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The End of Elegance

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.

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 70s; if you go 60s, no, you should have gone to the 80s. 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 60s 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. Some of the artwork that Stefano surrounds himself with, which, he assures us, he draws almost no inspiration from. Are there any particular artists or other creative people from whom you draw inspiration?
I’m not like that. My culture is self-taught and based on curiosity. I grew up in the 80s and my iconic artists are Cy Twombly, Hermann Nitsch, and… there are a whole bunch of them. But I’ve never found myself leafing through the pages of an art book and thinking, “Now let’s do a collection inspired by Rothko.” Maybe architecture. For my next collection I showed my assistants some of Gio Ponti’s interiors in the University of Padova. They have a strict, linear form combined with traces of originality. Sometimes I take the cue from some master who inscribed in his work a general aesthetic sense that inspires me. You have to remember that I work in a highly inspirational environment. Our archives are insane. Yves created a lot of different work. He made Mondrian dresses, Picasso jackets, etc. Is the idea of fashion as part of contemporary culture—alongside music and art—still valid? Or has the market transformed the reality and perception of what is fashionable into some sort of abstraction?
Fashion is not fashion anymore. I am sure of this, but nobody realizes this because the world is full of romantics like me—people who continue to believe in it. Now “fashionable” can mean anything. Everything is fashion. Anything can become fashion. A while ago, things were more elitist, and this allowed it to be more aspirational and directional, and this would inspire others. It might have even—to use a horrible term—“taught” others. Nowadays, what can you teach? I might make a collection in flannel, and then the next guy makes a collection using technical see-through nets. If somebody doesn’t know much about fashion, what can he draw from this? What can he learn? It makes no sense! He can’t use fashion as a road map, he’s lost. Nowadays, it’s all business. The other problem is that fashion, as a system, is very insular and introverted. We constantly recycle the same concepts and express them through the same modes of representation. The moment you start making videos or move off the catwalk, most journalists will have no fucking clue what you’re doing because they don’t have the time, willingness, or culture to really understand something new. You’ll be misunderstood, and you’ll have no choice but to return to doing the things that follow the language everyone understands. Yves Saint Laurent brought street fashion to the catwalk with his Beat collections in the 60s, and then he created prêt-à-porter. Over the past 20 or so years, I can’t think of many designers who crystallized youth culture in their work like he did. Maybe Raf Simons or Junya Watanabe. Is high fashion’s relationship with streetwear officially over?
The real question is: What can you take out of streetwear? Girls are all wearing miniskirts and leggings and leather jackets. We’ve already seen all of this. Streetwear never taught me anything. Consider this: Yves Saint Laurent was one of the first designers to revisit vintage. If you read his biography, you’ll see it. He used to go to London to the first secondhand markets and find clothes from the 30s. That’s how he invented the tuxedo. He bought a man’s smoking jacket and put it on one of his muses. That’s how most of his innovations began. Today you can do that type of research, but it’s hard to create a story like that, because too many have already been told about almost everything. Personally, I view my work like that of an artisan. I am very egocentric in this sense. I work in fashion to express my own self, because it’s the only way I know how. Do you think fashion is misunderstood because the people who create it speak a different creative language from those who consume and analyze it?
When people enter our store they imagine cashmeres, silk cravats, shirts in crepe de chine, crocodile shoes. Obviously, we make them, but it’s like hitting myself in the balls. I have 800 cashmere coats and 900 silk cravats. My point is, your work can’t just be a selfish journey. You’re working for a brand, not your brand. You have to adapt. I like to let myself go with some ideas, but you have to have the rest of the company on board with you and deal with those dickheads who are only businessmen—the ones who ruined fashion, people who move from Danone to YSL like it’s the most natural transition in the world. In the 70s, at his peak, Saint Laurent lived a very exciting life, or at least it seemed this way from the outside: drugs, rent boys, etc. Do you think a contemporary designer in today’s fashion landscape could ever get away with behaving like that?
I don’t think you can, because today it’s a real office job that goes beyond any normal conception of what time one should devote to work. I work 24 hours a day, essentially. I have to make a collection every two months. You have to be in shape; you have to be more athlete than rock star. The real problem is that fashion isolates you. When you go outside that world and meet the 90 percent of society who have no clue what you’re doing, you end up choosing to go back home with your friends. Or maybe you run away for ten days and party like an animal, and then it takes you ten days to recover and you hope nobody noticed. Today, excess has to be kept within the private sphere. But you know about my past and that I used to get high. When I used to really use, at Prada, a guy found out, and he told me, “Well, David Bowie made his best records when he was using.” That was maybe the last time I felt that there was a slight acceptance of what I was doing. Today that kind of stuff is just impossible. Without getting right into the dirt of it, John [Galliano] really kind of put an end to that sort of option. His behavior may have seemed inexcusable at the time, but I’m still shocked that Galliano was expelled from Dior. His couture shows were among the best and most incisive I’ve ever seen.
Absolutely. What do you think of that whole mess?
I think it was a tragic situation, both for him and for the maison. The truth is, going back to what we said before, about excess: Let’s not forget that we aren’t pure creators with rich boyfriends who fund our work and take our hands to lead us along while we do whatever we want. We work for corporations, with hundreds of people who go home at 2 AM on the subway, not with drivers. There are whole factories full of people who create our stuff, and in a way there is a public media system that puts us at the center of it all, a system for which we are the face of an entire corporation. You have to come to terms with your responsibility and choices. If you’re a guy who has his own little things going, you can do that, but then you can’t expect to stand next to Charlize Theron in front of millions of people. If you stand on that stage next to Charlize Theron, you have to be able to stand up and talk coherently. Shit, if you can’t even talk normally, and you arrive two hours late fucked out of your mind just to leave after ten minutes after two glasses of wine, well, it might be best if you just stayed home. We have to understand that people are there for us. Our creations have a power, and we have a power, which we transmit to others. People want to give you that power, and in the moment that they give it to you they expect to see a person standing in front of them who can at least appreciate it. In a way, it makes me think about how you make your own bed. You can do what you want, at home. But when you go out, keep it together. Look, it was a tragic situation, and I’m not justifying anybody’s actions. If I must choose sides, I might justify him, but I do so with sadness. It’s just sad. I don’t feel bad for him, though. Would you consider yourself more of a Scott Walker or a Truman Capote type, with respect to social life?
I don’t like flattery. I don’t care about it at all. I think I might be so extremely egocentric that I just don’t care what others think. If I do something I like, I think it’s valid. The first few years I was in this position, I have to admit, when I found myself in an elevator with Kathryn Bigelow and Richard Gere riding up to Mick Jagger’s flat, I mean, when I got home I used to slap my own face just to confirm that I was really me. Of course I am fascinated by that kind of social life, but I prefer staying home, relaxing, watching television, or spending time with my partner. But consider that I work like a dog, and most of the time when I get home I am so beat I can barely do anything at all. Right now I just go to my own openings, and I might go out for a pizza with friends on a Sunday. The bare minimum of what’s expected to function as a social being. And then it all becomes work, work, work. You go to these things because they ask you to, because you have to—it’s part of the job. I don’t have a great relationship with high society and social types. But I love this experience, and I love my job. I’m more grateful for the lifestyle this job has bought me than for the fame or the recognition. If I walk the streets and somebody recognizes me and asks for my autograph… well, it stuns me. I ask myself, “What did I do?” I mean, are you sure you want my autograph? Because, if we lived in Picasso’s time, what would this person do if they met Picasso? Would they ask him to kill them? I’m a designer. But then again, I understand—you’re somebody who feeds people’s dreams, you live surrounded by beauty, and you’re seen in that context, as a privileged person. Unfortunately the figure of the “designer” continues to be deified.