Yves Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
“I could spend all day in here,” Vaccarello says. The 39-year-old fashion designer has always been a low-key personality, loath to toot his own horn, even though he has enjoyed double-digit sales growth at Saint Laurent since he was named creative director in April 2016. So maybe it makes sense that in this new mothership, the result of three years of work, he prefers a hidden space over all else.
Aboveground, the complex—there is a main office building, which is historically registered, and two converted stables—houses most of the company’s 400-some Paris-based employees. Complementing the grand reception room that Vaccarello uses for on-site meetings are a few somber pieces of furniture by Jean-Michel Frank and Alfred Porteneuve. Herringbone parquet floors underfoot give off a comforting creak. Vast, sun-strewn spaces throughout the abbey are punctuated by artworks by Daniel Buren and Franz West, as well as tribal pieces from New Zealand and Kenya. Some are on loan from the personal collection of François Pinault, founder of Kering, the luxury conglomerate that acquired Yves Saint Laurent in 1999. Others, like a Mapplethorpe, are from Vaccarello, and some, like a pair of illuminated columns, are from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent himself, who died in 2008.
A room featuring a Jean Prouvé table and a Pierre Jeanneret stool, next to a 1982 photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. “We wanted to leave behind [the former headquarters at] Avenue George V and position the Saint Laurent brand somewhere more elevated and chic,” says Vaccarello. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
Vaccarello handled the interior design, only his second time tackling such a large redecoration project, after redoing, in a similarly spare style, a 5,400-square-foot hôtel particulier in the sixth arrondissement. He lives there with his husband, Arnaud Michaux, who works alongside him in the YSL atelier. “We need that much space for the dog,” Vaccarello says, laughing. Nino is a French bulldog, whose needs are not exactly those of a Great Dane, “but he’s nervous.” (The breed is a house specialty: Monsieur Saint Laurent had a string of four, each one named Moujik.) Vaccarello is of Italian heritage but he grew up in Brussels, where he studied fashion at La Cambre; he says that his aesthetic restraint comes from his Belgian side. “I just can’t concentrate when the space is too charged.”
The rue de Bellechasse headquarters was the idea of Francesca Bellettini, president and CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. When she arrived from another Kering brand, Bottega Veneta, in 2013, the house’s main design atelier was in Los Angeles, where its former creative director, Hedi Slimane, was based. (He is now at Celine, owned by Kering’s luxury conglomerate rival, LVMH.) The dressmaking and tailoring ateliers were in Paris, on the rue de l’Université, and support staff was spread out over several other offices throughout the capital. “It’s something I said from the first day that I joined,” says Bellettini, 48, in an interview with Vaccarello. “We need to bring everybody together in order to emphasize the sense of belonging and make it easier to create a new culture.”
The main staircase. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
A location did not reveal itself immediately, so Bellechasse broke ground only in January 2015. From the beginning, Vaccarello’s job included monthly meetings about the project, which was still in its earliest construction phase. “We wanted to leave behind Avenue George V,” he says, referring to the longtime headquarters in the eighth arrondissement, “and position the Saint Laurent brand somewhere more elevated and chic. This place represents everything we’ve been trying to do.” Costs will remain the same. “I am a former banker,” says Bellettini, who once worked at Goldman Sachs. “It has to make financial sense.” It is a muscular gesture as well, setting down such a huge footprint in the high-priced heart of the city while competitors like Chanel and Hermès have moved offices and production ateliers to the nearby suburb of Pantin. (Vaccarello uses the rue de l’Université atelier, a 10-minute walk away, as his design studio.)
When Vaccarello arrived at Yves Saint Laurent three years ago, true to his customary discretion, it wasn’t with an explosion. The bomb had already been detonated by Slimane, who took the reins in 2012 and radically changed almost every aspect of the brand. (Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, owned by L’Oréal, is the sole part of the Yves Saint Laurent universe he did not touch.) Slimane supplanted the tepidly pretty, bourgeois style of the house’s previous designer, Stefano Pilati, with a rock-and-roll spirit more appropriate for Hollywood Boulevard than Paris’s rue de Grenelle. He gutted the boutiques, redesigning them in a severe style: gray, black and white marble and chrome. He even removed the founder’s first name from the brand. (Protest T-shirts circulated in response, bearing the message “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves.”)
At the beginning of his Saint Laurent tenure, Slimane was mostly excoriated by fashion critics, but retailers cheered his rigorously unsentimental creative destruction because from it came the kind of clothes most people actually wear these days. Among seasonal offerings, Slimane built a core collection available year round: perfecto jackets, skinny black jeans, simple blazers, Chelsea boots. Slimane doubled annual sales in his first three years, to about €707 million ($794 million) in 2014. By 2016, when he left, revenues had surpassed $1 billion. Today, under Vaccarello’s creative stewardship, they have reached €1.7 billion ($2.03 billion).
A space designed by Vaccarello for his personal use, with Jean-Michel Frank armchairs, Arno Declercq side tables and Kenyan funerary figures. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
“When I joined Saint Laurent we were at about €560 million [$740 million] in revenues,” says Bellettini. “And at that time, in the company, they were all talking about getting to €1 billion. I wanted to help people see what the potential of this brand could be. Everything was here to make it even bigger.” Bellettini hired a management consulting firm, and together they established a long-term goal for three times higher.
“I remember when I sat down with Mr. Bergé,” she says, referring to Pierre Bergé, the founding CEO of the house and Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, who maintained a mentoring role until his death in 2017. “I said, ‘This company can get to €3 billion.’ He was smiling so much. He was very happy.”
Bellettini had known for months before it was announced in April 2016 that Slimane would be leaving, so she was able to think carefully about his replacement. While some legacy fashion houses reinvent themselves from scratch every few years with a new creative director—Dior, Lanvin and Balenciaga come to mind—brand confusion can be a result. Bellettini wasn’t interested in reversing a direction that had proven so successful. She was asked to make a list, and put only one name on it: Anthony Vaccarello.
A large ’60s-era Daniel Buren painting greets visitors in the black-and-white lobby space. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
Vaccarello, who launched his own line in 2008, shares important aesthetic touchstones with his predecessor: He is skilled at sharp tailoring, loves graphic black and minimalist presentation and is driven to repeatedly rework the tent poles of a wardrobe. By the time he came to Bellettini’s attention, in addition to his eponymous company, he was the creative director of Versus, Versace’s second line. “We started to see a lot of magazine editorials of our accessories shown with Anthony’s ready-to-wear,” Bellettini says. “I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ What he designed went very well with us. I saw what he was doing for Versus, and I loved the fact that he was respecting what Versus is, but you could still see him. When you look at Anthony’s own label over time, you can see that he had a signature without even having a logo. He doesn’t need to go to the moon one season, and then another season to Brazil. It was consistent.”
Both Bellettini and Vaccarello have had to grapple with the brand’s long and weighty heritage. Each asked to see the archives immediately upon arrival. “You have to pay respects when you join a maison like this,” Bellettini says. “Saint Laurent is a company that all French people love and believe is their own. Everyone has their opinion of what you’re doing.”
Vaccarello felt a similar pressure upon receiving Bellettini’s offer. “I had said no to a lot of houses and propositions, but you can’t say no to Yves Saint Laurent. Once you’re here you feel responsible for the other people around you.” He says he finds it odd to see his own designs in the archives hanging next to the master’s. “It’s flattering to see what we’re doing next to [Yves Saint Laurent’s] work, but I don’t go back to see my own clothes there. I don’t want to see my things frozen and finished. I try not to think about all that.”
In past interviews, Vaccarello has professed admiration of Slimane’s reinvention of Saint Laurent. “I have a lot of respect for him, doing what he believes in,” Vaccarello told me for Harper’s Bazaar in 2016, right before he was named Saint Laurent’s creative director. “He doesn’t give a shit. I think [his work at YSL] is great.”
A wall of the showroom, in a former stable. “I wanted to help people see what the potential of this brand could be. Everything was here to make it even bigger,” says Yves Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini, who projects it can reach €3 billion in revenues. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
It required no adjustment to maintain the core collection approach set by Slimane—who has also carried this structure with him to Celine. “The DNA is very real,” Vaccarello says. “It’s natural here to do a blazer or a tuxedo, it’s part of the culture. We don’t do a coat with three sleeves. That realness is fascinating to work with. It’s a wardrobe, which is Saint Laurent. I like that a woman can pick something up from three seasons ago and not feel out of style.” Vaccarello did not feel the need to overhaul the existing boutiques, which are, under Bellettini, a target for future expansion. (By the end of last year, there were 219 worldwide.)
“Graphically [the design] was so pure and simple; I didn’t want to do something too charged just to say I did it.” This applies to the next boutique Saint Laurent will unveil, in the former space of the Parisian boutique Colette, on the rue Saint-Honoré. “The lights will be warmer, and we’ll add some more vintage elements,” he explains, to soften the existing template, not overhaul it.
Having another steady hand on Saint Laurent’s creative tiller makes Bellettini’s job easier. “It allows us to build an authentic relationship with the client over time. People aren’t surprised to enter the store and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s all pink! What happened to Saint Laurent?’ From a business standpoint what Anthony is doing is incredible. You get more longevity to the product so you can delay the moment you have to take it off the racks. It allows me to improve the margins of the company,” she says.
An entrance, featuring the original logo as commissioned by Yves Saint Laurent. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine
Bellettini has also focused on vertical integration and supply-chain efficiency, investing in new production facilities in Italy, and she reorganized the corporate structure to give the main regions worldwide—Japan, Asia-Pacific, North America and Europe—more autonomy and efficiency. “The president of each region has a CEO function in that retail, wholesale, communication, human resources and finances for their region report to them,” she explains. “Then they report directly to me. I consider them my eyes and arms in the market. They can give me very useful information to execute strategy in the best possible way,” which is important as luxury brands stumble in adapting themselves to emerging markets.
Another goal is having clothing represent more of the company’s bottom line, giving dressed-up glamour on the runway a stronger presence in stores. “Relying on accessories alone is too risky,” says Bellettini. The shows have had a more public profile as well: Since Vaccarello’s third outing, the runway presentations took place at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Louche voyeurism has been part of Saint Laurent’s identity since Yves Saint Laurent commissioned Jeanloup Sieff and Helmut Newton to shoot ads in the ’70s, and Vaccarello takes to it naturally. Slimane opted for stripped-down black-and-white portraiture, and Vaccarello often does too. But the advertising campaigns he commissions from photographers and directors like Collier Schorr, David Sims, duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and Nathalie Canguilhem, such as a spring 2018 campaign with Kate Moss dangling from a helicopter topless in a fur chubby, encourage fantasy over stark realism. Vaccarello also has a millennial’s instinct for social media. He’s expanded the company’s Instagram account, @ysl, from nearly 357,000 followers in 2016 to 5.5 million, personally approving every post that goes up, including Polaroids from fittings and behind-the-scenes montages that have the kind of improvisational feel that drives engagement. He has also commissioned unusual artworks, starting with a 2016 series of erotic bondage photographs by the Japanese artist Araki of Vaccarello’s frequent muse, model Anja Rubik. That has given rise to a Saint Laurent initiative called Self, collaborations with contemporary artists such as the photographer Daido Moriyama, artist Vanessa Beecroft and, next up, writer Bret Easton Ellis, who is contributing a video.
The CEO and designer are turning into close partners. “If I have to make a big decision, Anthony is the first person I call,” Bellettini says. Working dinners easily became social occasions. Vaccarello cooks pasta for the homesick Italian and turns Bellettini onto her pop-culture entertainment, most recently the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects. He says he thinks of her when he designs the collection, especially the tuxedos, which have become Bellettini’s black-tie uniform. So well does he know his CEO’s taste that he surprised her with a French bulldog as a gift. “I never would have made the decision to do that myself,” she says. Now it turns out that hers, Pepe, has fallen in love with Nino.
Says Vaccarello, “There’s no separation between work and life.”