Since Yves Saint Laurent’s death in June 2008, every possible superlative has been used to describe him. ‘Fashion Icon’ (CNN), ‘Giant of couture’ (New York Times), ’Magician’ (Paris Match), ‘The greatest fashion designer of the 20th century’ (BBC). Lucie Goulet takes a look at the man behind the accolades.
At a press conference announcing his retirement in January 2002, Yves Saint Laurent summarised his philosophy of fashion thus: “I have believed for a long time now that fashion is not merely there to embellish women. I believe it is also a mean to reassure them, to give them confidence, to enable them to assert themselves.”
Saint Laurent revolutionised women’s wardrobes at a time when women were revolutionising their role in society.
Yves Saint Laurent’s story is the classic tale of a man trying to break the mould, the kind of story fashion is so fond of. Saint Laurent was born as Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent in 1936, into one of the most prominent families of Oran, in what was French Algeria.
A shy and lonely child, he showed an interest in both drawing and design very early on and was just 15 when he created his first outfits for the Oran ballet.
In 1954, Saint Laurent, aged 18, won the first and third prices in the dress category of the International Wool Secretariat competition. The same year, Karl Lagerfeld won the first prize in the coat category. The two enfants terribles de la mode struck a close friendship before becoming rivals.
Even at a young age, Saint Laurent was a craftsman like few others in fashion. His sketches are remarkable works of art in their own right, reflecting both the technicalities and subtleties of his outfits. Thanks to his childhood spent dressing up his sisters, Brigitte and Michèle, he was also an accomplished dressmaker who could cut and sew.
The Dior years
Saint Laurent’s breakthrough moment came in 1954. After seeing some of Yves’ sketches, Christian Dior hired him on the spot. In July 1957 Dior ominously predicted that Saint Laurent would succeed him. Tragically, Dior died only three months later.
At just 21, Yves became the youngest of the French grands couturiers. For his first collection, shown in January 1958, he revisited traditional Dior designs, playing with Dior’s bourgeoise aesthetics, New Look-inherited full skirts and the rouge Dior. A huge success, it was crowned by the New York Herald Tribune as “The best Dior collection ever seen”.
Moving on from Dior
Eventually, Yves Saint Laurent became bigger than Dior himself, a huge star of the international fashion scene. However, fame came at a price and following his call to join the French army, Saint Laurent was hospitalised for depression. Throughout his life he would battle with mental health issues and drug addiction. In his long periods of absence, Marc Bohan replaced him as the artistic director of Dior.
With little money, little backing and hardly any employees, Yves Saint Laurent set up his own couture house, YSL. His first collection, shown in Summer 1962, was the first collection to reflect the changing role of women in French society, which saw women enter the work force and the introduction of the Pill.
In 1966, Yves designed the first of his now famous ’Le Smoking’, a smoking suit for women. It seems like an obvious wardrobe staple nowadays, but back then, putting a woman in a tuxedo, in men’s clothes, was groundbreaking. In 1968, he caused a storm with the transparent blouse worn on bare skin. In 1969, it’s the mid-calf length, generally considered unattractive. He was also one of the first couturiers to design for very thin women and to integrate elements of street style into his ready-to-wear.
The last years
Saint Laurent’s importance in the French landscape and in the collective psyche is such that 300 of his most iconic clothes were shown prior the 2008 World Cup final at the Stade de France in Paris. 1998 was a year of change for the Saint Laurent label. In June, he passed on the creative direction of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, the ready-to-wear label created in 1966 that initiated the trend for prêt-à-porter. The label was managed by Alber Elbaz and then eventually by Tom Ford.
The end of Yves’ reign at his fashion house is slightly tainted. The Nineties were just not his decade. He had become the type of couturier he loathed in his youth, dressing the establishment. In his last years as a designer, Saint Laurent had failed to evolve with his time. His final collection, in 2002, was mainly a retrospective. Staged at the Pompidou Centre, the temple to modern art, it was colourful, elegant and full of references to his previous work. It included a patchwork coat, with his beloved ‘Love’ motive, which read ‘Love me forever, or never’.
And then there is art. The art he collected, the art that inspired him. Saint Laurent’s art collection was sold by Christies for an impressive total of £333 million at the end of February 2009, a record for a private collection. Many of Yves’ fashion collections were witty takes, more or less literally, on oeuvres d’art.
The 1965 Mondrian collection, with its iconic, often copied but never equalled, shift dress was inspired by the painter’s compositions.
Then there was the Autumn/Winter 1979 Picasso collection, a reflection on the angular shapes and motives of the painter. In 1988 Saint Lauren used iris prints and sunflowers, as seen in Van Gogh paintings and Lessage embroideries. There have also been nods to Braque, the cubists, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
Travels also had a huge influence on Saint Laurent’s collections. Born in Algeria, he discovered Marrakesh in 1967. Of the city, he said it was “an endless source of inspiration, and I always dream about its unique colours, my dream is in blue”. His ashes were scattered in Morocco.
No biography of Yves Saint Laurent would be complete without mention of Pierre Bergé, the other force behind the YSL label, and Yves’ companion for 50 years. Bergé has always been the business man, the marketing genius, who convinced possible investors of the potential of the couture house.
Today Bergé is chairman of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, which aims to “conserve the 5000 Haute Couture garments and the 15 000 accessories, sketches and assorted objects that bear witness to 40 years of Yves Saint Laurent’s creativity”. The foundation also organises regular exhibitions, both in-house in Paris and around the world, making sure that Saint Laurent’s legacy will live on for many generations to come.