Long Nguyen is the co-founder/style director of Flaunt. PARIS--Even before the last model, Elza Luijendjik, passed the halfway mark on her return down the long wooden runway at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie last night at YSL, you could hear the cheers from backstage. They got louder and louder as she approached the exit and stepped behind the gold backdrop emblazoned with "YSL" logo. The hall was empty for a moment as the cheers grew louder still. Finally Stefano Pilati emerged, wearing a grey double-breasted suit and a fuschia scarf, waving to the audience all standing to salut him. He smiled as and bowed before he, himself, disappeared backstage after his final show for YSL--and a stellar one at that, for him. Over the past two weeks, a lot has been written about Raf Simons' dismissal from Jil Sander and YSL's decision not to renew Mr. Pilati’s contract at YSL. Still, all that chatter did not take away from Pilati's emotional send off as we stood to acknowledge his work over the past seven years for YSL--tumultuous years that included triumphant collections and ones that got stuck in the mud (literally, in spring 2007, at Pilati's infamous garden show). How does a designer carry the weight of heritage and then update it for today? YSL's heritage is rich and complicated. It includes the pantsuit for women, the concept of ready to wear, and the merging of fashion and art, just to name a few. That’s a lot of weight to carry to bring the brand into today's fashion landscape. Being the creative director at YSL has got to be one of the most difficult jobs in fashion. And Pilati assumed the role in 2004, when he was relatively unknown, after Tom Ford's departure. So how did he do?
I remember Mr. Pilati’s first show for YSL in September 2004 (for spring 2005) at the Bourse. He sent out a collection of heavy cotton tulip skirts (some of them polka dotted) and blouses with large belts that mesmerized critics. The show got terrible reviews but I remember that within months Carine Roitfeld and Anna Wintour were seen wearing these looks and opinions began to change. It seemed that the clothes worked on these women but not on the runway. Perhaps this has been happening all this time: that under the fashion radar women were somehow buying Mr. Pilati’s clothes and shoes. Because let's not forget the brand did turn profitable a few years ago, thanks to the Muse and Downtown bags as well as the Tribute platforms. There's also the Editions 24 and Editions 24 Soir lines--clothes sold outside the norms of runway shows. All things considered. Mr, Pilati’s runway fumbles, like that spring 2007 show which used a runway of real dirt and flowers, probably did not hurt sales as he had sales and a corporate structure behind him. Models' high heels got stuck in the mud then, but those same two-toned red and camel heels moved lightning fast at retail. Remember the Manifesto, a 20-page handout inside a cotton bag with the YSL logo painted upside down, handed out on the streets on Soho and on Madison Avenue one afternoon during New York fashion week? Though the Manifesto was discontinued two seasons ago, it was a radical idea for the house to communicate directly with people without the editing of magazines who may have preferences for two items out of the 60 the house produced for stores.
Did Mr. Pilati "get" YSL? In many ways this question seems less relevant than whether he understood how to make the house relevant to today’s generation who don't know YSL's history. Mr. Pilati has always followed the masculine/feminine dichotomy of YSL but I think he was less capable of conveying the sexual ambivalence at the heart of the brand’s DNA. Mr. Pilati’s women were somehow more sexual in the intellectual sense but less so in the physical sense, even if they wore a black dress with a sheer organza panel at the chest. The departing designer referenced a sexual dominatrix with a for his final collection: models had slicked back wet hair, dark red lips, red nails and wore lots of leather. Elza Luijendjik opened the show in a belted long black coat with leather lapels and leather gloves. There were a series of metallic mesh V-neck sheaths and leather skirt suits and a trench that recalled the men's collection shown last June. When the girls marched out for the finale, it was clear that Mr. Pilati didn't intend for this to be his final collection for the house. Rather, it seemed more like a collection where he was still searching for the modern soul of YSL. Yet again, I can’t think of any reasons why customers would be reluctant to buy these clothes at the stores come August. And that’s the paradox of the Pilati tenure at YSL.