This week's news that designer Tom Ford had assumed the title of creative director at Yves Saint Laurent came as no surprise. When Gucci Group bought the French design house last fall no one believed that Ford, famously involved in every aspect of the creative process at Gucci, would be able to resist the lure of Saint Laurent.
The fortunes of Saint Laurent are a constant source of obsession within the fashion industry because even though the house has not generated any fashion heat for years, it boasts a grand history.
Fashion aficionados care about Yves Saint Laurent for the same reason sports fans still watch the Celtics and movie buffs could never ignore Stanley Kubrick: Glory remains enticing even if it's faded.
Yves Saint Laurent, in his heyday, popularized a host of garments that are now classics in a woman's wardrobe: the trouser suit, the tuxedo dress and the safari suit, just for a start. Gucci didn't merely buy a fashion house--the Italian company bought history, notoriety and fundamentals.
Ford, who will keep his duties at Gucci, will immediately take charge of the overall image of the Saint Laurent brand. He will have the final say on everything creative from stores to perfume, from ads to packaging, just as he has at Gucci. According to a Gucci spokeswoman, the current design team at Saint Laurent will remain in place at least through the fall shows.
The young Hedi Slimane heads up menswear. He has been generating a bit of interest with his sleek, urbane and undeniably Saint Laurent-style suits, mostly because they have been worn by a handful of boldface names.
Women's ready-to-wear will be designed by Alber Elbaz, who will show his fall 2000 collection in Paris next month. (And Saint Laurent himself will design the haute couture collection, which is a separate company that is unaffiliated with Gucci Group.)
The notion that Ford, to whom Slimane and Elbaz now report, will be able to keep his fingers out of the design process, particularly the floundering women's ready-to-wear division, is a bit far-fetched. Indeed, stockholders may demand that Ford roll up his sleeves and try to work the same sorcery that helped to transform Gucci from a dying company into an industry leader in luxury accessories. The question being asked is not if Elbaz is out, but when?
Saint Laurent faces enormous hurdles. At a time when the fashion industry is being powered by the accessories market, Saint Laurent lacks a strong foundation in that category. Not one Old World fashion house has been able to reinvent itself as a hulking, global success by actually selling clothes--accessories, yes, clothes, no. Unlike companies such as Gucci, Prada and Fendi, which were known for their shoes or handbags, Saint Laurent now is mostly known for lackluster clothes, uninspired licensees, forgettable fragrances and workhorse cosmetics.
Also, Ford has long been a fan of Saint Laurent, mining the house's archives for inspiration for his own collection. In many ways, from his sexy pinstriped pantsuits to his recent dabbling in bohemian excess to his playful games with gender and sex roles, Gucci is what a reborn Saint Laurent should be. The soul of Saint Laurent has been reincarnated in the house of Gucci.
So the task for Gucci, Ford and whichever--if any--of the Saint Laurent ready-to-wear designers who manage to avoid the chopping block is to help YSL regain its soul.
The key may lie in reviving the label's legacy of globe-trotting chic. Saint Laurent was inspired by international artists such as Piet Mondrian, cultures from Russia and Morocco and feminized menswear tailoring as in the famous le smoking.
To the company's credit, those points of inspiration speak to these times. They'll look good on the runway and photograph well. Of course, they need to be infused with sex appeal, blessed by good timing and financial management, and touched by magic. The only other requirement for success? A hot-selling shoe or a must-have handbag that will actually generate profits.