Could Stefano Pilati ever win? It has seemed, over the last 12 months that the mounting odds stacked against him made his departure a done deal regardless of what he did. And tonight, the designer who has been at the creative helm of YSL since 2005, bowed out. Sitting front row to say goodbye was Nicholas Ghesquiere the designer at Balenciaga and his stylist, Marie Amelie Sauve. There was Catherine Deneuve, YSL's original muse and Lucie De La Falaise, the niece of LouLou, who had been at YSL's right hand for most of his career. (Randomly, there was also Katy Perry with her hair scraped into a blue chignon looking a bit like a cartoon YSL client from The Simpsons.)
The standing ovation in the room was a heartfelt send off for a man who has been treated shabbily. Never mind that in 2008 he managed to return the house that had been haemorraging $100 milion a year to profit. Never mind that he created a gold mine from the Tribute shoes alone. Never mind that he added, to the annals of classic arm candy, the eternally desirable Downtown and Muse bags. And never mind that he nudged the fashion house forward in a climate of cut throat competition. After tonight, it's all over for him at YSL.
And he dedicated his last collection to one of the pillars of the YSL look: Le Smoking. As a coat in black with razor sharp silver lapels over white pleated trousers, as a floor length evening dress with a cinched waist, as a glossy leather trench coat, and an impeccable two piece trouser suit: there were lots of collectors' pieces here. Dresses made from the chainmail borrowed from butchers aprons perhaps hinted at the turmoil that has gone on behind the scenes. In fact, many of the leather tunics had more than a whiff of armour about them. The mood softened with embroidered details of dark lilies on dark coat dresses and sculpted silver collars like a calla lily bent around the throat. It was a dignified and respectful swan song from a man who has at times battled with the burden of modernising the codes of a design house that is a national institution.
This is a grubby business. Fashion is currently operating in a vortex of gossip, speculation and petty politics that is more like the follies of some decadent royal court than any way to run a global concern. It is stuck in a parallel universe that has nothing to do with the daily business of creating collections.
According to those implaccable rumours, Pilati was already on his way out last autumn and about to be replaced by Raf Simons, prompting YSL to issue a statement in September denying Pilati was leaving. By twist of fate, Simons presented his final collection for Jil Sander in Milan last week and is currently also in the job market.
An announcement about Pilati's successor is imminent. Thanks to a report from the French news agency Agence France Presse quoting a 'well placed source', we fully expect it to be Hedi Slimane, ex-head of design at Dior menswear. Since he left Dior in 2007, where he created the sinuous silhouette that inspired Karl Lagerfeld to lose half his bodyweight and whose mens' suits had a waiting list of women customers, he has been working on furniture design and photography in LA. He'll probably be very much at home in the house of the tuxedo. And the announcement will undoubtedly release some of the tension that has built around this unseemly spectacle of spectulation. But it can make no one feel better. The casualties are the human beings whose unique talents are traded like pork bellies.
The catalyst for the latest round of snakes and ladders was the departure of John Galliano in disgrace from the house of Dior a year ago, leaving one of the biggest jobs in fashion up for grabs. Everyone from Azzedine Alaia, Haider Ackerman, Christopher Kane, Alexander Wang has been rumoured to be next in line for that one. Acting designer, Bill Gaytten deserves nothing short of beatification for keeping a smile on his face and a collection on the runway in the face of that torrent. Rumours peak at collection time when audiences with time to kill use their snippets of information to 'tweet' their candidates around the fashion chessboard.
We know the boardroom is an unforgiving and unsentimental place but managing creative talent is one of the unique skills required by those who run fashion businesses at this level and if they get it right the rewards are handsome. But design talent is a rare and often fragile thing. And some of what we have witnessed over the past weeks is like seeing Grand National contenders being traded at a country horse fair.
Also offensive have been the undermining efforts of former YSL executive Pierre Bergé, whose disapproval of Pilati's work he chose to advertise at the most public moments, excluding Pilati from the gala invite list for the YSL retrospective exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris in 2010, for example. It was a national event. He couldn't have chosen a more high profile forum to express his opinion, which, with all the respect due to him, is irrelevant..
Pilati said, '[I am] incredibly proud of what I have accomplished with my teams over the past decade at Saint Laurent ... I exit the house with fierce conviction in all that we have achieved and deep gratitude to those who have supported me along the way ... I wish the maison Yves Saint Laurent and its new creative director the very best for the future.' And he took leave of the runway with a victory V sign.
So long Stefano! Good luck Hedi. As talented as you undoubtedly are, you will need as much as you can get.
by Paula Reed in Paris