says Pilati. “But everyone would have to do it. And do I think it’s really going to happen?” He pauses and stares out of the window. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “I really don’t. There is a question now hanging over fashion: what are we? Are we a service profession only? What do women want? Do they want to feel liberated through fashion? Did we kill the dream with too much stuff and if so, how can we rebuild it? That’s why we created the manifesto. It’s not to drive people to my stores, though that would be nice – it’s to drive their imagination. If they take my manifesto, go to a vintage store somewhere and are inspired to make their own outfit, I think that’s great. Then we’ve helped them dream a new idea of themselves. Isn’t that the point?”