It is not a stretch to say that the designer Stefano Pilati is one of the most stylish men on the planet. See here. Or here. Or especially here. Over the past 15 years, the former Yves Saint Laurent and Ermenegildo Zegna designer has achieved a sort of demigod status in the fashion world for his singular devotion to designing and wearing the outrageously aspirational in the most bleedingly advanced ways. In other words, he is not the type of designer who embraces a basic uniform—and has closetfuls of Hermès, Chanel, and Margiela to prove it.
So when Pilati, who left Zegna in 2016, announced the following year that he was launching a brand called Random Identities, the big surprise was not that he was getting back into the fashion, but that he would not be producing his typical astronomically priced, ultra-luxury garments. Instead, he would focus on “basics,” like crisp shirting, double-breasted suits, pleated trousers, and slouchy sweaters. And then he would sell them at Club Monaco prices. There’s nothing particularly radical about a cheap designer diffusion line these days—the late Karl Lagerfeld launched his eponymous entry-level line in 1984, and Christophe Lemaire works at Uniqlo—but Pilati made clear that Random Identities would be radical to the bone. It would be unisex, and, spurred by the freaky style he encountered in his new home of Berlin, it would be provocative.
“The clothes are based on my archive, and based on myself,” Pilati told me in a rare interview on the occasion of his Random Identities Pitti Uomo runway show, held last night in Florence. Save for a show at the SSENSE offices in Montreal to launch the brand, this was Pilati’s first runway show since his Zegna days. “But this isn’t about me,” he continued. “I have nothing to prove anymore.”
We were standing in a cavernous industrial warehouse abutting a train station outside of the city center, a place that looked like it could have been the site of an underground sex rave if it had been in any city but Florence. In between drags of a cigarette, Pilati fussed with the waist belt of a voluminous grey nylon overcoat worn by a towering model named Lux. Satisfied, he sent Lux to a separate room where ten of his models were posing for a group photograph. The brand, Pilati said, is for people like them—the crew of young, gender-queer, fabulous friends he’s made in the party capitals of Europe. “The friends that I have around are not interested in [luxury brands]. They see the brands as an opportunity to milk—Oh, it’s corporate, let’s engage with it to see if I can get something out of it. Which is OK, but [with Random Identities] they really feel like someone is thinking about them,” he said.
They looked like someone was thinking about them, too. Or like they had been sent from the future to kill your boring style: one model wore a beautiful black double-breasted blazer over a matching skirt; another wore fire-engine red trousers, high-heeled boots, and a sheer tee; a third, sprawled on a fur coat on the floor, wore nothing at all. Pilati was wearing a full Random Identities fit, too: leather fisherman boots, wide-leg satin cargo pants, a simple mechanic’s jacket, and a knit tassel necklace-slash-scarf, all in tones of black, plus a red knit skullcap atop his salt-and-pepper curls.
But the clothes that he wears—and the kinds of people he designs for—aren’t provocative for their own sake. It’s more innate for Pilati, who grew up in Milan, and who sought refuge in the escapist possibilities of fashion from a young age. “I was an unhappy child,” he told New York Times Magazine’s Lynn Hirschberg in 2008. “With my father, everything I said or did was wrong. Everything I wore was wrong. Everywhere I wanted to go was wrong. So I began to worry that there was really something the matter with me. When I was sketching something, I didn’t feel alone. Eventually, I said, Enough—I’m going to belong to another world instead. And the fashion world looked beautiful.”
Pilati is now 54 years old, nearly an elder statesman in an industry that has a brutally quick metabolism. He put in time at Miu Miu in his twenties, and then landed under Tom Ford at Saint Laurent before taking the reins himself for eight years. After frenzied speculation about where he would end up next, he spent three years at Ermenegildo Zegna, developing the tailoring house’s couture line. Though he had access to the greatest materials and craftspeople in the world, to drivers and apartments and all the perks that come with leading a European luxury house, Pilati came away from all those years inside the belly of the fashion beast with a sense that luxury and branding were not working anymore. Random Identities is not just his distillation of the Berghain-chic aesthetic he sees Instagram-era club kids clamoring for—it’s a response to what he views as the problems of the modern fashion system.
To Pilati, the very conditions of fashion today make it unthinkable to run a brand in any sort of traditional way. “There is no exclusivity anymore! The exclusivity is all based on, Oh, how much did you pay?” he said, rolling his eyes. Random Identities exists in a post-luxury world, where you can buy a made-in-Italy double-breasted blazer for $430, or a pair of beautifully cut trousers for just over $200, prices realized thanks to his deep connections in the worlds of fabric and production. The brand acknowledges, too, that fashion’s seasonality is broken. (Try buying a winter coat today and you’ll see what I mean.) Random Identities delivers year-round to SSENSE and Dover Street Market, and most products have a seasonless middle weight to them. And whereas at Saint Laurent, when he would cut and prototype a garment a half-dozen times, Pilati has been trying to reduce waste by creating only one prototype garment before sending it to production.
“It is about being timeless,” he told me as we looked at racks of clothing backstage. For the show, which would feature 50-something models, all personally cast by Pilati, he decided to challenge perhaps the only iron-clad rule of the runway: that you have to show new clothes. Instead, he had styled looks with clothes that have already been released, clothes that had just been released, clothes that would drop shortly after the show, and even, he said, clothes that remained unfinished. He had also slashed up the suit one model would wear with a new Random Identities bag—a symbolic statement, he said, on bag worship.
Pilati’s idea of “timeless” is more about rejecting the churn-and-burn cycle of logo-fied luxury streetwear than it is about giving customers something they can wear, say, to Thanksgiving dinner at grandma’s. But when you peel away the radical styling and kinky sensibilities, Pilati’s ideas are all very classic. “When something is too subversive, it becomes a bit boring, no?” he noted. Pilati would rather express the radical possibilities of a formal jacket than deconstruct it. Looking at the racks of clothing backstage, I found myself thinking that one could easily pick their way through the collection to find an outfit that resembles a basic workwear outfit, or get away with wearing a simple three-button suit to an office job. Of course, once you open the floodgates, the possibilities for your post-work fit are enticing, even dangerous. When you’re ready, Pilati has earrings made out of penis sounders (deeply NSFW), or a fat chain BDSM necklace, or a leg-baring black chino skirt for you.
As he finished his cigarette, Pilati took a moment to reflect on the name of his brand, one that struck me as deeply appropriate for 2020, when “identity” is at the core of our political and social discourse. “My angle is that you make the clothes yours the moment that you wear them. I propose something that comes from me, but I give it to someone else, and then this someone else makes it theirs. Therefore, randomly it becomes an identity that in fact interacts with the whole ethos of the brand,” he said. Or, more simply: “It’s a whole different way of engaging with the customer that I find much more honest. I mean, I feel better. And if I feel better, everybody feels better.”
Before Pilati left to jump in the group photo happening next door, I asked him if he would be walking in the show the following night. There was a photo of him wearing a gorgeous knee-length camel coat, I noted, on the model board. Pilati shrugged his shoulders and laughed, but I thought I knew the answer. Sure enough, after the buyers and fashion editors and stylists and Bobby Gillespie had filed into the warehouse and waited and seen 50-something compelling arguments for letting Random Identity “basics” invade your wardrobe (including a pair of leather-strapped collaborative Birkenstocks), Pilati strutted out of the darkness in that camel coat—the best look of the night.
Originally Appeared on GQ