Subversively conservative is a convenient paradox to describe the collection Stefano Pilati showed for Yves Saint Laurent. Then again, that pithy phrase perfectly describes the legacy chez YSL. With his last two collections pushing the envelope and taking the house into new and uncharted waters, for Autumn/Winter 2009 Pilati retreated back into the classic Saint Laurent codes, toying with those tried and tested stalwarts of buttery leather, neat suits, sharp shoulders and a subtle frisson of fetishism.
But retreat does not necessarily mean defeat, nor does it mean shy and retiring. It started with the presentation - this season there were no fireworks, no crammed, custom-crafted venue in the confines of the Grand Palais, no urgent insurgent music and no automaton models. Instead, it was soft jazz on the soundtrack and a venue so intimate you could hear the models' every heavy footfall in those signature thick-soled Yves Saint Laurent shoes. As always, those stood as a concise summary for the collection: a classic closed court, sharpened to razor-point at the toe and with the high and hefty heel a believable clefted wedge. Realism is an odd and often pejorative word to use in fashion, but Pilati's clothing this time had that touch of realism - and dare we say it, commercialism. Now was not the time for a grand, radical statement, but for a collection that proposed a wardrobe women will actually want to wear. And Pilati did just that.
Propriety was on Stefano Pilati's mind, albeit propriety with a twist. He's evidently been watching Belle de Jour and thinking of subtle sexual games to play. Thus pliant, yielding black leather opened the show, swathing the models from the toes of those chunky shoes to the top of their impeccable leather-wrapped chignons by way of twisted takes on classic workaday outfits, with only fishnet stocking between skin and hide. A trench was twisted into a billowing culotte-jumpsuit, kidskin dungarees slithered over bared flesh and a taut jolie madame suit came tricked out with silver zips and studded collar. Later, those suits came in pinstriped cashmere in elegant shades of grey, firm derriere framed in pencil skirts by a sliced-out panel in the jacket hem. It was all about the fine French art of perversion - and in the hands of Pilati it was sexual dynamite. There was a whisper of the eighties, but of course this was a decade Saint Laurent helped define - not least with the signature strong YSL shoulder, this time popped out horizontally in a narrow sleeve, sometimes overlaid with a flange of fabric to ram the point home. Unlike so many others, Pilati's compact silhouette managed to steer clear of the bandage-wrapped, perhaps in the way he contrasted volume with fit, as in a billowing white silk-taffeta blouse with ruffle jabot over a high-waisted skirt that sensuously hugged, rather than bound, the thighs. Likewise, pleated skirts were a force field of give and take with fullness dissipating into strict seams, curving lines outlining haunches and textile suddenly released into flirty explosions of volume at the hem.
There was no thrill to this show. There was no shock. There was no drama. What there was were beautiful desirable and faultlessly chic clothes with an eminent reality to them; a reincarnation of the quintessential Parisienne; a collection that Saint Laurent himself would have loved; and overwhelmingly, overridingly, an odd sense of sated satisfaction and sublime contentment. Stefano Pilati achieved a rare, rare thing.