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Hedi Slimane has left big shoes to fill at Saint Laurent. The Kering-owned company announced revenues of €547.9m in its half-year report in July, up 24.2 per cent. The house, which was generating annual revenues of around €350m five years ago, has joined an exclusive club of billion-dollar brands.
According to its chief executive Francesca Bellettini, who spoke at the Financial Times luxury summit in May, the brand’s success has been built on the careful calibration of its product offerings — sales are around 30 per cent split between RTW, shoes and leather goods — and a similarly well proportioned retail-distribution network that is balanced between all the global regions and e-commerce platforms.
Saint Laurent has had the winning formula but it has also had Slimane, the iron-willed wunderkind of the fashion industry and a man with a Midas touch for merchandising. He was loved and hated in equal measure by the fashion press, but he sure knew how to turn product to profit.
Had his successor, Anthony Vaccarello, been having sleepless nights in the build-up to his first collection? Nope. “I haven’t thought about it,” he said backstage as 45 models marched beside us in a final rehearsal for his big debut. His only quiver, he admitted, had been on seeing the vast YSL banner suspended from the show’s entrance in what will be the company’s new headquarters on Rue de Bellechasse, on the Left Bank. “Saint Laurent has such an incredible position in the history of French fashion. It’s always been loved and hated. It’s never been a clean house. And I expect this show will be loved and hated just the same as it always has been.”
If nothing else, it was a brilliant disclaimer. It also underlined quite how different things might be in the new world order. Vaccarello was talking — to journalists! Slimane was always totally dismissive of the media, hostile even. This was a pleasant novelty.
So where did he begin? As with so many incoming designers at heritage brands, Vaccarello’s first appointment had been with the house’s archive, a vast edifice to Saint Laurent’s legacy that is currently undergoing careful renovation by the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent (led by Saint Laurent’s partner). The 36-year-old Belgian designer had been inspired by his recollection of a leopard-print dress with balloon sleeves from Yves Saint Laurent’s 1982 collection. How serendipitous, then, that the exact dress hangs in Saint Laurent’s former office.
“I was thinking of Paloma Picasso, one of Yves Saint Laurent’s muses of the time, and how she repurposed vintage designs from the 1940s to create her look,” he explained. “With this collection I imagined her attitude as it would be today, but with the flea-market find now being an ’80s dress.”
Vaccarello had taken the dress and reinterpreted it 10 different ways — “variations on a theme: one dress, one woman, one story”. For SS17 it was made in leather, or slashed at the waist and worn as a top with jeans; it was retooled as a jacket, and reimagined as a transparent blouse with the same balloon sleeves. The skirts were short and micro. There were also a multitude of takes on Le Smoking: some with oversized trousers, slashed up the leg, some slim-fit and long, sometimes sewn together in a pantsuit; the tuxedo jacket was by turns long or boxy, broad-shouldered and short. After seasons of tiny, tiny silhouettes, Vaccarello had been more generous with the measuring tape. Sometimes that was a good thing — jeans that you could wear! Sometimes, the house’s fabled fit looked a bit sloppy.
“I wanted the collection to be bourgeois with a punky attitude,” explained Vaccarello. “I like to ask what is bad taste and make it look cool.” Heels were needle-thin and sky-high. One heel spelt out “YSL” in lacquered black, which could be very tasteless but wasn’t. If the collection drew a line of continuity from Slimane’s final AW collection and its pelmet-skirted, power-shouldered cocktail dresses, it was accidental. “I wanted to start again. I didn’t look at the recent collections,” said the designer. “This was a selfish show.”
Perhaps most significantly, were no house classics: no trenchcoats, nor pea coats, nor the classic 1968 baby-doll dress shapes that have been so commercially successful of late. Vaccarello had dispensed with the “first-degree clothes” of the brand’s DNA. There weren’t any handbags, either.
“The show isn’t about handbags,” he insisted. “Saint Laurent was founded as a ready-to-wear label and I think handbags on the runway look like I’m trying to sell you something. Besides, all the clothes have lots of pockets. Which is very modern.”
Vaccarello can leave those staples well alone for now. Under Slimane, Saint Laurent remade the core brand icons that are now available as part of its permanent collection. They don’t need reinventing. They will still sell and sell.
Instead, Vaccarello’s challenge is to sustain the brand’s golden lustre of desirability. It’s an unenviable task. Watching the show, with its broad and more diverse casting, newly “relaxed” slouchy trouser shape and gold-spun silhouette, I was politely impressed. But it wasn’t quite the Slimane.