Tuesday, 5 March 2013


When Stefano Pilati took up the position of creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, the brand was haemorrhaging money (annual losses were to the tune of €70 million). Towards the end of his tenure the house was reporting profits for the first time in years, but the one business unit which had remained profitable throughout that time was the beauty and fragrance division.

Indeed, Yves Saint Laurent himself pioneered the standard business model for luxury fashion brands: show haute-couture and ready-to-wear collections on the runway, which are beyond the reach of most consumers’ pockets but capture their imagination, before offering comparatively affordable, high-volume products for regular folk to purchase: sunglasses, scarves and, most prominently, beauty products. Yves Saint Laurent dominated the designer fragrance market throughout the 1970s and 80s, with high-profile scents including Opium and Kouros, while the Touche Éclat pen-format concealer, introduced in 1991, has attained cult status: allegedly, one is sold every 10 seconds.

In short, beauty remains an extremely important product category for Yves Saint Laurent, which makes Hedi Slimane’s tenure at the house seem somewhat problematic. First, the name confusion. When Slimane was appointed creative director, he was allowed to re-name the brand “Saint Laurent (Paris)” and change the logo, but everyone was left puzzling as to what exactly the brand should be called when its press officers sent out a series of confusing and contradictory edicts regarding the naming conventions. “Yves Saint Laurent” was out, yet the “YSL” logo would remain, but the brand was always to be referred to as “Saint Laurent” (possibility with or without “Paris” on the end). It would later transpire that the uncertainty stemmed from the beauty division. The “Yves Saint Laurent” and “YSL” branding remains firmly in place for the fragrances and cosmetics, not least because a third party, L'Oréal, runs the beauty division under license, and re-branding every department store and pharmacy cosmetics counter around the world would be a herculean task.

This inconsistent naming and logo design creates a void between the fashion and beauty sides of the business. And that could be a problem, because part of the reason that consumers will spend £25 on an Yves Saint Laurent lipstick, when a non-designer one gets the job done for half the price, is because of the associations with the glamorous fashion side of the business. You see the actress in the dress on the red carpet, and buy into that fantasy at the cosmetics counter. If the two worlds drift apart, you could end up with a Paco Rabanne or Thierry Mugler type situation: undesirable fragrances found mostly in duty-free shops, with aspirational fashion collections no longer associated with the brand names to give the beauty products legitimacy.

The second problem is related to the first: can you run a profitable beauty business, which sells the concepts of glamour and luxury, when your creative director is producing angst-ridden, trashy collections characterised by teenage grunge? Other major players in the designer beauty market, like Chanel, Dior, Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani, always show collections which the ‘average’ consumer can, on some level, relate to as embodying aspirational glamour.

Perhaps Yves Saint Laurent beauty is a strong enough brand in its own right, so that what Slimane does on the runway (and with the fashion business’ name and logo) is of little importance. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. Fashion critics have more or less uniformly slammed his women’s and men’s Saint Laurent collections thus far, but they are apparently selling well nonetheless (whether this will still be the case when the hype regarding “Hedi’s return” dies down, remains to be seen). But if the highly lucrative beauty division comes under threat, you can be sure that Yves Saint Laurent’s owners, the PPR Group, and L'Oréal will be quick to act.

See also: The YSL Question


  1. Always love a good rational argument :D kudos

  2. The old "YvesSaintLaurent" wordmark and "YSL" monogram aren't perfect but they do have a kind of quaint charm and elegance. Of course, there's also a lot of history associated with the old brand identity, which is why it's a real shame to see it being partially replaced with such a bland logo in bold capitalised Helvetica. The update will probably market well; it's streamlined and simplified and a little grungy-cool, but a lot of character has been lost in transition.

  3. hopefully the beauty side will do well. after all they are actually of good quality and not just hype. existing customers will come back. as for hedi, i miss stephano. do you know what he's doing now by any chance?

  4. Stefano Pilati works for Ermenegildo Zegna right now,
    Hedi Slimane is not doing YSL, he is doing Hedi. PPR and Slimane are searching out younger clients, to bad younger clients can't afford Saint Laurent,they can get same looks from HM or Topshop

  5. Provocative writing. It highlights a question - will the "average" person like Chanel if it is not Chanel? While a few brands like Yohji has a faithful following of people who resonate with the designer's aesthetic and philosophy, most brands cater to the masses who just want to "feel" glamorous - the next best thing to being rich is feeling rich, too sad.

  6. I'm sure Slimane was brought on to do for Saint Laurent what he did for Dior. Too late in the game, perhaps, but if consumer sentiment is really what's at stake here, then the YSL association with the 70s is perhaps what the rebranding attempts to escape. (Even recently the YSL menswear has been stiff on safari and satin tuxes.) Saint Laurent's lower price point reflects the youth drive, and whilst the clothes are not innovative, there's a considered, affordable aesthetic - 'Paris'. (Compare with other street-cred-ready brands like Givenchy where you have to fork out 3K for a tie, shirt, bomber layering combination with a one-season disposable print.) In the sense of a better quality, more desirable 'Top Man', then Saint Laurent may be considered a success. Ha!

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  8. Most insightful and well critiqued! If only most writing was THIS business solid. Thanks for sharing.