Against that backdrop — of vast fortune, and of a house literally being rebuilt — Vaccarello showed his Saint Laurent debut in September. There were klieg lights and a 32-foot neon YSL logo dangling from a crane, like a crib mobile, a baited hook or the sword of Damocles, depending on your outlook and degree of cynicism. Vaccarello could, feasibly, want to meet there.
Finally, there’s 5 Avenue Marceau. If the first location represents the creative heart of Saint Laurent and the second its commercial head, this address is its soul. It’s where Saint Laurent’s haute couture house stood, making made-to-measure clothes for a clientele composed of the world’s wealthiest and most discerning women. Although the building remains the same, the ateliers closed in October of 2002, when Saint Laurent retired. Since then, it has been home to the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, a charity devoted to showcasing works of art, and fashion, that intersect with the designer’s oeuvre and interests. At least, it was until last April; this fall, after extensive renovations, it will reopen with a slightly simpler name, as the Musée Yves Saint Laurent. (There will be a counterpart in Marrakesh, on the appropriately named Rue Yves Saint Laurent.)
Avenue Marceau currently houses the history of Yves Saint Laurent: over 20,000 items of clothing, accessories, drawings and various evocative objets. Haute couture garments and the offices of seven conservation specialists are housed in the space formerly occupied by the ateliers. The old staff canteen is now home to hats, shoes and jewelry, kept in rigorous museum-grade conditions. In the room where Saint Laurent’s drawings are stored, pressurized gas cylinders hunker against the wall. In case of fire, they will explode and fill the room with vapor to preserve the drawings. “These are the most important,” says Olivier Flaviano, director of the future Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, of the thousands of sketches boxed by season. “Because they were touched by the hand of Yves Saint Laurent.” The building is the fashion equivalent of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
History has always meant a lot to Saint Laurent — history and continuity. Yves Saint Laurent had four French bulldogs, all named Moujik: When one died, it was swiftly replaced with a close likeness. It’s been the same with the house’s creative successors. While Saint Laurent himself was at the helm, he ceded control of his ready-to-wear women’s wear to the designer Alber Elbaz, better known in his later role as head of Lanvin, and men’s wear to a young Frenchman named Hedi Slimane. Slimane returned in 2012 as creative director of the entire label. In between, it was helmed by the designer-cum-director Tom Ford, and the Italian Stefano Pilati. Slimane exited the label for the second time last spring, and was replaced by Vaccarello, a young Italo-Belgian. All their collections have, to a degree, been contemporary reincarnations of Saint Laurent’s illustrious past.
In the end, Vaccarello and I meet in the marble-floored salons of Rue de l’Université. Above, workrooms hum with activity. Later, we walk through the atelier tailleur, where technicians are busy pinning mannequins with toiles: trials of garments, executed in inexpensive calico to illustrate volumes and to allow a designer some experimentation before cutting into the final fabrics. Around the corner, under the eaves, a trio officially titled modelistes are working on a series of calfskin garments in oil-slick purple and lipstick red. They comprise a new team installed by Vaccarello, who loves leather. Otherwise, the techniques and methods are age-old. All are working on the forthcoming fall collection.
It’s exceptional to be allowed to see this. Upon hearing that I’m a journalist, the workers eye me suspiciously and shield their work protectively until reassured by Yewande Animashawun, the premiere (head) of the tailoring workroom. They are not only concerned about revealing next season’s designs — a degree of furtive secrecy is standard practice in fashion. But for the past four years in particular, the house of Saint Laurent was impenetrable. The previous creative director, Hedi Slimane, had an uneasy relationship with the fashion press, rarely granting interviews and refusing to invite a number of journalists and critics to his shows.
By contrast, Vaccarello says he wants to capture the warmth of Saint Laurent’s early years. I ask if the atelier remembers that time, if any of the original staff remains. “There are some from that period,” he says — 14 staff members from Yves Saint Laurent’s era still work with the company. “The artistic director changes, but the most important people stay.”
Vaccarello is slim, dark-haired, with hooded eyes and a sparse beard covering his chin. It’s flecked with gray, although Vaccarello is only 37. He speaks with a heavy French accent, having grown up in Brussels, the non-Flemish speaking part of Belgium. Vaccarello is also faultlessly modest — and not just when deferring importance to his atelier. He dubbed his own debut collection a “work in progress,” underscored by his decision to present it in the construction site of the new Saint Laurent headquarters. Perhaps humility is a necessary virtue when being awarded one of the trickiest gigs in the business.
Not only is Saint Laurent one of the most influential brands, creatively and culturally, but now, thanks to the success of Slimane, it’s also one of the biggest financially. Whoever designs for the house of Saint Laurent instantly becomes a star. Vaccarello is now in charge of a $283 million-a-year business and the job of reinterpreting Saint Laurent’s legacy as he sees fit: revamping boutiques, reshooting advertising, entirely revising its visual identity.
The history of Saint Laurent, and hence of contemporary expectation, hangs like that Damoclean sword. Complicating matters, some of that history is still living; Saint Laurent died in 2008, but his partner in business and in life, Pierre Bergé, sat front-row at Vaccarello’s debut. Now 86, Bergé became romantically involved with Saint Laurent shortly after their first meeting in 1958; the two lived together until 1976 and Bergé served as C.E.O. of Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture until its closure. During 40 years in fashion, Bergé forged a reputation for his passionate, fiery temper and for a certain severity. It comes through today, undiluted and as recognizable as Bergé’s face, with its proud nose, shock of silver hair and raised, jutting chin. The buttonhole of his lapel is stitched with a hairline tricolor loop of ribbon that signifies he is a Grand Officer of the Légion d’Honneur.
“I don’t know very much Anthony Vaccarello — I’ve seen only one collection,” he emphasizes, emphatically. “Clear?” Bergé pauses, fixing a steely glare. “It is not my business … I want to be very clear with you. I respect very much Pinault — the father and son. They never ask me my advice — happily — and I don’t want to give it.” Bergé has been outspoken in the past. He is still a close personal friend of Hedi Slimane — he employed him first — but was famously dismissive of Tom Ford and Stefano Pilati. Vaccarello is treated more generously. “The difference between Vaccarello and Ford and Pilati is that he likes Saint Laurent,” states Bergé, sternly. “He tries not to imitate. I do not expect a fashion designer to imitate Saint Laurent.”
Vaccarello’s interpretation, to many eyes, was unexpected. Instead of obvious, outright homage, he chose to base his first collection on a leopard-print dress from Yves Saint Laurent’s July 1982 collection. The original was made when Vaccarello was 2.
It’s an obscure starting point for a Saint Laurent collection. As any fashion nerd will swiftly explain, Saint Laurent is hurrahed as the greatest designer of the last century. Rising to fame when appointed Christian Dior’s successor in 1957, he scandalized the establishment three years later by basing a collection on Parisian Existentialists (the initial glimpse of his beloved Left Bank in his clothes) and for making a black leather jacket. His “Beat” line was the first couture collection inspired by the street, and foreshadowed the youthquake counterculture of the 1960s as well as punk. Shortly after, Dior permitted Saint Laurent to be conscripted into the army (he had deferred twice previously), and quietly replaced him. In 1961, Saint Laurent founded his own house with Bergé (who sued Dior for breach of contract to raise the capital). He then set about revolutionizing fashion.
He made trousers for women fashionable, and transmogrified masculine staples such as Caban coats and safari jackets into seductive women’s wear pieces. (He also did the same with Little Lord Fauntleroy knickerbockers, with less lasting impact). He was the first to bare breasts in a fashion show, under a layer of chiffon, in 1968; he spectacularly revived the shoulder pad in his “Forties” collection of 1971, which became the blueprint for a silhouette that would dominate the 1980s; and he launched designer ready-to-wear in 1966, upending the hierarchy of the entire fashion industry and sounding the death knell for the influence of haute couture, if not its actuality. His final show, in 2002, was staged at the Centre Pompidou before 2,000 guests, and was projected on massive outdoor screens to thousands more. It closed with Saint Laurent being serenaded by Laetitia Casta — then the Marianne — and Catherine Deneuve, whose wardrobe he designed for the 1967 film “Belle de Jour.” Two French national monuments, honoring a third.
How do you compete with that?
“To be honest, I did it without thinking too much,” Vaccarello says simply. “When I arrived, my first thing was to meet Pierre Bergé, to really understand the house, and the spirit of who Yves Saint Laurent was. Pierre Bergé was, for me, the most important person to listen to and to see before. Then I went to the archive, to exercise what I had in my mind. For every image I had in my head, I wanted to see the real clothes.”
I reel them off, as anyone who has paid attention to fashion for the last half-century would: dresses patterned with Piet Mondrian’s paintings, the “Le Smoking” tuxedo, the Ballets Russes collection, the green fur chubbie jacket from that 1971 collection. Vaccarello nods to them all.
“I was taking them out of my head. I saw all of that in one week. It was quite amazing. And then I was thinking, how to do my Saint Laurent, now? And how to make it differently than how it was done by all the designers before? I wanted to make something to dream about, not something real. Saint Laurent, when he started, did real clothes. Those real clothes are everywhere, in the stores, in Zara, everywhere. You dress like he predicted in the ’70s. So I didn’t want to do the Caban, the trench, the Saharienne. I wanted to do dresses that were like collages, not a real piece that I saw at the archive.”
Considered from that perspective, Vaccarello’s Saint Laurent debut makes sense. The dresses were, he says, composites of elements from Saint Laurent’s history: the poufy, blousy sleeve of that 1982 dress; a bow from 1991; the lace from a 1971 dress shot by Jeanloup Sieff — all mixed together to create a fusion that speaks to the present. It’s like design via Google image search: type in “YSL” and grab a bit from everywhere. The silhouettes Vaccarello produced were short, racy, leggy, with an inflated ’80s shoulder sometimes slipping down the arm. They spoke not of couture but of club culture. A few dresses, with scooped-out necklines in velvet or leather, were chopped into tops above bluejeans — the only item of clothing Saint Laurent famously said he wished he’d designed. Vaccarello then studded the outfits with identifiable bits of Saint Laurent iconography, like the tassels reminiscent of his Chinoiserie collection as earrings, or the Cassandre-designed “YSL” piercing ears or embedded as heels on shoes.
“Everyone has an idea of Saint Laurent,” says Vaccarello, with an exasperated sigh. “But he did so many things. It’s impossible … ” Impossible to live up to? Impossible to span all of those in a single collection? Or maybe just impossible to please everyone? Perhaps that’s why Vaccarello went for styles out of left field as opposed to those great greatest hits. “More than another house, when you see everything that Yves Saint Laurent did … ” Vaccarello’s voice trails off. “You do flowers, he did it. You do lacing, he did it.”
Marcel Proust insisted that remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were. That’s frequently the case with Yves Saint Laurent, who, incidentally, was sufficiently obsessed with Proust to base the décor of his chateau on his work, and to commission Louis Vuitton to create a monogrammed crate to cart his volumes of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” around in. Contrary to popular belief, Saint Laurent wasn’t universally canonized. His trendsetting 1971 collection was severely dismissed at the time. He was nicknamed “Yves Saint Debacle” and the collection was called “a tour de force of bad taste.”
The debuts of Saint Laurent’s successive successors have, famously, been less than successful, each individually undergoing a baptism by fire. Some dubbed Tom Ford’s version “slick,” as a pejorative; Pierre Bergé pointedly refused to comment. Saint Laurent himself, still alive, would not attend. Stefano Pilati’s was described as clichéd French, his ruffled skirts compared to chicks in an Easter parade. A few said that Slimane’s early outings resembled Topshop or the stylist Rachel Zoe’s eponymous line. “At Saint Laurent, everyone hate … ” laughs Vaccarello. “I find it fascinating. I like it. Maybe I’m a masochist or something, but I like that it’s a passionate house, you love it or hate it.”
Critical reviews of Vaccarello’s first show were mixed: The French, he stated, eyebrows raised, were laudatory. Others, not so much, specifically the powerful American newspapers. “I like having different opinions of what I’m doing,” he says magnanimously, when I broach the subject. He was pleased that Bergé seemed pleased. “He loved what you could connect the most to Yves Saint Laurent,” Vaccarello says.
Vaccarello seems, on the surface, unconnected to Saint Laurent. His sensibility has been sniped at by Italians and Belgians as smacking too much of each other. Vaccarello recalls that when studying at La Cambre, the Belgian fashion academy that also educated Olivier Theyskens, he was asked to pick a contemporary designer’s work to study. Others chose the Belgian deconstructionist Ann Demeulemeester, or the minimalist Helmut Lang. Vaccarello chose Tom Ford. After working in Rome under Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi, Vaccarello established his own label in 2009, gaining attention for souped-up short-and-sexy dresses in the body-contouring mold of Azzedine Alaïa as well as that of Ford. He was plucked by Donatella Versace to design her Versus line in 2014 in much the same formula.
Saint Laurent is an unexpected step, given that path. Even Vaccarello didn’t anticipate the offer from Kering. “I had a lot of propositions for working for houses before. It was always a no. I didn’t want to leave my brand if it was not for something like … this,” Vaccarello shrugs, looking into a full-length mirror, inlaid into a marble alcove. “I went, because I am polite. It was very clear, no, no, no. But as a joke I said ‘The only house I will stop my brand for and would be interested to work with is Saint Laurent.’ ” When he was officially given the Saint Laurent job, Vaccarello sat on the news for a few months as rumors swirled, before the official announcement was made in April of last year.
Vaccarello’s office at Rue de l’Université is, roughly, the size of his former studio in its entirety. It’s currently pinned with the elements he’s planning to integrate into his next collection, due to be shown in March. There are no fabrics or sketches, just image after image, layered over each other, in sections titled “Big Black Sequins” or “Animal Embroideries.” There are lots of ’80s party dresses, in the same vein as that of Vaccarello’s debut. There are a bunch of fur coats. An image of a famous fall 1980 Saint Laurent haute couture jacket embroidered with a quote from the Jean Cocteau poem “Batterie” sits next to a photograph of Debbie Harry in a slogan tee. “That’s the starting point,” states Vaccarello, tapping it. “But everything can change.”
Vaccarello will show some men’s wear, but there’s the sense he isn’t massively involved in that side of the business, although men have featured in his Saint Laurent campaigns. Generally, the men are used as accessories to the women — like those big tasseled earrings, or the logo heels. Image is important to Vaccarello. He’s shot three print campaigns, although he’s only produced one collection. The first featured mostly-naked models writhing in denim, photographed by Collier Schorr; the second, by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, which was released in magazines in October, effectively previewed Vaccarello’s first collection, with the model Anja Rubik in a short leather dress with exaggerated shoulders. The full campaign images hit magazines this spring, again photographed by Schorr and entirely different from the October shots. “For me the image of Saint Laurent is sometimes more important than the collection,” states Vaccarello bluntly. “It’s not about clothes, it’s more about a mood, an emotion, a way to live, a way to move. Rather than buy that jacket, buy that bag.”
Saint Laurent, as a house, has been a master image manipulator. Yves Saint Laurent famously posed for a nude portrait to advertise his first men’s fragrance. A later campaign for his wildly successful Opium scent courted controversy with its caption, “For those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent.” Slimane, too, showed the power of image: Despite unfavorable criticism of his clothes, they sold, due in part to the polished campaigns and a rehauling of the label’s overall aesthetic. Perhaps that will be the real litmus test for Vaccarello: Can he carve a distinct identity for his own tenure? After all, Vaccarello’s debut dresses aren’t enormously different than the after-dark proportions of Slimane’s collections.
Ultimately, success is marked by how well the clothes sell. For all that fuss about the history of Saint Laurent, for all the thousands of garments hermetically sealed in the archives, how much does legacy really matter? How much do ordinary customers care about the cultural capital of storied brands like Saint Laurent, so prized and cosseted and worshiped by the industry? Should one have to visit the Musée Yves Saint Laurent to understand a Vaccarello dress?
Vaccarello made some connections blatant — a YSL logo is fairly unmistakable — but few would dissect his dresses into the collaged components he referenced, and relate them back to Saint Laurent’s heritage. Nor do they need to in order to enjoy wearing them. It’s the opposite of Yves Saint Laurent’s distinguished cadre of haute couture clients, whose intelligence and culture were, supposedly, reflected in the choice of garments on their backs. They could read Yves Saint Laurent’s references — to Cubism, to Shakespeare — and appreciate the sentiments.
“I think it’s not about changing identity,” Vaccarello says of his role at Saint Laurent. “It’s about making it for now.” Maybe this is a whole new approach to fashion, in the digital age of constant distractions. The history’s there, if you want to remember it.
But, to paraphrase Proust, you’ll only find those lost times if you search for them.
An earlier version of this article included outdated information about Anthony Vacarello’s design plans in his new role at Saint Laurent. After this article had gone to press, Saint Laurent announced it would show some men’s designs alongside women’s in their February 2017 Paris show.
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