On the top floor of the Grand Palais in Paris, beneath the ribbed glass ceiling that grants the Beaux Arts building its landmark status, the sun shines down on a strangely calm hive of pre–fashion show activity. A crew of about 50 tailors, production assistants, stylists, and models is in the throes of a 48-hour marathon of fittings for Anthony Vaccarello’s third collection as the artistic director of Saint Laurent. This season, Vaccarello and his team will stage their most ambitious runway presentation thus far, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Just a few days before, Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s onetime partner and the house’s cofounder, passed away after a long illness; and just a few days hence, two long-planned Yves Saint Laurent museums, in Paris and Marrakech, will finally open to great sentimental fanfare. With so much attention on modern fashion’s most enduring and intimidating legacy, the pressure should be on for Vaccarello, who is 37 and the house’s fifth resident designer since 1999, when Yves Saint Laurent stepped down from ready-to-wear.
But as assistants tap away on laptops and swiftly navigate the warren of dressing rooms, arms loaded with outsize garment bags, the only audible noise is the low hum of a fan, and the kind of down-tempo electronic music typical of high-end cocktail lounges. Conversations take place in hushed tones, and seven hours into a day that began at 10:30 a.m. and will continue into the following morning, the steady stream of Diet Coke and mini Snickers and Twix bars doesn’t seem to have interfered with anyone’s better judgment. At one end of the space stand rows of sleek chrome racks hung with leather shorts, glistening peasant tops, blazers smattered with sequins, and abbreviated dresses that bring to mind giant croissants made of lace and tulle. There, Vaccarello, dressed in his usual black T-shirt and jeans, sits quietly on a spotless white leather armchair as the stylist Alastair McKimm tweaks house mascot Mica Argañaraz’s bohemian-disco ensemble. Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini breezes in to say hello, wearing Sunday afternoon khakis and one of the shrunken LOULOU varsity sweaters from Vaccarello’s fall collection. The day’s schedule had Argañaraz slotted at 5 p.m.; her 30-minute appointment wraps up at 5:30 on the dot. The assumption that turbulent creations must come from a turbulent creator is a difficult one to shake—and explains why Vaccarello’s resolutely low-key demeanor comes as such a surprise, especially when you consider his rapid rise through the industry. He studied at La Cambre in his native Brussels, launched his namesake label in 2009, became creative director of Versus in 2015, and, last April, took the reins at Saint Laurent. His career may yet be nascent, but his list of daring fashion gestures is already substantial. Earlier this year, Saint Laurent ads featuring models with aggressively splayed legs caused an uproar in France; the series of short films by Nathalie Canguilhem that Vaccarello commissioned for the house were rife with same-sex make-out sessions and exposed nipples; and then there are the fruits of the collaboration you see here, with the iconic Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and Vaccarello’s faithful muse, the model Anja Rubik. Known for confrontational, often very explicit bondage-themed images, Araki has long been a favorite of the designer.
Several months ago, while on a trip to Tokyo, Vaccarello summoned the nerve to approach the septuagenarian photographer. “I told myself it was now or never to work with him,” Vaccarello says. “He was really enthusiastic. It all came together very quickly.” On the two-hour shoot, the set was closed off to everyone except Araki and his assistant, Rubik, and Vaccarello. Araki speaks neither English nor French, and according to Vaccarello, communicated in squeaks or growls, or enigmatic, whispered directions, which were translated by the assistant. “He was saying things in Anya’s ear that she couldn’t quite understand, like that she should imagine she had just lost her husband and become pregnant,” he recalls.
“It made for a unique experience. He’s actually really funny.”
While Araki’s fetishistic photography has often been described as shocking, its larger purpose is to expose the hypocrisy of conservative mores—something Vaccarello says also applies to the work of Yves Saint Laurent, as well as to his own. “I’ve always loved the side of Araki that’s extremely free,” he says. “He’s not working out of oppression or concern for how others see him. He does what he wants, and there’s poetry in that freedom. Monsieur Saint Laurent never explicitly looked to shock either. He just worked in the context of a bland, bourgeois, and uniform society. And people often refer to the ‘sexiness’ of my work. I don’t like labels. Saint Laurent was very sexy in his day as well, but always with sensuality. For me, it’s above all about freedom, movement, and attitude. That’s what I like.”
Vaccarello loves racy ideas but stops short of sensationalism. He’s not interested in stoking controversy for its own sake, or cultivating a personal mythology. “He’s really sincere,” says Canguilhem. “He loves what he does, and there are no games. There are so many designers where there’s a lot of appearance to get through before you get to them, but Anthony is not into bluffing.” One senses, in fact, that he’d prefer to avoid the limelight altogether. “I am not into selfies,” he says impassively. Not what you would expect, perhaps, from someone whose coterie of fans, including Rubik, Karlie Kloss, and Jennifer Lopez, helped him garner media attention when his own line was still young, and whose label today has such a sizable social media following. “I don’t need to feel important because I’m featured in a magazine,” he adds. “I want my work to speak for me. The problem right now is that everything is so marketed, people want to shock at all costs. It gives a desperate impression, and lacks naturalness.”
Vaccarello says he’s relieved that the bigwigs at Kering, Saint Laurent’s parent company, have never pressured him to put himself out there more as a fashion personality. He does, however, take his role as an image-maker very seriously. “Saint Laurent is an iconographic house,” he says—and rightly so. One doesn’t need to visit the newly opened YSL museums to be reminded of the house’s visual legacy—like the stunning black and white Jeanloup Sieff portrait of a young, nude Saint Laurent for his Pour Homme cologne, or Helmut Newton’s series of ads for Opium featuring Jerry Hall. Arriving on the heels of the house’s recently departed creative director Hedi Slimane, who took his own arresting black and white photographs of rock stars like Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, and Kim Gordon, Vaccarello needed to move forward in his own way. That didn’t mean erasing the recent past altogether: While he controversially wiped the company’s Instagram account clean, his redesign of the Web site remains filled with Slimane’s campaign imagery. Working with the photographers Collier Schorr and Inez and Vinoodh, as well as with Canguilhem, Vaccarello has added to the Saint Laurent story by establishing a more dynamic visual language that relies less on portraiture. Vaccarello is also quick to acknowledge Slimane for having done the heavy lifting of livening up the brand. “Making the perfect blazer was part of the genius of Hedi Slimane,” Vaccarello says. “He did what had to be done, making Saint Laurent the brand young and contemporary, like Saint Laurent the designer always was. The difference is, I don’t show the basics as much. What interests me is constructing the dream.”
For Vaccarello, building that fantasy has entailed commissioning short films of disco reveries and after-party comedowns, starring the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Travis Scott, and staging provocative, nocturnal catwalk presentations that have restored the Parisian chic to the house after Slimane’s Los Angeles detour. The collection that he was finalizing at the Grand Palais ended up being a coquettish parade of leather micro dresses, ostrich feathers, plunging necklines, and exaggerated pouf silhouettes meant to be worn by stiletto-heeled glamazons who seemingly have no need, ever, to sit down. The first model walked out just as the Eiffel Tower went into glitter mode, at 8 p.m. sharp, with the ultimate Parisian fetish object blinging like one of Vaccarello’s oversize rhinestone ear cuffs.
“The Eiffel Tower setting was a cliché,” Vaccarello conceded after the show, as he was swarmed by well-wishers. “But I wanted to really push the cliché, to make it as beautiful as it could be.” Vaccarello has finally landed on the breadth and cheekiness of his most important forebear; the collection riffed on famous Saint Laurent signatures—the black and fuchsia, the ostrich feathers, and large lapels were all out of Yves’s playbook—but it never fell into the trap of literalism. “When I got the job, Pierre Bergé told me above all not to copy Yves,” Vaccarello recalls. The two men would meet monthly, “to talk about Yves, about everything. Saint Laurent’s legacy has touched every designer, even those who haven’t had anything to do with the house. I could have been really stressed taking on this position, but having been supported by Monsieur Bergé and the team that had been there since the beginning gave me a lot of courage. I liked showing him the collections. He’d tell me what he thought, what he didn’t understand.”
Vaccarello’s idea of the Saint Laurent woman is summed up in five words literally writ large on the wall of his staff offices: independent, smart, subversive, confident, real. Customers have responded, with sales up double digits every quarter since his arrival three seasons ago. But he also understands that sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward. “Going to the foundation, touching the clothes was really moving. The richness Yves Saint Laurent brought to everything. It was a body of work of incredible simplicity, almost offhand, which at the end was everything. Saint Laurent should make people dream. I had a lot of his images in my head at first, but my references are not just the universe of Yves Saint Laurent. I have my own as well.”
Watch: Tracee Ellis Ross Walked in an Epic Fashion Show on Her 18th Birthday