At Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Stefano Pilati returned to the fray after a weird debut last season. Weird, that is, in the sense of the critical drubbing he received in some quarters, and weirder still (if his tulip skirts and ruffles were so awful) for the fact that they were widely copied this season. Still, the right kind of controversy can be a great thing for an emerging designer's profile, and the audience was packed in, on the edge of its seat, waiting to see whether Pilati would follow through with a collection powerful and personal enough to count as a fashion breakthrough.

Intellectually, Pilati is spot on in reading the current mood of restraint. "I think now we want to be chic, considered, and rigorous," he said. "We want self-respect; and not to show our wealth so much." To find imagery to anchor the collection, he looked at seventeenth century Flemish paintings of Jansenist nuns and clergy (a Catholic breakaway sect). "The key was that they were so obsessed with clean, perfect, pressed fabric; but there is rich detail in there, too."

That explained why the show, longer, better staged, and more confident than last season, began with modifications of the broad-shoulder suitings of the YSL eighties, and then filtered in ecclesiastical cardinal gowns, clerical surplices, and high, frilled, choirboy collars. Still, the standout looks for day were the simplest ones. A strict black, form-fitting suit with a peplum jacket and a flounce breaking out below the knee cut a subtly erotic line. A yellow sweater, cinched with a wide belt encrusted with seeds, looked great over an egg-shape skirt. A brown blanket-stitched patchwork bolero and a glossy pony coat both exuded must-have originality.

Midway, Pilati got a bit bogged down. His past as an Italian fabric expert is a major plus for the house, but at times, he lost his grasp working complex surfaces, texture, and volume into wearable clothes. But for evening, something remarkable came walking along the runway: fluttery white chiffon with a high, frilled neck; a cardinal coat, buttoned from throat to floor, and then (with seemingly nothing to do with anything else, but no less brilliant for it), three Directoire plissé goddess gowns, gorgeous enough to tempt a saint. Is it all enough to qualify Stefano Pilati as a prophet in our time? We shall see, but judging by the gathering of the faithful backstage, he's already winning plenty of influential converts.