Stefano Pilati is upholding the YSL legacy – and looking good doing it.

The occasion of an Yves Saint Laurent show in the fashion world has always been, to put it mildly, something of a big deal. Witness the 275-plus-look retrospective staged at the Pompidou Centre in 2002 for Saint Laurent’s last show – complete with big screen viewing for the few thousand fans amassed outside – and you get an idea of the reverential fervor evoked by YSL. The spectacle has never been quite as grand again, of course, but the Spring 2009 womenswear show in Paris on October 2nd will be the first since Saint Laurent’s death, and thus, in its own right, something of a milestone.

Stefano Pilati, who designs both the men’s and women’s collections for YSL, is familiar with great expectations. He assumed the YSL mantle as a relative unknown, and his first outings for the house were met with the scrutiny befitting the work of a freshman who’d skipped straight to senior year. (Not to make light of Pilati’s prior experience, which included stints at Giorgio Armani, Miu Miu, and Prada after a quickly abandoned beginning in environmental design.) Pilati stayed cool to the criticism, thanks, in part, to seeing panned elements of his collections appear en masse on runways a season later (check your girlfriend’s closet for a tulip skirt and you’ll know who made it first). Such composure is admirable considering that in addition to the legacy of Saint Laurent to keep him up at night, Pilati also had an impressive list of contemporary forerunners to contend with: Hedi Slimane, Alber Elbaz, and Tom Ford all took on YSL – with varying degrees of success – before Pilati stepped in.

Nine seasons later, Pilati’s collections have gained confidence and earned praise. The qualities that make the designer himself such a regular on the boîte circuit and a hit in the art world are increasingly evident in his designs. For menswear this means translating the enviably louche refinement typical of his own outfits into a look as distinctive as that of the skinny-jean brigade Slimane commandeered at Dior Homme. Dapper, elegant, and probably in possession of a yacht, Pilati’s YSL homme would fit in at the Factory (an Ought version, of course), and like any good Warholian, is totally cool with androgyny.

Blurring the male/female divide may be easier for women to embrace as a fashion conceit, but Pilati’s brand of gender-bending is more liberating than emasculating. The proof is in the man himself: Does anyone look better accessorized by a naked (or clad, for that matter) Naomi Campbell? Not that we’ve seen. And while some designers’ personal attire veers toward costume – Karl’s lace gloves and snow white coif; Marc’s rippling biceps; Alber’s jaunty bowtie – Pilati’s signature look is just impeccably cool.

As Saint Laurent once gave women the option to dress up in a tux, Pilati is now giving men the opportunity to experience the best of womenswear. Fabrics associated with the fairer sex – silk gazar and organza, embellishments like gold beading – get face-time with biker jackets and just-so-slouchy suits. The back-buttoning tunics that fared so well in YSL’s Fall 2006 women’s collection showed up for men in Spring 2007 – an in-house import, if you will – and are reason enough for men to pay attention to what the women are wearing on the runway come October. You never know when that sheer tunic might make its way to your wardrobe.

It’s nice to know that the designer at the helm of a house traditionally skewed toward womenswear is keeping an eye out for what works for the boys. Women have been raiding men’s closets for decades, after all, so it seems only fair for the other halves to get in on the action. But if this whole androgyny argument has left you numb, keep in mind that another part of Pilati’s appeal is the utmost confidence he projects in his personal aesthetic. It may seem trivial to place so much import on the way a designer dresses, but when the world of fashion starts to resemble that of football – with designers traded among houses faster than pant lengths can drop – a definable individual style serves as a calling card for what a person is all about. Where Saint Laurent had his square specs, Pilati has his rakish scarf; that the two seem of a sort is no mistake. Of course, having signed a multi-year contract with the Gucci Group in 2007, Pilati need not be concerned with the fickleness of parent companies; still, its unlikely he’ll suddenly go lax in the after-hours or on-the-job dressing departments. And neither should you.

-Alison Baenen