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Paris, When It Fizzles

Designer Stefano Pilati's First Collection for YSL Looks Back and Falls Flat

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page C01

PARIS, Oct. 11

The spring 2005 runway presentations ended here Sunday night with Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. It was the most anticipated collection of the season. And it was the most disappointing.

Models walked out in a high-necked polka-dot trench coat, frumpy pleated trousers and short skirts that curved up and back into a lumpy bustle that poked awkwardly from under the hem of a rather dull jacket. By the time a model appeared in a fluffy cocktail dress that resembled a lilac tree, dissatisfaction had been transformed into annoyance. Was the desire to erase all memory of former designer Tom Ford so powerful that the house was willing to present a collection free of sex appeal, sultriness and any hint of urbane, aerodynamic luxury?

For his first show for Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati revived the house's signature waist-defining belts. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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This was the first YSL runway presentation by designer Stefano Pilati. He was Ford's assistant and took over the creative reins after Ford's departure earlier this year. It may be unfair to compare Pilati with his predecessor, but it is impossible not to.

After Gucci Group bought YSL, Ford became the label's provocateur. His cuts were tight and he kept the decolletage low. One season he painted models' nipples aubergine to complement the revealing clothes. He launched a fragrance by hiring a group of models to writhe nude at a party. He appalled and angered the house's namesake, but Ford had made it his mission to revive the revered French label and bring it back to profitability. His aesthetic was sophisticated, smoldering and womanly. If he had to get there through shock and scandal, he would.

YSL is still in the red. And although Ford had several memorable collections, he did not redefine the YSL aesthetic. There was too much emphasis on cocktail dresses and evening gowns, and not enough on day clothes. Still, Ford had ignited interest in the house from the fashion industry, Hollywood and high-end consumers. On the crowded schedule of fashion shows here, YSL was the hottest ticket.

With its black, acrylic invitations that arrived tucked into a box akin to a thin black cigarette case, YSL set itself apart. The show was held each season in a specially constructed auditorium in the garden of the Rodin Museum. The approach was lined with sexy young men in dark Saint Laurent suits with their lapels turned up. YSL wasn't making a profit, but its owners were spending money on enormous vases of fresh flowers, waiters passing flutes of champagne, perfume-scented air.

But as YSL President Mark Lee said just before Pilati's debut, "It's a new day." The setting was the old Paris stock exchange -- a location that suggested the evening was about commerce, not art. No Saint Laurent boys lurked in the shadows. No flowers. No booze. Just Lee greeting guests outside in the chilly night air. YSL has stopped pretending that it is successful, unique, unparalleled. This show made one feel as though it was just any other brand struggling toward reinvention.

Pilati's skirts and dresses were short, not quite minis, but hitting several inches above the knee. It is an unflattering length on many women -- no small number of them in their twenties and thirties. The skirt silhouettes reflected the emphasis on volume for spring, but the fullness was focused in the front, giving them a saggy appearance when the models' hands were not stuffed into the on-seam pockets. The jackets were trim with a low, jewel neckline and were the most promising elements in the collection. Saint Laurent was known for his well-cut blazers and they have been mostly missing the last few years.

The house was also known for its wide, waist-defining belts. Pilati smartly revived those at a time when fashion is intrigued with an hourglass shape. But he accessorized virtually every ensemble with one of those wide belts as if he'd gotten a discount by buying them in bulk.

The cocktail dresses were short, in jewel tones and with ruffles at the hem or running down the bodice. They had a romantic, flamenco air, but they enveloped the models -- swaddling them in too much fluff and obscuring any hint of a comely figure.

Three days before the YSL presentation, Gucci Group Chief Executive Robert Polet had described Pilati as a designer who truly understood YSL's history. At the time, that seemed like an admirable quality. YSL has a rich past. But Pilati's collection for spring was too mired in history. If the line is to have a profitable future, Pilati must find a way to cut a jacket with more verve and a cocktail dress that is not better suited for a prom.

Ford, in designing for the runway, was not always eloquent or polite. But he always had something intriguing to say. One hopes that once Pilati finds his voice -- surely this can't be it -- he will be even more interesting than Ford.


If only the Lanvin presentation had been the finale, the Paris runway season could have had a finale of boisterous cheers instead of a barely audible fizzle. Designer Alber Elbaz offered a splendid collection for spring. And who could blame him if he were gloating right now? He was dismissed from YSL when Gucci Group purchased the brand almost five years ago. Now, while YSL sputters, he shines.

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