An interview with Stefano Pilati by Merlin Carpenter

Carpenter: Obviously I knew the story about YSL, that it was taken over by Gucci under Tom Ford with new shops and a new strategy. But I was having a little look at YSL menswear a year or two after you took over in 2004 and was I quite surprised. I liked some trousers and stuff around then. But then in Autumn 2007 I really started to see something in it. If you looked at the clothes together, you could see they had these various references happening at the same time, sometimes in the same piece of clothing. I got the sense that there was a kind of play going on, between different ideas and references to different periods. And then the colour would go against the reference. For example fourties tailoring with tight jacket and baggy trousers in seventies colours, a nineties-style camouflage sweater in olive green or oversized or undersized eighties jackets next to cream sweatpants. And I suddenly realised that there was something there that interested me. Because I like it when things have a lot in them, but you can read them, if you know what I mean. And then a year after that I was at a talk you did at the London College of Fashion, and then at the end of the talk somebody in the audience was asking about layers of references, which you responded to. So those two experiences confirmed my interest in your work. So maybe you could respond to that, if it is an adequate response to what you are doing.

Pilati: I guess it’s exact, in the sense that it is correct. There are definitely references in my work. I appreciate that you caught the subtlety of them and I guess the subtlety of them is a reflection of the fact that somehow, in everything I do, I spent all my life going against references, because I am deeply convinced that as much as they’re part of your natural growth either in intellectual or I would say educational terms, they are also what can fix you. References come to your mind as fast as ideas and when you start to analyse your idea, because you’re obviously connected to it, you start to analyse it not because you want to be conceptual or intellectual, necessarily, especially not in a domain like fashion, but because you want to see if it might make sense or not. When you start to analyse your initial idea, you realise that it comes from references. This is the moment when I’m like „Oh, am I making something that has been done already“? You start this constant debate with yourself. And this is a back and forth between creating something new or doing something that has already been done and reinterpreting it. I guess this is the most difficult part of my job – I guess also for more or less everybody. So the most important thing for me is to keep my integrity in terms of spontaneity about what I do. Sometimes I oblige myself to not analyse it, at least at first glance, and try to enjoy this impulse as deeply as I can when an idea comes up.

Carpenter: Even though it might in a way be a reference to something else or something quite recently done in another way.

Pilati: I guess it is also the only way to discover your personality. I am a fashion person, so even if I wasn’t a fashion designer I would have been instinctive in my choices of what to wear and what I wouldn’t wear and what I would like to find. In the past I worked for other people, so I used my ideas in the service of others.(1) But what is happening now is that I am responsible for what I am doing. And I guess it is my role that is pushing me to analyse what I am doing and live through all these feelings and thoughts. It is what is expected, but it is also what you expect from yourself.

Carpenter: Ok, so there is this spontaneous aspect where you wouldn’t go into what those references would be. As someone looking at it from the outside I was thinking that the references could be so different and not connected to each other so that they would add up to something that didn’t look like a reference, even though you might want to look into it and see the references, and you might be able to unpick them and get them out again, you probably could, but you wouldn’t get it at once, it would be at first glance something unknown or kind of opaque.

Pilati: Yeah. Besides the fact that I have studied the work of Yves Saint Laurent, it is not only something that I picked up from his work, but I got just from being around myself with this attitude to my references and how to deal with them and live with them. Also with the knowledge that I have of artists, limited as it is. I enjoy reading about affinities between Velázquez and Bacon or Picasso and how much was influenced and all that, but still these artists kept their personality completely intact. Let’s say they justify my struggle to not judge too much when some references are a bit more evident than others. So I guess that the only way to really be satisfied with yourself is when you appreciate that there is a balance between these things, you find a balance between or within your creations. Does that make sense?

Carpenter: Yes. You talk about the idea of an artist keeping his or her personality intact. I see this as being about more or less having a line, following a line of development, which is the key to being able to do anything, to not get scared. So the obvious question arising from that is that you are in the clothes business and there are many things that could deviate you from this line. And if you want to reverse direction in your work or do things that seem superficial or like backward steps, it could be a slightly more scary thing than if an artist would do that. An artist would just do an exhibition that might be considered rubbish - so what. But you have a large organisation. It must be a little harder to allow yourself to go slightly against yourself and trust yourself in that way and mix things up and have several things going on at once, for example. You sometimes have a collection – you see that quite strongly in the menswear – where there are several different looks. I’m thinking for example of the season with the green felt biker style jacket in Fall 2008. There were several different directions going on at once in that collection. So the question is, if it isn’t quite a tense situation to balance these two things: allowing that to happen, and having to explain it and promote it.

Pilati: It’s tense, of course. But at the same time… I never studied in my life. Having learned a method is my academic skill, if you want. The method is what allows me to put things together and make them a reality. There’s not really a tension, it’s more like an obvious and necessary element of the creative process. You can’t just go “whatever”. At one point you have to make sense somehow, you have to inscribe your work or your ideas in a context. Then the surface of this context, the width or the length of this context is up to you, how much bigger or small or focused or large you want to take it. Definitely circumstances here, especially in menswear, put me into a situation where I kept it pretty large for a long time. I am now getting more and more focused in what I am doing. In women’s wear as well. But at first I had to try – for commercial reasons, because a) I am by nature a bit greedy and b) because the market is greedy and c) the market is getting larger and larger – I had to try to appeal to everybody, to please everybody, but on top of that there is also the heritage of the brand. That was not just something that happened in the blink of an eye. It was forty years of fashion history. You realise that there is so much involved in the imagination of the people that you don’t really know about. You do fashion, because you want to seduce people… I felt for a long time, a bit less now, but still a bit, as if I was on a stage, trying to play different roles and seeing what the reaction of the public was and trying to please the left side of the audience and then the front side of the audience and then the one on the balcony and then the one who was backstage, and physically, but also mentally, intellectually and personally, I felt many, many times like I was a court jester, trying to make everybody laugh. And now, growing with these experiences and also ageing, and hopefully getting wiser, I try to be more comfortable with my personality. So I say, maybe I shouldn’t care so much about pleasing everybody but better focus on what I really like. I’ve been able to do that and to realise that I have nothing too much to prove to myself in the sense that I have always been a fashionable person and a stylish person, somebody who liked fashion and somebody, who uses dressing up to present himself in a certain way, that I don’t necessarily need to be a fashion designer to prove to people that I am like that. The struggle to accept all this is not as easy as to say it. As much as you are always moving around trying to please everybody there is also a strength you have to build, like pushing everybody away from you.




Carpenter: From my point of view, it’s been cool looking at these menswear collections over several years, each one with things that I was interested in or thinking about, not as an artist, but as a potential buyer, thinking about the price, shall I get this, is it going to sell out, should I go back to the shop, in that kind of mode. I think the menswear did get gradually tighter, and then the Fall 2009 collection was incredibly focused, really hitting you over the head, and it wasn’t necessarily that similar to the previous menswear. So something happened where you were pushing much harder. I see that as some sort of artistic improvement, because it is so focused it allows you to see the same material, but much more immediately. But is that also linked to being commercial, to allow it to go further?

Pilati: Well, something more pragmatic happened. I found myself having to deal with a very fragmented clientele, linked to the brand’s heritage and the founder; it was considered transgressive and at the same time conservative, it was considered very fashion, but at the same time very formally elegant. This is what I had to face up to, in the light of my instinct and my understanding of the market, especially in menswear. Also my life has changed since I became a fashion designer, I got this job and I started living in Paris. My daily life changed, in that I had to face many different situations and some of them required a protocol in what you wear. What I do is a projection of what my life is or what I feel or what I would like to wear. I always started a show in the past with suits and then I started to go a bit more casual, then more eccentric and then more formal again towards the evening wear section. That was, again, trying to appeal to everybody, but also to show what was happening to me in my daily life, for example in terms of a dress code, no matter how free you appear to be in the fashion industry, seen from the outside. Now I’ve decided to protect myself a bit more. To do all that was taking a lot of energy, a lot out of me, pushing maybe too far. Maybe now I’ve decided to be a bit more reserved. I don’t have to prove to myself or to anyone else that I am able to mix casual wear with formal wear and to create this new formal chic. I am also more intrigued by the technical aspect of the clothes. And so that is pushing me to be more focused by fact, in the sense that there are certain skills that are put into the collections, into the clothes.

Carpenter: Which is enough.

Pilati: Yes, which is enough. I want to maintain it as it is. I don’t want to add anything else to it. Maybe that’s now part of my self-confidence. It’s still part of me and I traced that path already. So I feel it is good to move somewhere else, that’s part of evolution. But again there is a method. There is no evolution, if there is not a previous method that has been integrated. I still think that to make that happen you can’t be completely irrational in what you’re doing.

Carpenter: In the earlier menswear shows you seemed to have some weird pieces in the middle of the collections, now in the last few shows this weird middle part has burst out and infected everything else, the suits that used to be at either end. So it’s more integrated.

Pilati: Yes, I start to like that. But now I really organise my work. There is a certain segment of the YSL customers that has been taken into account, by building what I call a formal collection, and this has allowed me to focus on the fashion show. What I show on the runway is the real message of the season, which is whatever I want to say, whatever I am feeling, whatever I want to wear.

Carpenter: So there is always a parallel collection of formal, commercial suits?

Pilati: Yes. It’s going to be the second season now. But that doesn’t mean that I am not going to show suits on the runway, but let’s say that if I want to show only feather coats, I can. I can stop worrying that a corporate guy will never be my client, because he’s the one who maybe has the money to buy the clothes.

Carpenter: That process of integration and powering up seemed to happen with the women’s clothes two years earlier in Fall 2007. I don’t see the process you just described – the removal of a layer of thought or conceptual control or separation – as leading to a lessening of the conceptual element in the work, actually I think it allows that element to be more clearly visible. Related to that is also the issue of colour, because some of these more extreme collections are mostly grey or black and that also allows you to see the design more clearly. It can seem more vivid to have 10 grey suits or dresses come towards you than coloured ones, and it can communicate more. And I think that when you use colour it sometimes is also quite referential. I look at the colour and it seems to be signifying the word of the colour. I am thinking of that green biker jacket again. It doesn’t really register as green, it’s just shouting the word green, in a funny way. It might as well be black, whereas the grey clothes actually just sort of allow it… that’s not really a question.


Merlin Carpenter   YSL A/W 2007   FASHION IS FUN   YSL A/W 2007  
fall       09      


Pilati: Your question is about my use of colour. There is something I need to say once and for all, I feel really pushed to do colours because people seem amused when a fashion designer or a collection is colourful and I eventually decided that I don’t give a fuck if they get amused. I am somebody who is able to put colours together and dress up very colourfully, but it took years of education and research. In the past, in the seventies, in the eighties, in the early sixties – I guess in the sixties it was a bit easier because it was more monochrome, even in the fifties the silhouette was all green for example, nobody dared to match different colours – but in the seventies and eighties, there were real disasters. You saw people who were really, really bad, colourful, and they became like a joke wandering around towns or in clubs and we were all amused about that. I take colours much more seriously. I put them together in a nice way or in a harmonic way or to be daring, like contrasting colours that make sense in a chromatic way. You need to be knowledgeable, you need to be really skilled, and it takes time. You’re not going to teach people how to put colours together every six months or in the eight minutes of a fashion show. I sometimes use colours as punctuation in a dark or grey or non-colour palette. It’s the more poetic aspect that I give the collection, when I consider them floating in the universe of fashion, whatever a collection is, and whatever sense it makes to ask Stefano Pilati to do another bloody fashion show, I use them as a punctuation in the romantic sense of a different sound in a melody. Generally I am very much against a show-off attitude, and colours always tend to scream that.

Carpenter: You often use elements of what might have been called “deconstruction” at one time, for example Comme des Garcons from the eighties, but also things like destroyed fabrics or distressing. It seems that you and possibly other designers of your generation have a very different relationship to the idea of a deconstructed item of clothing than the original developments that happened in the early nineties or in the eighties, profoundly different to Margiela or something. It’s just another reference, but it can add in… less overtly.

Pilati: I guess that the very early nineties and the eighties were defined by deconstructive clothes. It was more like an evolution of fashion itself in the sense that we came from the seventies when everything was highly constructed. And I guess it was a way to evolve into something new, while today it is more that we use the constructed fabrics as a denial of the formal. It’s more like everything wants to looked used. When everything wants to look used that’s basically saying there’s no new anymore, and therefore is new. And this is what has interested certain of my colleagues, if I can speak on behalf of other people, or simply myself. The other aspect of deconstructed clothes is about construction and manufacturing. In my case, I started working in this house under my predecessor (2) and the first reference that we were all into was this unpackably constructed, structured, heavy kind of clothing, because we were referencing the unpackable posture developed in the brand’s heritage. Even though they definitely had a sort of appeal, now I don’t find them real and I don’t find them contemporary. So that’s why I went against that feel with a direction toward something that looked structured, but wasn’t structured.




Carpenter: I like some ideas that you have talked about elsewhere. One fascinates me particularly, when you say that more than being a great designer, you are interested in supporting the fashion industry.(3) I take this in the widest sense, meaning you want to improve the level of the debate, improving things for the public and for your fellow designers. I understand that to be beyond supporting just the brand, though maybe the three letters YSL represent something of importance to many. So that’s a whole other level of responsibility and I think what characterises your work is feeling responsible for other people, taking all these things on board. Maybe you found personal freedom to do quite extreme things, but this is intended to work within a wider context. You are in this quite fixed role of somebody who is the Creative Director of a brand, yet you have this other long-term view which you have also described as slowly building a brick wall, using quite difficult gestures to build up a different level of communication.(4) Which I understand perfectly, I totally understand what you are getting at. It’s about a wider thing, about a collective sense of producing a better debate and better conditions for a debate, not just for yourself. How does that fit with YSL being a brand, within Gucci Group, within the François Pinault empire? You are not expected to build up long-term collective identities of an abstract nature, are you?

Pilati: I might not be expected to, but still I take these things on. Don’t forget I am deeply grateful to fashion. And I can consider myself as fashion designer thanks to all the people who helped me be where I am today. When I say „all the people“ I don’t only mean Miuccia or Tom or Mr. Armani. I am also talking about workers who were my colleagues or people who were in the stock department, literally everybody. Because I grew up more in factories than in design studios, hands on, I could really see how much my work was related to somebody else living and surviving. I worked for a fabric company and they bought this printing machine that was an enormous investment and it was in a moment where printers were going down and so I had to make up my mind and feel the responsibility. I felt the pressure, but nobody was giving it to me, I felt it, because I was part of it. So I thought „Well, I am a creative person, let’s make it work“, and in fact it worked, because I made Armani a client of many of other firms and they all started to buy my prints. I am talking about something that happened 15 years ago. I was younger, but that is now part of me, now I integrated that system. And when I found myself working for a design studio I could see from the other side what it could mean to ask for somebody or to employ somebody or to choose something instead of something else. That is definitely an element of responsibility that I integrated into my way of being. Plus I am grateful for doing what I like and having a quality of life that is pretty average, interesting. Thirdly there is the history of the brand. Normally I don’t compare myself with anybody, but Yves Saint Laurent is someone who I can remember and he is part of my referential universe. And as much as I hate references, going back to your first question, I like the idea that I can be a reference one day.
Carpenter: I am using you as a reference to think about two ideas. Firstly you are doing your own work, you concentrate on yourself, almost your own body in the menswear, but as a model for other people and as a collective or transformative project – the ability that fashion can have to be communicative, educational, functional and sociological. So that’s one area that I am using as an example, that somebody is trying something so programmatic from such a famous and established position. Even though it’s about just being a designer and having fun, it’s also about being serious, serious in relation to things general and not just serious about fashion. The second way I am using your work since 2004 as a model relates to the idea of assembling a show, creating an artificial situation, tying things down into a resolved presentation. There are a lot of references in there, mixed up ideas, which merge into each other, but then build it up into something which is very tight. And for a moment, it looks beautiful, artificial, abstract and conceptual, all at the same time, but it’s actually not, it’s been built up through layers. That might seem limited, but it’s quite interesting. Because you can still trace back in it the ideas and the references, that means you can’t get rid of them again. It’s not a flash in the pan thing …one second and famous for six months. It kind of sticks around, because the abstraction achieved is a real one.

Pilati: The moment you decide to work against your limits, you can be focused in one moment. There is something that you said that is very important when thinking about fashion. We do something that is six months ahead of other people. So already this responsibility, this element, pushes you to last at least for the next six months. And so the moment that you start to think that you are showing something that is six months ahead, it becomes a vision. It doesn’t necessarily become the reality, and the reality maybe just belongs to you for that moment or to the audience that is privileged to see it. What is a bit difficult now is that the accessibility that people have to fashion destroys it a bit. That’s why the vision of a designer or the vision of a brand gets more and more fragile. I truly believe that it is very difficult to be a fashion designer today, because it seems that anybody can be one. I guess as an artist as well.

Carpenter: There are a lot of artists around.

Pilati: Thank God I am a creative person so that I can move ahead any time I want, to destabilise the people around me.





  1. Stefano Pilati previously worked for Nino Cerruti, Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada and under Tom Ford at Yves Saint Laurent.
  2. Tom Ford.
  4. Lynn Hirschberg, The Tastemaker, THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine 29/8/08.


Originally published in TEXTE ZUR KUNST No. 78, June 2010, p. 53 (German) and 116 (English).


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