Stefano Pilati, YSL

Into The Black

Yves Saint Laurent’s creative director, Stefano Pilati, is a controversial designer. People tend to either love or hate his shows and, as a result, there are constant rumours that his job is in jeopardy (house representatives confirm that the most recent ones are false).

The designer himself is dark, intense and solitary, with a fondness for dressing women entirely in black. (Who can forget the scene from the documentary The September Issue, when Anna Wintour asks an uncomfortable Pilati where the colour is in his collection?)

Our meeting, however, reveals a different man. It’s a few days after the brand’s autumn/winter show at Paris Fashion Week and Pilati is sitting opposite me in the spacious boardroom at YSL’s headquarters off Avenue Montaigne, in Paris. He is dressed in a chic white cashmere turtleneck and matching trousers, and his curly hair is covered in pale-blonde, sun-kissed highlights. He is glowing – in fact his look is more bronzed Roman god post-holiday, than broody artist.

“You should have seen me the day before the show; you wouldn’t have wanted to be around me. Luckily, you have seen me a few days later and after a few litres of champagne,” he says, his loud laugh echoing in the grand salon. “But yes, I am a tortured artist,” he says with an easy smile. “How can I not be? I never stop working.”

Ever since stepping into the role of creative director in 2004, Pilati has immersed himself in the world of YSL, from directing advertising campaigns and producing the company’s seasonal manifesto to designing 12 collections a year (20, if you include accessories). His hard work has paid off and the company’s revenues have jumped from Euro162 million (HK$1.7 billion) in 2005 to Euro238 million last year.

“I’ve seen myself getting more and more mature in a way,” he says. “Saying that, I can definitely admit, without being ashamed, that I made a lot of mistakes, and now I know I don’t want to make any more. And to tell you the truth I have cleaned up a lot of things.

“Now I really do what I like, what I think that is right.”

At 45, Pilati may be a spring chicken when compared with designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, but he is speaking from solid experience. Since joining the industry at the age of 16, he has been everything from fabric researcher to stylist. “My very first job in fashion was to be one of the stewards at Armani that take you to the seats during the fashion shows.”

He says of his traditional Italian upbringing: “I was not into fashion necessarily but more into clothes, and dressing up. I was a great observer. My mum tells me stories of when I was three or four years old and my aunt came down the stairs and I would tell her ‘No, no, no’ when I saw what she was wearing. There was definitely this great attraction to women and I was lucky to be surrounded by many.”

At age 17, Pilati went to work at Italian label Cerruti sourcing fabric before moving to Giorgio Armani. This was followed by a five-year stint at Prada where he started to dabble in design at Miu Miu and later at Jil Sander, where he assisted Sander on her final collection.

His initiation into the Gucci Group came when he was approached by legendary designer Tom Ford – once for a job as a fabric researcher (which he turned down) and again as a designer for Gucci in 2000. He was all set to move to London until Ford transferred him to YSL in Paris instead.

“I came to Saint Laurent and God knows what I had in mind. I thought that Mr Saint Laurent was around every day chatting about fashion. Well no, it wasn’t this way – we never met him, never talked to him. We saw him from the window of an office, that was about it. I was a bit disappointed, in a way.

“Then when Tom left I couldn’t even believe that I could be considered a candidate [to replace him at the PPR-owned YSL]. When I met the PPR people, they didn’t know me. I told them that, even though I was an unknown, one thing that was sure was my experience. And I don’t know why, but they gave me a chance. It was strange because it was in Tom’s plans eventually for me to get to a stage where I could take over something myself, no matter how scared I might have been.

“By then I was ready.”

Having already worked with the brand for four years meant that Pilati was used to the way everything was run. What was difficult was coming under the scrutiny of the press, something that continues to overshadow his work.

His first collection, featuring tulip skirts, had mixed reviews.

“[But] I really did it thinking it was the right time to do those clothes, to present them that way, in that silhouette, for this house.

“Now I have to deal with the reality that a fashion show is so important for the press, but at the same time I need to do a collection that is real for me. Now even when I do feel the pressure, I feel brave enough to show a grey cashmere jumper or a simple blouse with a skirt on the catwalk.”

Pilati’s vision for the brand has become stronger, refined and in his own words, “more chic” in recent years. In 2008, when everyone was showing ruffles, he sent out models, Blade Runner-style, in chic bobs with razor-sharp separates. This autumn, modern classics such as high-waisted trousers, elegant cape dresses, mid-calf skirts and slashed cape jackets took on a protective nature, with layers of plastic and vinyl for a fashion-forward look. Every collection embodies the same message – power, simplicity and moving the brand forward.

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve. You can have a lot of other things taking over for the sake of it, just to have fun. But I think of women as women, not as toys. There is this constant element of me wanting to show my admiration for them, to embrace them, to pay homage to them. This is what inspires me the most.

“I really want to be with them and do the best for them.

“I am an easy person, but I am not an easy designer. It’s a real journey; it’s a study. I don’t live with a woman, I am not married or anything, so, if you want, it’s a real effort to try and communicate with a universe that is not mine.

“More or less I have done everything I have had in mind so far – in terms of collections, playing with the heritage but not too much and preserving the runway as something directional yet true to what I feel. Sales, for me, show I have done a good job. Everything I try to do is somehow a play of seduction with women. And the moment I see them wear my clothes, I’ve got them, but they’ve got me as well.”

Pilati seems on the right track – this season almost every other designer has followed suit and returned to simple forms and clean lines. “Since I started to work in fashion, my taste has always been considered too sophisticated and I was told that too sophisticated meant being too difficult and unappealing. I will never be able to be tacky: this is the way I am.

“Now back to colour. Am I able to do colourful collections? Yes. Am I sensitive to colour palettes, of course. People complain but you really need to be sophisticated to wear colour and know how to put it together. And I am sorry, 90 per cent of people don’t know how to do this. It’s the reality. It’s better I give them clothes that they look fantastic in all the time that are black, than mixing colours from different looks to be a disaster. You can’t go wrong.”

Take that, Anna Wintour.

As published in the SCMP, April 28, 2010