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Stefano Pilati on the Past — and a Bit of the Future

The designer made his first public appearance since his final Yves Saint Laurent show earlier this month.

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NEW YORK — “Lots and lots and lots of vacation.”

That’s Stefano Pilati, jokingly describing his next move to Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre, during a conversation at Florence Gould Hall Tuesday night — the designer’s first public appearance since his final Yves Saint Laurent show earlier this month. The event was held under unusual circumstances. Part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s annual “Fashion Talks” series, it was scheduled before the designer’s ouster from YSL, the house he worked for 12 years (eight as its chief designer); exactly a month to the day after YSL revealed his departure and paved the way for Hedi Slimane to succeed him, and in the same week major YSL executives were in town because the fashion house sponsored the Metropolitan Opera’s gala premiere of “Manon” on Monday night.

None of it, however, stopped Pilati from talking about his career, which took him from Cerruti to Giorgio Armani, Prada and YSL; his overall fashion philosophy, and some of the challenges he faced at the iconic French house, which, under him, returned to profitability.

“I am really good,” Pilati told the audience, which included former YSL chief executive officer Valerie Hermann, with whom he worked closely. “I am really happy, which is something very unusual for me in a sense that I never believed that it could have been possible to feel happy, at least under these kinds of circumstances.

“It’s pretty beautiful what happened to me,” he added. “I found myself working and being supported and encouraged by amazing people I always admired and still admire. I found myself at the end of this chapter and don’t regret one minute.”

In the hour-long conversation, Pilati displayed a confidence and an almost Zen-like calm — which was at odds, perhaps, with a reputation that puts him in a league with some of the more difficult designers.

“Complex, passionate,” Pilati self-reflected, when asked to describe himself as a designer.

The native Milanese had a few things to say about his challenging start at YSL, first working under Tom Ford and, in 2004, taking over the design helm when Ford left Gucci Group.

“Let’s not go there,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think ‘challenging’ is the right word. It was dramatic, it was tragical. No, it was great. Tom has such self-confidence that you can really absorb it, and he has enough for everybody around him. And I definitely got it. I said, ‘give it to me.’ I had questioned every single moment of my life, so imagine he brings me there and gives me a lot of responsibility with an amazing relationship.”

The Italian admitted that working in a very French corporate environment wasn’t easy at first. “It was a bit shocking for me, and I believe it was a bit shocking for [Tom] too,” he said — but he eventually settled in his new role. Measuring up to the then-living deity Saint Laurent was a different story altogether, and Pilati admitted that it complicated his role and how to respect Saint Laurent’s vast body of work without looking back.

“When, in 2008, he passed away, a lot of people asked me, ‘Do you feel something has changed or will change now that he is not alive?’” Pilati recalled. “At first, I said, ‘I don’t think so, I always try to do my best.’ But it had changed. I could feel that the fact his physical presence wasn’t there anymore in a way gave me a sense of freedom, that, before, I decided I didn’t want to embrace.

“One thing I wanted to keep completely intact was to be spontaneous and instinctive, which is what Mr. Saint Laurent taught us,” Pilati added.

Before starting work on a collection, Pilati would often express his own fashion instincts, then look at the archive to somehow find ways to relate the designs to Saint Laurent’s own work — “and of course we find it because he has done everything that is possible.”

His greatest achievement at YSL, he said, was his “resistance,” he said, though he probably meant to say perseverance. “I did the first show and I swear, I thought that was it,” he said. “I thought, ‘Do the show, get it over with. They’re going to fire me straight away.’”

When Golbin asked Pilati about designers who have inspired him, he cited Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada, and, obviously, Saint Laurent. “I also have a passion for Japanese designers,” he said, adding he was delighted with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s decision to honor Rei Kawakubo with the International Award at the CFDA Awards this June. “I think there is justice in this life,” he said.

When pressed for his future plans, however, Pilati remained vague. “I find myself with this amazing experience. I want to use it for something that makes me feel that I am part of this moment and that helps me to continue.

“Unless I decide to stay on vacation for the rest of my life, I am pretty sure I have the energy and the knowledge at least to try to do something relevant, something that is part of what people need.”

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