MILAN, JANUARY 16, 2016
by ALEXANDER FURY
“Embellishment is in l’air du temps,” said Stefano Pilati after an Ermenegildo Zegna show that was packed with it: beading, embroidery, jacquard, fil coupe. That sounds stuffy, and the French stuff would sound pretentious, bar the fact Pilati headed Yves Saint Laurent for nearly a decade, so he’s allowed to borrow the language to describe a mood undoubtedly evident and rapidly unfolding across the Milan shows. The mood is of the precious, and of the decorated male.
Zegna has affixed the appellation of “Couture” to its labels, to denote the line devised by Pilati. One can generally assume that to mean couture in the experimental, boundary-pushing mold—odd shapes, techy materials—and in the price tag. Today, though, Pilati took couture as the entire subtext for a collection that toyed with its conventions and translated them into a masculine idiom.
Big whoop. Tons of menswear designers try to do that, season after season, generally as an excuse for using the sort of embellishment Pilati highlighted as such an air of these current temps. That is, perhaps, why Pilati himself sneered a little as he said “embellishment.” “I don’t agree with the way I see it,” he said. So he did something new with it.
Pilati’s history at Saint Laurent embeds him in the French tradition of atelier-focused handiwork—draping, sketching, toiling over toile—as opposed to shipping a tranche of sketches to a factory and waiting for samples to turn up to tinker with, like in Italy. He knows couture’s traditions like few menswear practitioners. Couple that with that the fact that Pilati has a cerebral mind, and is willfully provocative, and you understand why his iteration of the idea of couture was one of the best ever committed to the masculine body.
Haute couture for Zegna Fall 2016 was treated not as an excuse to embellish, but as a concept to explore, its symbols and signs dissected, reappropriated, and reinterpreted. The set was a salon complete with spindly-legged gilt seating, but it was smothered in pelts, like Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur. And the garments wildly collided couture tropes: painstakingly tailored volumes in semi-fitted coats and sweeping capes; lustrous brocades and jacquards; lavishly beaded eveningwear. But this haute was pour homme. Each modelé bore a number, like a traditional salon presentation: Pilati’s, however, were attached to fedora hats, embroidered onto knitted ties, or strapped to calfskin bags. Clever.
Stefano Pilati is very clever—and sometimes, you wonder if men really want such clever togs from a luxury label. Why not just do something dumb—a big, expensive vicuña coat; a big, expensive crocodile bag—and make a lot of money? Because that isn’t fashion—and ultimately, it isn’t luxury. Moreover, it isn’t sustainable. How many times will people want to buy the same brainless stuff, time and again? You’ve got to mix it up.
That’s what Pilati did here. Surface was fundamental, decoration not only sitting on top but also keyed into the fabric itself. And for all that embellishment, subtlety was paramount—colors barely existed: gray-blue, violet-gray, a decent helping of camel, more gray. “The most incredible pieces are the sweaters,” Pilati said of three-dimensionally beaded knitwear. They zipped at the neck, but said zippers were tugged open, worn with the nonchalance of a worn-out sweatshirt. Couture with a new attitude: Precious stuff you don’t have to be precious about.
I kept thinking of Saint Laurent—the man—during this show, as we applauded Pilati’s clothes from the same sort of seats that Yves’s clients parked on to rhapsodize over his haute couture. Monsieur Saint Laurent sought le silence des vêtements, and that was the best bit about Pilati’s Zegna. These clothes were magnificent but quiet. If they said anything, it was “check, please.” I’d love to know what they cost.
Yves Saint Laurent was also faultlessly chic. Chic was a word Pilati kept saying, grinning, like a kid uttering an obscenity. As an adjective, chic sounds a bit obscene—it’s a term we haven’t heard much recently around menswear. People would rather be edgy or cool. “Chic can be overrated,” allowed Pilati. “But, I think, this was really chic.” The chic was definitely what hit me. And I’m a fan.