Stefano Pilati isn’t complaining. Complaining, as anyone who knows Pilati will tell you, isn’t his style. Still, one gets the sense that perpetuating a brand founded by one of the most brilliant, prolific, and beloved designers of all time has proved to be a rather thankless task so far. As creative director of Yves Saint Laurent for the past six years, Pilati has reconstituted the Saint Laurent style in terms that are contemporary and compelling. But the fanfare has been muted and the critics have been slow to come around, even when ideas that Pilati introduced have been taken up as trends. You would think that the remarkable turnaround in the company’s sales, from nearly $100 million in losses to a profit, according to Pilati, would qualify as vindication. But Pilati’s detractors are busy quibbling over his interpretation. Too reverent for some—mere copies of the master’s greatest hits. Not reverent enough for others—too much of a departure. Everybody has an opinion. The consensus, to the extent that there is one, seems to be that Saint Laurent is an impossible act to follow.
Chanel, Dior, and Balenciaga were, conveniently, dead when the houses they founded were revived. Hubert de Givenchy handed over the key and withdrew. But after the Gucci Group bought Yves Saint Laurent in 1999, Saint Laurent was still on the premises, as other designers—Alber Elbaz, Tom Ford—designed the ready-to-wear and accessories in his name. With his departure, in 2002, the more obvious course of action, easier by far, would have been to make a clean break and turn the brand into a platform for a young designer, as Givenchy was for Alexander McQueen, Dior is for John Galliano. Instead, the Group’s strategy has been to continue the Saint Laurent style and carry it into the future—a task that requires someone willing to set aside his ego, assimilate the house’s history, and build on it. Self-effacing classicists aren’t exactly thick on the ground these days. It is, in fact, amazing that Gucci Group managed to find even one.
“I’m just trying to show the relevance of the heritage through a contemporary eye,” Pilati says. “Stefano Pilati comes last, or he doesn’t even find a position within there, in the sense that I let myself go through this process. The Saint Laurent heritage gives me a past, which I relate to, but it doesn’t dismiss the opportunity for me to grow through my creativity. The heritage is my culture, my education. And Stefano Pilati needs to speak with the language that relates to that culture, because this is where I come from.”
The vocabulary is familiar to any Saint Laurent fan, though Pilati refrains from direct quotations. Last fall: high-waisted pants and skirts, silk blouses, black jumpsuits, capes and capelets, gathered shoulders, plumes de coq. For spring: ruffles and flounces, halter necklines, contrast edging that traces the outline of a skirt or a collar, gold platform sandals. And perennials: safari jackets, trenchcoats, tuxedos. Louise Neri, a director at the Gagosian gallery and a close friend of Pilati’s, says that, like many sophisticated Italians, the designer “doesn’t reject history; he absorbs it and learns how to use it as counterpoint.”