"The collection centres around the Yves Saint Laurent heritage of tailoring and the concept of iconography," says Stefano Pilati, creative director of the French fashion house since 2005. "My focus was on construction and volume and on applying, with precise tailoring, what is traditionally a masculine approach to women's fashion. At the same time, I was thinking about icons. Yves Saint Laurent's own, rich iconography but also the universality of signs and symbols and their power and influence over every day life."
There can, of course, be few more universal symbols than that of the star that looms large this season in this particular collection as well as that of that other great French institution, Chanel. For Karl Lagerfeld, spring/summer 2008 is an unabashed celebration of Americana – and the stars and stripes of the American flag in particular. It seems like a curious reference, given that country's current state of economic downturn, although maybe that is precisely the point. Something's got to persuade the vital US consumer to part with his or her hard-earned cash, after all, and a heady dose of unabashed patriotism may do the job.
For Pilati, however, the presence of oversized stars decorating shoes, bags and, in the case of the look featured here, a particularly modernist take on the chain mail vest is more abstract in flavour.
"For me, stars are symbols of life, light and dreams," says the designer. "They are at once spiritual and childlike. They act as the only real adornment in the collection which is otherwise quite disciplined. Embroidered or in coloured Plexiglass, stars appear literally in the ready-to-wear, on shoes and in jewellery, but also metaphorically as inspiration for pattern-making and draping techniques."
It's all quite brilliant – in the truest sense of the word.
The heady mix of eroticism and sophistication – over and above the gratuitous flaunting of flesh – that was always key to Yves Saint Laurent's own oeuvre is here very much in evidence. It almost goes without saying that this is among the most extreme pieces in the collection, both creatively and financially – the price tag of £19,000 might hardly be described as a snip – but its construction is indeed echoed throughout not least in the cut of the French navy honeycomb cotton jersey skirt that accompanies it and which is as deceptively simple as it is quintessentially chic. Moreover, Saint Laurent himself relied on a similar play between the overt fashion statement and an apparently classical style. Take as example the sheer black chiffon blouse of the late 1960s that scandalised both general public and fashion insider when it was first shown, worn with nothing more outré than a well-cut pair of black trousers.
For his part, three seasons ago Pilati moved away from the hourglass silhouette and traditional embellishment favoured by bourgeois French fashion, and by the grand couture houses in particular, and towards an aesthetic that, while not strictly speaking minimal, seemed restrained by comparison. It was also, by jolie madame standards at least, distinctly on the roomy side. "I felt the need to go back to the essence of the clothes," he said at the time, "to what the clothes mean and what it means to be a designer today. I liked the idea of simplicity which is very Saint Laurent, very Rive Gauche. Once you have a very beautiful coat, for example, with a very beautiful cut, in a very beautiful fabric, you don't need to do anything more. So I worked on the fabric, I worked on the cut, I worked on the volume and on the idea of anti-opulence."
This mindset, too, referred back to the house's namesake who, in his early and most radical incarnation, famously brought the uniform of the Beat generation to the couture catwalk, proudly upholding the values of May 1968 to an audience who were espoused to anything but.
"I wanted it to be political," Pilati, said of his own change of direction. "Saint Laurent has always been that way and provocative too. I'm more and more affected by what's going on around me. What am I going to do? Sequins? It didn't feel right. I didn't feel good. Fashion should not simply be an exercise for a designer to celebrate his vision. My vision is only a vision if people respond to it and I respond to them and their needs. I'm not interested in a theme for the sake of a theme, it's more of an attitude. I think maybe women will appreciate that."
They may indeed and, with this in mind, the designer hasn't looked back. This season, the oversized grey tailoring of autumn/winter has given way to a lighter, warm-weather interpretation cut in technically advanced weaves of cotton, jersey and even grey marle, normally the preserve of sportswear. The cut is still generous over-and-above body-conscious though high-waisted throughout – there is nothing even remotely slouchy about its appeal. Given the dramatic turnarounds that elsewhere characterise designer fashion, it is interesting to see a big name brave enough to develop a story as opposed to throwing it out every six months and starting from scratch.
"The objective as I was designing this collection was to continue and update an exploration of a silhouette and volume that started in the autumn/winter 2007 collection," says Pilati, safe in the knowledge that such a timeless and discretely luxurious stance may be just what the world is looking for just now.
"My designs are for a mature woman – not in terms of age but emotion," he continues. "She is someone who is confident about her style and feels no need to follow fake projections of herself. These days, we are fixated on nostalgia for youth – from wrinkles to the latest low-waisted pair of jeans. Women are subjected to a race against aging instead of the elegance of maturity, self-awareness and self-worth."
However challenging his designs may be, they are always empowering, made for women who stride rather than totter and dress to impress no-one other than themselves.
"I don't think the current social and political climate calls for over-adornment or the superfluous," Stefano Pilati says. "I want to address womanhood in its most contemporary form."