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"Sometimes, it's not your choice. You can't find [black models] that are beautiful and with the right proportions. I prefer them with lean proportions with no big hips."
Big hips? A dearth of beautiful black models? This from the designer who characterizes himself as the best salesman for his clothes.
His Own Voice
Fall 2007 has been Pilati's strongest collection yet for the brand. It is coolly tailored, unforced and not fussy.
"It was way more natural," says Peter Marx, president of Saks Jandel, which owns the YSL franchise in Chevy Chase. "It looked more comfortable. It was extremely elegant."
At the same time, the industry's assessment of his earlier work at YSL began to shift. That first collection, as it turns out, had an enormous influence on other designers.
"It introduced a new shape for skirts," Rolontz says.
Pilati's emphasis on rounded hips and bubble silhouettes launched a flotilla of imitators. His focus on the waist helped to transform wide belts into one of the key items on trend reports at fashion magazines and retailers -- from high-end boutiques to mass market merchants.
"When I first looked at that collection, I thought 'What is he doing?' " Rubenstein recalls. "And six months later, I thought, 'I was wrong.' All the things he was doing were showing up everywhere: the tulip skirt and the boxy jacket. They were showing up everywhere. I've never so misjudged the influence of a designer."
That doesn't mean Rubenstein, in hindsight, liked Pilati's first collection more. But he acknowledges its significance.
"It always takes a while to understand," says Pilati. "That was the silhouette I believed in because I thought it was beautiful on women. The fact that I was copied, it makes me happy. That's the purpose of trying to do something beautiful. I'm not competing. . . . I compete with myself. I compete with my tortures and my dilemmas." (A penchant for melodrama is a trait he shares with Saint Laurent.)
Specialty items from the collections have sold, Marx says, such as blouses with ruffles and crochet details.
"The walking-on-the-daisies collection did have a few pieces that sold pretty well," Rolontz says. ( Violets. They walked on violets.)
Most important, the accessories, particularly the handbags, have been selling and account for more than half of the business. For most high-end brands, that's where the money is made -- not ready-to-wear. Sales were up in 2006 by 19.1 percent over the previous year thanks to leather goods. The uptick has been driven by handbags such as the Muse, which sells for about $1,300, and the $1,800 Rive Gauche bag.
But the clothes, which account for just under 40 percent of sales, are the soul of the brand. The fall collection, with its palette of charcoal gray, emphasis on tailoring, strong silhouettes and focus on daywear, reflects the work of a designer more comfortable expressing his own point of view.
"This season is the one I feel is most close to me," Pilati says. "This season I learned, after three years of going here and there, I guess this is the first time I gather everything I learned and put it out again in my own voice."
"It gives me hope, not confidence, you're always scared about what's next. But it gives me hope," Pilati says.
Peter Marx of Saks Jandel describes Pilati as "the real deal. It's not just marketing. With the clothes, he really is the true deal. We're hopeful that he'll stay."
Marx has borne witness to each upheaval at YSL, beginning with the founder's retirement. "Just as Alber was getting his voice, just as Tom was getting his voice," each left the company, says Marx. Then he pauses. "Let's hope this guy doesn't get fired."