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Yves Saint Laurent: 1936 - 2008


By Shine Anthony-Dharan

PARIS, 4 JUNE 2008 -The twentieth century produced three couturiers whose legacies have stood the test of time - Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. The last of this trinity, Saint Laurent, passed away at 11:00 pm on Sunday June 1st 2008, of brain cancer. The undisputed king of fashion during the 1960s and 70s, Saint Laurent introduced le smoking, bare breasts and masculine glamour to the storied world of haute couture . He was the first to inject youth culture into high fashion by putting Beatnik-inspired alligator biker jackets and thigh high boots on the runway decades before anyone else dared to. The inception of the Rive Gauche label in 1962 effectively invented the concept of ready to wear. Inspired by travel, art, music and dance, his collections turned 180 degrees from season to season. In his heyday, the couturier spent his days at his atelier and his nights where the beautiful people gathered: the restaurants, the discos and the gay cruising clubs. By channeling everything he saw and experienced into his work, Saint Laurent thrived whilst his contemporaries went bankrupt. Only Saint Laurent could sell haute couture to the young. He was the star of Paris at a time when fashion provided all the glamour in the city.

Yves Saint Laurent (born in Oran, Algeria, in 1936)
1er Smoking (First Tuxedo)
1966 Fall/Winter Collection, No. 76
Nap and satin silk jacket and trousers, mandarin tuxedo shirt. Tie, cumberbund and satin silk ankle boots, metal cufflinks with fancy pearls
Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
Photo:© Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

The fact that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and every major member of the fashion community are expected to attend the funeral is testament to the power of Saint Laurent's legacy. The mythology that surrounded the couturier was decades in the making and certainly no accident. Saint Laurent's partner of fifty years, Pierre Bergé, talked openly of his clinical depression, substance abuse and ill health as early as the 1970s. Bergé cleverly painted Saint Laurent as the quintessential "suffering genius," a slave to feminine beauty who could not rest until an armhole was cut perfectly. In 2002, Saint Laurent said, "I've known fear and terrible solitude…tranquilizers and drugs, those phony friends. The prison of depression and hospitals. I've emerged from all this, dazzled but sober." The public perception of Saint Laurent as true great artist was vital to both the designer's and Bergé's legacies. Pierre Bergé's role in making Saint Laurent an icon cannot be underestimated. He controlled the financial aspects of the YSL business while Saint Laurent concentrated on the creative. Although the pair often fought, there was a deep and genuine affection between the two. They reportedly enjoyed a happy and open relationship, at times living apart with separate boyfriends, but never free of each other's spell.

Yves Saint Laurent: Evening Gown
1968 Fall/Winter Collection, No. 74
Silk muslin, ostrich feather boa. Metal "serpent" belt

Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
Photo:© Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

By the late 1970s, many of Saint Laurent's friends were accusing Bergé of isolating the couturier and turning him away from them. Others believed that Saint Laurent used Bergé as an excuse to escape into his own solitude, leaving him to deal with the unpleasantries of life. From the very beginning, Bergé set out to make Saint Laurent a legend. It was he who pushed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1983 retrospective of Saint Laurent's career -the first time a living designer had been honored in such a way. Bergé called his partner a "true creator…a libertarian, an anarchist (who) threw bombs at the legs of society. That's how he transformed society and that's how he transformed women." Bergé organized the valedictory fashion show that marked Saint Laurent's retirement in 2002. Four decades of fashion were displayed in a 300-piece retrospective that had much of the audience in tears. After the show, Bergé set up the Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent Foundation to house the designer's archives and forever seal his own name into fashion history.

Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936)
Cocktail Dress Spring-Summer 1992.
Gazar, wide brimmed sun hat with sequin emboidery
Ceramic pendant earrings. Crepe pumps
Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent
Photo:© Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent

Photo: Alexandre Guirkinger
Photo courtesy of Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal

Although Saint Laurent undoubtedly revolutionized how women dressed in the 1960s and 70s, the couturier was accused of repetition towards the end of his career. He could not align himself with the casual, sportive fashion of the 1990s, much less the postmodern theatrics of the 2000s. The man who had made his name channeling the streets turned his back on them, retreating further into a world of private homes, fine artwork and private reading. By the time he bowed out of fashion in 2002, Saint Laurent had spent a decade reworking and perfecting his favorite pieces in increasing isolation. He was out of favor with the fashion press, but not with the generation of designers who grew up idolizing him. Giorgio Armani called Saint Laurent the "foremost and truest designer of our time." Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs and Dolce & Gabbana are a handful of the designers who have referenced Saint Laurent's archives in their collections.

Yves Saint Laurent: Evening Domino Ensemble, autumn/winter 1983-84
Cape: yellow silk faille; gown: black silk velvet
for Mrs. Nan Kempner
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gift of Mr. Thomas L. Kempner, 2006
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ten years ago, I saw Saint Laurent at the Ritz Paris. Although clearly lacking in ease of movement, he was dressed in an immaculate pinstripe suit and tie for breakfast, his female companions in full hair, make up and Saint Laurent ensembles. They appeared to be magnificent characters from a bygone age obstinately refusing to enter an uncertain present. Every single person in that room turned to look at them. Women smoothed down their hair and men sat straighter in their seats. That was the magic of Saint Laurent. He came into the world of fashion, he saw it, and he conquered it. When he was done, he retreated into his private world. In his own words, Saint Laurent explained that "fashion is not only supposed to make women beautiful, but also to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves." In today's climate of celebrity led disposable fashion, Saint Laurent's words sound revolutionary once again. As the maestro's death will inevitably result in a plethora of Saint Laurent-inspired looks in next year's collections, viva the revolution!

Funeral Service

Funeral services are scheduled for 3:30 pm Thursday June 5th at the Eglise Saint-Roch at 296 Rue Saint-Honoré. Afterward, Saint Laurent will be cremated and his ashes spread at his favorite Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Shine Anthony-Dharan is a British fashion writer and designer based in New York. He covers fashion, beauty and interior design for Mr. Anthony-Dharan last wrote on Karl Lagerfeld: "Confidential" or Just Plain Confusing?.

Travel Calendar: Exhibition

Montréal (Québec)

Yves Saint Laurent
29 May - 28 September 2008
Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
1379 Sherbrooke Street Pavilion
Montréal (Québec)
Tel: (1) 514 285 20 00

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