Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Legend Never Dies: Yves Saint Laurent

The Pied Piper of Fashion… that was what the fashion world called him. From Princess Grace of Monaco to the actress Catherine Deneuve, his creations adorned not only famous women but women of all ages from all over the world through his innovative ready-to-wear collections. The YSL legend empowered the 20th century women through fashion, encapsulating masculinity within femininity.

Alongside Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent was considered a member of the French fashion world’s holy trinity. A pioneering fashion genius, Saint Laurent was largely responsible for coining the way modern women dress – putting them into nipped-in trouser suit, slinky tuxedos or le smoking as the French call a tuxedo jacket, and safari jackets.

 The Gentleman that Changed Fashion

The famous tuxedo or le smoking for women has evolved over the years under the guidance of Saint Laurent.

A stylistic rebel, Saint Laurent did more to advance fashion that any designer of his generation. A vanguard who revolutionised women’s wear during a period where women became more empowered and sexually liberated, he blurred the lines of gender by introducing the trousers to their wardrobe, at a time where women’s fashion was still decidedly feminine to the core.

After he and partner, Pierre Bergé, opened their very first couture house, Saint Laurent started to revolutionize the fashion retail industry. In 1966, Saint Laurent was the first couturier to have a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) boutique, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in Paris. The boutique made haute couture creations available, for the first time, off the fashion runways of Europe.

Through Rive Gauche, Yves Saint Laurent democratise the fashion world by shifting the industry’s attention from the extravagant world of haute couture to ready-to-wear which allowed women of all status to enjoy high fashion, resulting in women of all ages adoring the gentle fashion designer. He propelled street fashion such as the leather jacket, military peacoats, peasant blouses and the beatnik look into the circles of high fashion, all timeless creations in the volatile fashion industry.

Pioneering Genius

Left: French actress Catherine Deneuve has been Saint Laurent’s muse since 1966 and remained lifelong friend with the designer. Right: Supermodel Laetita Casta was the bride in Saint Laurent’s shows from 1997 until 2002.

His pioneering days continued in 1976, when he became the first designer to use Black models on his runway. It shocked the European fashion world as African model Iman sashayed the catwalk in YSL‘s Russian collection. Saint Laurent’s bold move opened the doors for such models such as Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and his muse, Katoucha to break through the European fashion scene. He also used them in print ads and considered Black women when designing his top end cosmetics.

He was also the first fashion designer to express art through fabric. Some of his dresses had the colourful vibrancy of Impressionism, while others the form and similarity of some of the great movements in modern art such as Mondrian and Poliakoff in 1965, the Pop Art dresses in 1966, Picasso in 1979 and Braque in 1988.

In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to be honoured by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition. This exhibition showcased his designs that were fundamentally important to women’s dress were also held in Paris, Beijing, Moscow, St Petersburg, To­kyo and Sydney, Australia. Hailed as a genius of couture, his ability to use and combine bright colours like fuchsia, crimson, brunt yellow and gold, earned him the reputation as the greatest colourist in the history of fashion.

Who was Yves Saint Laurent? And how did he become such a giant in the world of fashion? For the answer, we have to go back to 1936 – the year he was born.

The Birth of a Legend

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was a son of an insurance company manager. As a child, Saint Laurent developed a love for fashion and the theatre where he would often make costumes for his two younger sisters to wear in their recreation of popular plays. As a teenager, Saint Laurent designed clothes for his mother, who had his designs sewn by a seamstress. (His mother became his biggest fan wearing no one else’s designs).

At the age of 17, the lanky and brown-haired Saint Laurent went to Paris to try his luck in theatrical and fashion design. He studied first at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture but dropped out after a few months, feeling frustrated by the syllabus.

He joined the 1954 International Wool Secretariat competition, where he took first prize for his sketch of a cocktail dress, which by the way bore an uncanny resemblance with Christian Dior’s (then) current design in progress. Dior immediately recognized the potential that the talented young Saint Laurent had, which led to his appointment as Dior’s assistant.

A Prince Crowned King

For three years, Saint Laurent worked closely with Dior, who called him “my dauphin” until Dior’s sudden death in 1957. At the tender age of 21, the “dauphin” or crown prince became the head of the largest maison de couture in Paris, the House of Dior. Yves first collection in his new position was the Ligne Trapeze collection, a youthful silhouette that started with narrow shoulders and a raised waistline, then flared out gently to a wide hemline. The collection was well received and the prince was crowned king.

Yves Saint Laurent presented six collections for Dior. His last collection for Dior, in July 1960, was based on a “chic beatnik” look, a Spring/Summer collection of jackets made of alligator skin, mink coats with ribbed sweater sleeves and turtlenecks under finely cut suits. The collection, which was very daring, sealed his reputation as a designer who elevated the look of the streets to haute couture.

The Breakdown and the Opportunity

Shortly after this success, Saint Laurent left for compulsory military service in the French Army, however, three weeks later he was discharged suffering a nervous breakdown. During the time of his hospitalization, the House of Dior replaced him with Marc Bohen, his former assistant. The upset Saint Laurent sued the fashion house and won 48,000 Pounds as severance pay.

With that money Saint Laurent announced plans to open his own haute couture house in partnership with his lover, Pierre Bergé. It was a winning combination from the start, where Bergé was responsible for the company’s financial success and Saint Laurent concentrated on designing beautiful clothes. Saint Laurent started designing and selling his creations exactly the way he wanted to, deriving his collections from a treasure trove of sources like theatre, painting and history.

1962 was the beginning of the empire of luxury, which covered haute couture, ready-to-wear, perfumes, cosmetics and even cigarettes under the YSL logo: three black letters on a cream background which became mythic.

Top: Saint Laurent often retreated to his villa, the Bleu Majorelle in Marrakech, Morocco.
Bottom left: Yves Saint Laurent with the models at the finale of his last Haute Couture runway show, Paris in 2002.
Bottom right: The YSL brand includes stunning cosmetics like the YSL Lip Twins.

Even though the world has lost a fashion revolutionist, Yves Saint Laurent continuous to be the driving force in today’s fashion industry. His timeless designs influence the runways of Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Jean Paul Gaultier, who have borrowed liberally and sometimes literally from Saint Laurent’s seemingly never-ending collection of androgynous, maverick styles. The man may have departed but the name still lives on.

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