Before the John Galliano saga kicked off, fashion’s favourite spectator sport was gossiping about who might replace Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent. Even after the brand’s owner, the Gucci Group, released a statement saying that Pilati was going nowhere, the rumours persisted (“well, they would say that”). It’s true that Pilati has not found the public (and, indeed, critical) acclaim that other designers in similarly plum jobs have enjoyed, but the task he faces at YSL is by no means easy.
Yves Saint Laurent was indisputably one of the greatest fashion designers of all time, and his legacy continues to live on, especially in France where it is an untouchable national institution. Any designer working at the house since Saint Laurent retired in 2002, and passed away in 2008, faces a massive burden of expectation and responsibility to somehow uphold Saint Laurent’s gold standard. Under these conditions, trying to produce collections which are true to the house’s heritage yet sufficiently modern and fresh to hold people’s attention today is surely no walk in the park. As Pilati himself has noted in an interview, it is very difficult for any designer at the house to establish their own personality through the collections. Neither Tom Ford nor Hedi Slimane lasted long at YSL.
And then there is the prickly issue of the relationship between the Saint Laurent estate (controlled by Pierre Bergé) and the brand. The memory and legacy of the late Saint Laurent dwarf the current reputation of the house itself. Stefano Pilati’s access to the YSL archives is limited (they are controlled by Bergé) and associations with the brand are kept scarce, to say the least. When the major Saint Laurent retrospective took place in Paris last year, bizarrely there was no invite to the opening nor offer of a private view for Pilati, who had to attend as a regular visitor, but became self conscious and left when people started to recognise him. This disconnect between the business and the heritage surely does not help matters, although I can understand why Bergé, who spend his life building up the house with Saint Laurent, is reluctant to welcome in the new guard.
An article in the New York Times from 2008 says that the brand had not been profitable for over a decade. The label’s financial results are available as far back as 2004 on the Gucci Group’s website. They are hardly glowing, but by some accounts they paint a much better picture of Pilati than the critics do…under his creative directorship, the brand has become profitable for the first time in over 10 years, and losses have steadily reduced since he became creative director in 2004:
2004: loss of €71 million
2005: loss of €66 million
2006: loss of €49 million
2007: loss of €32 million
2008: broke even (i.e. profit of €0)
2009: loss of €10 million
2010: profit of €12 million
Last year, 33% of sales were leather goods, 26% ready-to-wear, 22% shoes and 19% other. Even the rather more lucrative Yves Saint Laurent beauty division has been unable to counteract the house’s losses over the years. In 2006, for instance, the beauty division’s profits were €32 million, against the fashion house’s €49 million losses.
To compare YSL to other Gucci Group brands, last year Gucci made a profit of €765 million, while Bottega Veneta raked in €133 million. Both brands were profitable throughout the 2005 – 2010 period, despite the credit crisis.
I hope I haven’t bored with too many figures here. If you’re interested in the business of high fashion, you can find out all sorts of interesting things from the Gucci Group/PPR, LVMH and Prada annual reports, to name just a few. The economics of fashion never ceases to baffle me.