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Stefano Pilati's latest designs for Yves Saint Laurent have received rave reviews. The creative director of Saint Laurent has had to battle his own idolatry of the namesake designer, and Pilati's previous collections were mostly panned. Left, a dress from the fall collection.
Stefano Pilati's latest designs for Yves Saint Laurent have received rave reviews. The creative director of Saint Laurent has had to battle his own idolatry of the namesake designer, and Pilati's previous collections were mostly panned. Left, a dress from the fall collection. (By Christophe Petit Tesson -- Wpn For The Washington Post)

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

PARIS The confounding situation for designer Stefano Pilati is that when he finally got hold of fashion's brass ring, he found out that it was more like a shackle. Only now, three years later, is he managing to wriggle free.

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"I said to myself, 'God, how could I get here?' " says Pilati.

When Pilati assumed the role of creative director at Yves Saint Laurent in 2004, he stepped into a quagmire. Established in 1961, the French fashion house boasts an extensive archive and is credited with popularizing garments such as safari jackets and women's tuxedos -- known as le smoking-- which are now part of the basic vocabulary of design. During its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the label was associated with iconic women including Catherine Deneuve, as well as professionally stylish ones such as socialites and girls-about-town. It was a glamorous brand whose namesake enjoyed the era's decadent party whirl and who relied for inspiration on the visual arts, dance and globe-trotting.

"Amongst a certain world, he mediated between real life and fantasy," says Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Saint Laurent offered a middle ground between the pragmatic sheaths of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and the surrealism of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Perhaps inevitably, YSL became less influential over the years, devolving into a brand of boring classics. Its namesake retired from ready-to-wear in 1998 and the company was sold to Gucci Group the next year. But the label continued to be held in the highest regard by those inside the industry and by ardent fashion consumers.

All that drooling reverence, however, created a suffocating environment for the designers charged with resurrecting the brand -- Alber Elbaz in 1999, Tom Ford in 2000, and now Pilati.

"When they appointed me, the first thing I thought was, 'The responsibility!' " he says. "I said to myself, 'I can't fail.' "

Pilati's first collection -- filled with skirts that managed to be simultaneously childish and matronly -- was panned. He went on to create one troubled collection after another, finding inspiration in religion, bullfights, fields of violets and, of course, the company archive. At best, the reception by critics and consumers rose to lukewarm. Today, the company remains in the red, which is precisely where it has been since Gucci Group took control. YSL reported revenue of about $261 million in 2006. But it had operating losses of $66 million that same year. That was an improvement over 2005, when YSL lost $89 million. (Numbers were converted from euros to dollars using the current rate of exchange.)

But with his fall 2007 collection, which reaches stores in mid-June, Pilati quietly exhaled. On the runway, he presented designs that respected the legacy of the house but were not constrained by it. He didn't serve up a jarringly new silhouette or lay out the riches of the YSL archive like he was producing a PBS special. He simply displayed a sure and restrained talent.

"With this collection, I think there was a little bit less reverence," says Pilati. "For me, I said from the beginning, 'What are the words or threads you're going to use? Elegance.' In everything [Saint Laurent] has done, it was never vulgar. This collection has less evident references, but it has the most important one.

"This is probably the real starting point," Pilati continues. "I tried to define the new, the good identity of Saint Laurent -- the starting point of the real vision."

Growing Pains

Pilati's first collection for Saint Laurent, for spring 2005, was like a cold shower after the heat that his predecessor Ford had generated.


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