The designer is rejecting OTT luxury for a utilitarian, affordable take on clothing
On Tuesday, I voted in the 2018 midterm election and quickly fled the country. Being at an advantage where I can presently agree to press trips, I jetted to Montreal and allowed the psychoses and Schadenfreude of the American civil struggle to fade into the southern expanse...as much as one could, which is, barely at all. I’d come to attend a remote fashion happening – Stefano Pilati had summoned me and a mishmash of others to witness the debut of a new ready-to-wear project, Random Identities. His debut collection under this new imprint was launched last night in conjunction with SSENSE, the Canada gods of online retail, who hosted us for the 48-hour stay. I felt utterly whisked away.
If you’re ever given the chance to visit Montreal, I could not recommend it more. Not only is it the ideal distance to spend away from pundits screaming at one another on CNN, just far enough to shake your head at election results as they cascade down your iPhone screen, thinking to yourself “I used to live there, but not anymore,” but it’s also a short flight that offers charms that feel worlds away from the elbow jabs and Chinatown rats of New York. Everybody speaks French and is extremely nice, for one. 17th-century architecture in the form of domes and basilicas lend an old European opulence to the surrounding warehouses and refineries that make up the city's more prevalent industrial districts. “I bet it’s gorgeous in the summer,” one editor noted. A few of us thought about it and gasped.
On our first day, we toured SSENSE Montreal, the physical retail flagship the e-commerce platform christened back in May with a performance by Arca. Housed in a modern, five-story catacomb of concrete that can only be described as devastatingly charcoal, the store was designed by David Chipperfield inside of a narrow 19th-century façade deemed too historical to tamper with. The resulting space is hyperbolically soothing, containing everything from a curated bookstore to appointment-only fitting rooms, and a stunning café cast in concrete from floor to chair to table to skylight in a 70s brutalist style so stoic you’d never wish to leave.
As urbane and cosmo as the new shop is – Shayne Oliver’s Colmar parkas greet you as you enter, and Y/Project’s Ugg display holds anchor on the 2nd floor – Pilati instead chose those exposed industrial offices on the outskirts of town as the location for his fashion show. Guests arrived by SUV, were handed flutes of champagne, and then thrust into the bustling workspace… some of it still operational in the evening darkness. (Online retail never sleeps!) Videos flitted and flickered across computer screens, of models shown in black and white closeup, black blinking bars (the brand’s logo), and a countdown clock to the start of the show.
“It seems fashion designers have been replaced by entertainers... The new generation of designers are proud to be amateurs without realising the damage they do to the society at large” – Stefano Pilati
It’s been nearly three years since Pilati parted ways with Ermenegildo Zegna, where he introduced a languid sensibility to the totemic Italian suiting company. At Zegna, Pilati indulged in the lofty creative esprit he could imbue into traditional men’s garments at the top of a family-owned fashion behemoth (Zegna not only sells suits under its own designation but effectively runs the market, manufacturing for Gucci, Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, and Dunhill). He did this often through sublime material experimentation, crafting textures and techniques to their subtle finest so that they were outrageously luxe while remaining indistinguishable to the unassuming. He would also employ a world record’s worth of nuanced colors, sometimes running as many as 33 distinctive hues down a single runway.
Since exiting the penetralia of peak luxury, Pilati has undoubtedly set himself free of all the fuss. ”An honest statement is necessary,” read a statement from the designer. ”Fashion at high prices no longer means exclusivity. My response is to produce moderately priced clothes – the ‘low’ – and present them in a high-fashion context, creating limited edition items which by quality of design will justify the proposal – the ’high’.” Goodbye, intarsia camel fur and hand-applied floral brocades. Hello, cotton twill, satin, and nylon!
When the looks came out one by one (available for purchase instantaneously), I was struck by the easiness and the masculine elegance of what Pilati now proposes. Helmut Lang-inspired topcoats swung from shoulder straps. Squishy zip-up duvet jackets came cloistered by stretch corsets, worn off the shoulders, like a premium Uniqlo rendition of Hood By Air. There was something in the show space itself, the office setting, the strobing fluorescent lighting, the hunched post-gender models, gawky boys in clunky heels – the gothic bravado of it all – that reiterated the gaping void left in the fashion world by the fearsome HBA crew. But when you strip away the pomp, what Pilati is offering is more classical and elegant than what so menacingly sashays before the eye. Satin bombers and trenchcoats resurrect the dignified noblesse of Pilati’s Yves Saint Laurent. The military overcoats bear the rigor and discipline he brought to Zegna. The variety of cargo pants are masterfully constructed, with pockets that strike envy upon closeup. Each item bears a minimalism that renders them surreptitious: no corny logos or excessive gimmickry in sight.
The price point feels particularly pointed. As the show was streamed live, and the e-blasts went out about SSENSE’s latest drop, I received text messages inquiring what the prices were about. I hadn’t seen them yet, but I assumed they were reflexively high. When I saw that some of the pieces retail for as low as $90, I was pleasantly surprised. Before the collection premiered, Pilati gave an exclusive manifesto to SSENSE. “It seems fashion designers have been replaced by entertainers,” he wrote, in a particularly scathing aside. “The new generation of designers are proud to be amateurs without realising the damage they do to the society at large. Offering status after status in an era where clothes should reflect it; an era of wars, regressions, demolition of values, corruption of the civic sense, and bad taste. My line wants to express my sensitivity to good taste and style. This is for what I am recognised.”
When Kanye West first released his adidas range, Yeezy, he too had democratic ideas for chicness: uniforms that would be universalised, a new common way to eliminate status and unite a generation with a dress code. When the collection hit stores at astronomical prices, the internet bristled, and it was yet another swerve along the winding freeway of West’s creative improvs. The brand found its way, but it hasn’t been the smoothest of paths. But with more experience wielding fashion’s future than most, Pilati and his new proposition might be just that.