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In the church of Saint Laurent, heresy and revival: Can Stefano Pilati convert reverence into relevance?

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.

"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.

Ford's models used to ooze sultriness in cocktail clothes that caressed the body. Pilati's collection focused on daywear: tulip-shaped skirts, wide waist-cinching belts and party dresses as cumbersome as topiaries carved out of stiff ruffles.

Only a handful of editors embraced the jarring silhouettes. Most notably, French Vogue's Carine Roitfeld promptly began wearing the exaggerated skirts -- a gesture that should be viewed with some skepticism since her magazine relies on advertising from YSL and because she has a history of supporting fashion oddities such as Max Mara's diaper pants.

"The first season I had nothing to risk," Pilati says. "The first season, I said, 'Go for it.' You have to do what you feel, you know, because you will always regret it if you start from the beginning to do something and you don't because you are scared.

"I thought this might be the only collection I do for Saint Laurent. You never know. You're dealing with an industry . . ." and here he sighs, "Anything can happen."

Pilati's first language is Italian, but he also speaks French and English, all in a rumbling voice, filling the pauses with unprompted laughter instead of simply letting the silences be. Born in Milan, Pilati, 41, has worked with Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada and Ford. When he worked on Prada's Miu Miu collection, he says, he learned how to balance novelty with thoughtful design. He was hired away from Prada by Ford, who anointed him as his right-hand man. After Ford left the company, Pilati, for the first time in his career, had sole creative control of a major brand. He credits Ford with helping him develop an international vision, one taking in the global marketplace and not just thinking of the customer and her lifestyle as French, or even European.

Pilati's headquarters is on Paris's swanky Avenue George V. A large room just down the hallway from his office is reserved for fittings. With its high ceilings, wall of mirrors and towering windows that overlook the street, it resembles an idealized Hollywood set of a French atelier.

A lot about Pilati seems to come from Central Casting. His office is small and filled with books on art as well as an enormous volume by Proust. A surfboard hangs above the doorway, evidence of the designer's newest hobby.

On this day, Pilati wears dark pants and a sweater. His once long, wavy hair has been trimmed short like a schoolboy's, but he kept his tidy beard. He looks less obviously like the dandy that he is: a man who wears boutonnieres and ascots. He wore a jeweled skull cap tilted to a jaunty angle at a May black-tie gala. He drinks tea in the late afternoon and he smokes at his desk.

The collections that followed the tulip skirts also failed to generate the enthusiasm and momentum needed to transform a languishing brand into a powerhouse. "The second and third collections people start to have an opinion. The business affect me. The pressure affect me," Pilati says. "Not maybe in a bad way, maybe in a good way. Again I was learning something."

The second collection was inspired by religion and was overtly stuffy, with high, formal collars. "I was really proud of that collection," Pilati says. "I did it because I wanted to thank God for the opportunity to do a second collection."

Another collection was plagued with instances of immolation by flounces. And then there was the spring 2007 romp through the flora. He sent models wobbling down a runway as long as a football field, covered in topsoil and planted with violets. The sight of the teetering young women, their spike heels aerating the soil as they walked, did not give one the impression that a confident -- or kind -- hand was holding the reins. While Ford was accused of ignoring or disrespecting the house's history, Pilati has been charged with worshiping it.

"Everything I've done for the house of Saint Laurent today, I've done because I respect Mr. Saint Laurent," Pilati says. "It is a respect for how much this house has influenced everything that we do today."

Pilati was an exceptional student of fashion history. But when it came to his own creativity, he seemed to be more of a mimic than an original thinker.

"I think he's trying to find his way," says Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a retail consultancy. "I don't think he has a signature or a grip on what the collection should really be."

Lost in Translation?

Pilati has tried his best to be the kind of sorcerer the fashion industry requires, turning up at high-profile events with a model dressed in YSL finery on his arm. Linda Evangelista wore one of his elaborately ruffled gowns to the gala that opened the "AngloMania" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. Julianne Moore presented an award to Pilati from Fashion Group International in fall 2006 wearing a pair of his heels that were so high she looked as though she was both en pointe and in pain. More recently, Moore wore one of Pilati's tuxedo mini-dresses to this year's Costume Institute gala at the Met. She was in constant danger of exposing a nipple.

"His clothes tend not to have red carpet appeal," says Hal Rubenstein, the fashion director of InStyle magazine. Pilati's clothes, Rubenstein says, typically are worn by actresses who might be considered cerebral: Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kristin Scott Thomas. "They are not going to get that big march down the red carpet. It's a much, much quieter look. The house has to figure out how to reach customers in a different way because they're not going to reach them from photos in Us Weekly."

There are two well-known ways to raise brands from the dead, as exemplified by Alber Elbaz's gentle elegance at Lanvin -- where he ultimately landed after his short, unsuccessful tenure at YSL -- and Karl Lagerfeld's jacket obsession at Chanel.

"Some people say Chanel would have had historical importance whatever happened to the house," Koda says. "But that's not true, based on the way fashion treats historical designers. If Chanel had continued without Karl, it would not have as vivid an iconography. The reason we think of her in such strong terms is not because of Chanel. Others were doing what she was doing. What made her memorable is another designer who deconstructed her and then reconstructed her in a different way."

"With Alber at Lanvin, he channeled the poetry of Lanvin," Koda says. "What he has done is really not about Lanvin per se, but something more conceptual."

Pilati began his tenure at YSL following the Lagerfeld/Chanel example. He took the company archive literally, drawing on history but failing to blow off the dust. Now, he has focused on the YSL poetry, on the rhythm and syntax of the house's language rather than the actual words.

Pilati reflected the spirit of the house in his choice of models for the fall show. Saint Laurent was known for celebrating black models and in a season when they were especially absent on the runways, Pilati, at least, had one.

"In the '70s, to have black models in Paris and Europe was sort of a message of having an open mind," Pilati says. "We were definitely less used to races crossing lines. It was definitely something coming from America."

Saint Laurent "was very sensitive to that. It was helping to add exoticism to the collection and to embrace the multicultural aspect of the work."

Why aren't there more black models working today? "To me, it is a matter of proportions and the bodies I choose. My fit model was a black model," he says. "When I wanted to translate what I put on her, it was a disaster. It would need 13 times more work in the atelier to modify it to put on a more Caucasian anatomy.

"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."

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