Stefano Pilati's tenure at Yves Saint Laurent - and more significantly, its possible termination - has been the subject of insinuation, speculation and outright accusation for almost as long as he's been at the house. One senses that, for all his smiling good grace, Pilati's never been entirely at home in the house that Yves built. That's not to say he hasn't designed some rather wonderful clothes: he most certainly has. But somehow, even his greatest hits seem to have fallen short of what people expect. That's the trouble with taking on a legend. You're bound to lose.
The unease that Pilati feels at Saint Laurent has often manifested itself in his clothes. Remember dresses made from strawberry-splodged curtains (hang-tape intact)? Remember the sick chic of a pussy-bow knotted in mink, or the show where models marched uneasily on violet-dotted sods of earth in spiked stilettos? Any woman could tell you, that's no picnic. Neither is designing for Yves Saint Laurent, and you don't need to be a psychologist to divine that from the most recent Yves Saint Laurent collections.
I wouldn't call Pilati's clothes torture, but sometimes there's a touch of the torturous to their execution. For spring 2012, Pilati played it safe, on the whole. That seems to be his latest ruse to mastering the beast of Yves Saint Laurent. Pilati playing safe is Pilati playing by the book, retreating into the YSL archive and into traditional, codified representations of femininity. This was a collection of nice but entirely unremarkable clothes, a few staid blouses and blazers, skirts with a flute of volume at the hem gingerly tracing the knee, puffy prom dresses in bubbly silk-faille suspended from spaghetti straps. There was some paisley, and a few embroidery spangled evening looks at the end that made me think of Yves Saint Laurent's dashing Ballets Russes collection of 1976, flushed with brilliant colour, lush fabrics and an audacious and delicious fashion reappropriation of gypsy chic. To say todays were a pale imitation is a grave understatement.
There is something wrong at Yves Saint Laurent. For all the Saint Laurent-isms peppering this show and all the nods to next season's 'key trends' (puckered peplums, the hauteur of couture, lotsa white) nothing hit the right spot. You were left shifting uncomfortably, being unable to pin-point exactly what was amiss. Reviewing the images after the event, I noticed a couple of wool blouses, their provocative decolletes prudishly wrapped with scarves in an X. It felt as if Stefano Pilati was crossing his heart and pledging his allegiance to Yves Saint Laurent - a French national icon that ranks somewhere between the Marianne and Catherine Deneuve when it comes to Gallic reverence. Maybe reverence is what Pilati intended in this bourgeoise and well-behaved collection. Ironically, neither of those things strike me as very Saint Laurent at all.