The End of Elegance

YSL’s Stefano Pilati Explains Why Fashion May Never Be Fashionable Again

By Costantino Della Gherardesca

Photos by Carlotta Manaigo


It’s not hyperbole to say that Yves Saint Laurent is the greatest, most evocative name in the history of fashion. Stefano Pilati has been the company’s creative director for the past decade, defining yet another era with his analytic eye for design and plainspoken opinions about fashion’s place in modern culture. Before taking the helm at YSL, Stefano worked closely with Tom Ford and Miuccia Prada, perhaps the most innovative figures in Italian fashion of the past 20 years.

While Stefano was the most suitable candidate to take over the billion-dollar fashion house after Tom Ford’s departure, that doesn’t mean he didn’t piss off a lot of people in the process. And while writing about and interviewing those in the fashion industry can very quickly veer into pretentious nonsense, to be honest, for people who– like me – live fashion the same way others live music or art, Stefano’s as real as it gets. So far he’s managed to keep YSL economically viable while flying the banner of elegance and weirdness first raised by his mentor and master, Yves – a psychotic genius whose madness created a new way of communication. But things are changing for designers; times are tough and battles must be picked carefully. As Kim Jong-il used to say, “He who is afraid of a challenge will never be a good revolutionary.” Stefano is undoubtedly a revolutionary figure, and he’s not afraid of provocation – whether that means serving up controversy or sitting back while fashion bloggers bitch about him.

I conducted the following interview with Stefano via Skype. He was sitting in his office in Paris, dressed to the nines, while I wasted away on my bed like a Nan Goldin photograph.

VICE: The vision you brought to Yves Saint Laurent is much different and some would say more daring and perverse than your predecessor, Tom Ford. Were there people in the fashion industry who weren’t happy with your ideas and whose opposition you had to overcome?
Stefano Pilati:
Of course! I came across many difficulties, and at times still do. Mine has been a serious, respectful, professional path, based on the fundamental idea of elegance at YSL. Some of the choices I make in my collections, however, are ultimately due to business, but I think they can still be seen as glamorous choices nevertheless. Some of this has to do with the fact that when I started, the company was losing a lot of money – 75 million euros a year. I didn’t start from scratch, I started at negative 75 million. I had to strike a balance. I was asked to be innovative while respecting the tradition of the maison, but I also had to be commercial and salable. People were expecting fireworks, but I never gave them any. I had to lay the foundation first.

Would it be fair to say that your influence was subtle but significant?
Yeah, I created a new silhouette. In 2004, everybody was hanging around with low-waisted pants and skirts. It was disgusting! You’d walk down the streets and see fat asses in low-cut jeans. So I said to myself, “Maybe we don’t have to keep on seeing that.” That’s when I raised the waistline and tightened it up with belts and stuff. It’s a silhouette that’s still the basis for many things today; it’s still working. And in fact, despite the initial criticisms, I was given the credit for it.

What kind of difficulties did you have to go through when you joined YSL?
You know, YSL – unfortunately for me – is already strongly defined in people’s imaginations. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about it. You make flounced skirts, they ask for capes; you do capes, they ask for tuxedos; you do the tuxedo, they want it more 1970s; if you go 1960s, no, you should have gone to the 1980s. My hardest challenge was putting all this bullshit aside. When I create a piece of clothing, I think of today’s life—dynamism, the role of women in society, and her behavior in given situations. I’m speaking of women who play leading roles in our society, not just the big-spender wife or lover who spends her days being fucked by her rich boyfriend. I try to include all of society in my creations. That’s the most challenging thing. Saint Laurent is maybe the most complex brand in the fashion system, because you have to face people’s imagination, which is infinite, just as infinite as Yves’s work was. He was maybe the most prolific designer in the history of fashion. From the 1960s to the 80s – I’m talking about the birth of prêt-à-porter – that’s when he was most active, and it’s also when the fashion industry reached the next level.

Perhaps the epitome of women and glamour, at least in mainstream culture, is the red-carpet outfit women in LA, wearing long gowns at 4 PM, all made up as if they were an anchorwoman on a newscast, with 1930s hairdos. It’s one of the most inelegant things imaginable. We have no icons of elegance; we don’t have a Grace Kelly. Are there any contemporary women whom you would consider exemplars of elegance?
Generally speaking, or referring specifically to Yves Saint Laurent?

In general.
My idea of elegance – and this refers to women as well as men – is that someone is elegant when he or she shows a good knowledge of what fits them, where you can find naturalness and self-esteem. Not showing off. Elegance is the idea of showing an optimistic depiction of oneself, and to lose oneself in the frivolity of style and fashion. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about being elegant, or chic. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it for yourself, because it’s your way of being. When you’re not thinking, “This is fashion,” and you’re not buying clothes to create statements, you’re on the right path. If fashion goes low waisted and you’re fat bottomed, well, forget it; don’t put slim-fitting jeans on. They’re going to look awful on you. You should dress in black; it would be better.

But seriously, it’s not easy to find elegant women. There are a few, the majority of whom are old – and there are one or maybe two in the world who created a new style when they were young. Today when I go to New York and survey art and fashion, I see smart women and the level is high. But there’s a difference between this and saying a woman is elegant.

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