Stefano Pilati's latest collection for Yves Saint Laurent was a mess. And that was precisely the point. An intellectual purist, Pilati is one of those rare designers whose brave lead forges a path for others to inevitably follow. This season, it felt as if he were once again leaping ahead - possibly at such a rate that others will find it nigh-on impossible to comprehend. Certainly, there was plenty of head-scratching during the presentation of his S/S 2010 collection; grimaces colliding with smiles, applause with outright hostility. But a confused response to this willfully confusing collection was understandable, expressing as it did all the profound uncertainty still evident about the role of woman at the start of the twenty-first century. Because Pilati works within a well-established house, it is often inferred that commercialism denies him the opportunity to play these kind of mind-games. But this is simply not true. Indeed, it is a mark of his inestimable skill that Pilati's cerebral, considered clothing plays with the very code of YSL past, present and future to achieve its aims. Was it a coincidence, for example, that the kitsch applique strawberries he splashed across one white gown were a replica of Yves' framboise-strewn organdie blouses from his S/S 2001 Couture collection? Of course not. Likewise the contrast of provincial peasant blouses with kinky, fetishistic leather: the shockant frisson of Yves' 1960 blouson noir reactivated by an injection of our lingering skittishness at a sexually confident woman. What could be more contrasting than a (literally) puritanical Amish blouse tucked in to licentious, crotch-hugging jersey knickers, or a billowing ballgown hitched up to reveal sliced kidskin lederhosen slithering against bare skin? Forget the underwear-as-outerwear cliché. Forget 'new femininity'. In fact, forget all those tired trends proposed as au courant for next season. Pilati was dealing with deeper stuff here. Woman as worker, woman as object, the Madonna-whore principle, austerity versus frivolity, the luxury of exquisite craftsmanship contrasted against an evening-gown rendered in white cotton poplin, edges sliced raw and left to unravel. That minimalism became clinical - in white thermal-bonded jersey boucle and NHS-blue wrap dresses, hanging open at the back like hospital gowns. Femininity became sickeningly saccharine, ruched dresses flecked with florals, ruffles exploding, spiralling and trailing across hemlines, rose thorns clambering across limbs. Extremes were juxtaposed, fused, and collapsed in on each other. It was sexy and sexless, beautiful and hideous, familiar and yet arrestingly new. I'm not sure how well it worked as a fashion show, but as a philosophical exercise it was without comparison. Did I like this collection? No. 'Like' is a phrase that will undoubtedly be absent in discussion of these clothes. It was unlike anything else presented this season, an extraordinary statement, fragmented and shattered, confusing and infuriating - a startling, brutal metaphor for contemporary fashion itself.
There was plenty of head-scratching during the presentation of his S/S 2010 collection; grimaces colliding with smiles, applause with outright hostility.