Saint Laurent, Yves
SAINT LAURENT, YVES
A direct heir of the couture tradition of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent explored, discovered, and polished, in the course of a career lasting more than forty years, the infinite resources of his vocabulary. Taming the signs and codes of his age, he created the grammar of the contemporary wardrobe and imposed his language, which became the inescapable reference of the twentieth century. In search of a uniform for elegance, Saint Laurent combined the greatest rigor of production with extreme sophistication of form to create clothing of impeccable cut with harmonious proportions, where the aesthetic of the detail was transformed into an absolute necessity. "Fashion is like a party. Getting dressed is preparing to play a role. I am not a couturier, I am a craftsman, a maker of happiness" (Teboul 2002).
Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent was born on 1 August 1936 in the Algerian city of Oran, the oldest of the three
children of Lucienne-Andrée and Charles Mathieu Saint Laurent. He said later: "As long as I live I will remember my childhood and adolescence in the marvelous country that Algeria was then. I don't think of myself as a pied noir. I think of myself as a Frenchman born in Algeria" (Teboul 2002). He entered the Collège du Sacré-Cœur in September 1948. Strongly influenced by the play L'École à deux têtes of Jean Cocteau, he designed his first dresses: stage costumes for paper puppets with which he performed for his sisters. "I had a terrible time in class, and when I got home at night I was completely free. I thought only of my puppets, my marionettes, which I dressed up in imitation of the plays I had seen" (Benaïm, p. 451).
Saint Laurent designed a good deal, imitating Jean Gabriel-Domergue, Christian Bérard, René Gruau, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Hubert de Givenchy. In February 1949 he created his first dresses, made for his mother and his two sisters. At the age of sixteen he attended a performance of Molière's L'École des femmes, performed and directed by Louis Jouvet. Bérard had designed both sets and costumes. Seeing this play inspired in Saint Laurent a passion that he never surrendered for the theater. In December 1953 he went with his mother to Paris to receive the third prize in the competition of the Secrétariat de la Laine. There he was introduced to Michel de Brunhoff, who was then editor of the French edition of the essential fashion magazine Vogue.
Back in Oran, he began a correspondence with de Brunhoff, sending him fashion and theater sketches. The following year, armed with his baccalaureat (earning second prize for the philosophy essay and a score of 20 out of 20 in drawing), Saint Laurent settled in Paris and attended the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture for three months. He won first prize for dresses in the Secrétariat de la Laine competition. It was at about this time that, struck by the similarity of Saint Laurent's designs to those of the fall–winter collection of Christian Dior, de Brunhoff decided to introduce him to Dior, who promptly hired him as an assistant. During the next two years—years of apprenticeship and intense collaboration— a lasting complicity was established between the two men. "I remember him above all.… The elegance of his feelings matched the elegance of his style" (Yves Saint Laurent, p. 31).
On 24 October 1957 Christian Dior died from a heart attack at the age of fifty-two. On 15 November Saint Laurent was designated his successor. At age twenty-one he became the youngest couturier in the world. He presented his first collection in January 1958 and had his first triumph with the Trapeze line, which propelled him onto the international scene with its enormous success. He was given the Neiman Marcus Award. That same year he met Pierre Bergé, who soon became his companion and business partner.
While designing six collections a year for the house of Dior, Saint Laurent satisfied his passion for the theater, and he designed his first stage costumes (Cyrano de Bergerac, Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit, 1959). Influenced by Chanel, the spring–summer collection had solid success and provoked a craze, but the autumn–winter collection saw the appearance of a more controversial style: turtleneck knits and the first black leather jackets. Singularly prophetic, Saint Laurent had taken his inspiration directly from the street. Drafted into the Algerian armed forces in 1960, he was replaced at Dior by Marc Bohan.
Saint Laurent was soon declared unfit for service and hospitalized for nervous depression, and it was thanks to Bergé that he was able to leave the army. "Victoire" Doutrouleau, one of Dior's star models and a "marvelous muse" for Saint Laurent, recalls: "He left the hospital anxious, dazed, and alone. Yves a soldier? You might as well try changing a swan into a crocodile!" (Benaïm, p. 108). In open conflict with the Dior fashion house, which he sued for breach of contract, Saint Laurent decided to establish his own couture house in 1961, in association with Bergé. The financial support came from an American businessman, J. Mack Robinson: "I was impressed by such great talent in such a young man. I knew nothing about fashion, and I didn't want to get involved. This was the realm of Yves, the creator, and I immediately saw that he was a genius" (Yves Saint Laurent, p. 16).
The house opened officially on 4 December 1961. Former employees of Christian Dior left Dior to work for Saint Laurent, and more than half the seamstresses came from the Dior workshops. The graphic designer Cassandre created the YSL logo. Saint Laurent designed his first dress—labeled 00001—for Mrs. Arturo Lopez Willshaw, followed by the famous white feather costume for the dancer Zizi Jeanmaire. In 1962, on rue Spontini in Paris, the house presented its first show, described by Life as "the best suitmaker since Chanel" (p. 49). Dino Buzzati, special correspondent for the Corriere della sera, wrote: "Closing the show, a wedding dress in goffered white piqué brought an ovation from the public. The pale face of the young couturier then appeared for a moment from backstage; only for a moment, because a swarm of admirers surrounded him, embraced him, devoured him." This collection was memorable for the Norman jacket, the smock, and the pea jacket, which became "foundations" of the Saint Laurent style.
Saint Laurent designed the sets and costumes for Les chants de maldoror and Rapsodie espagnole, staged by Roland Petit, and the dresses for Claudia Cardinale in Blake Edwards's film The Pink Panther (1964). In April 1963, accompanied by Pierre Bergé, who had become his Pygmalion, he made his first trip to Japan, where he presented shows in Osaka and Tokyo.
The year 1964 saw the launch of a perfume for women, called "Y." But Saint Laurent's new collection was showered with negative criticism. The press spoke only of the André Courrèges' bombshell collection. Saint Laurent explained: "I have never been able to work on a wooden mannequin; I play by unrolling the fabric on the model, walking around her, making her move. … The only collection that I made a mess of, a complete fiasco, the very year when Courrèges's came on the scene and succeeded, I did not have good models, and I was not inspired" (Vacher, p. 68). Still drawn to the theater, he designed the costumes for Le mariage de Figaro and Il faut passer par les nuages for the Renaud-Barrault company.
In 1965 he triumphed with the Mondrian collection (named for the modern artist Piet Mondrian), which was surprising for its strict cut and the play of colors. Show-ered with praise by the American fashion press, he had become, according to Women's Wear Daily, "the Young King Yves of Paris." It was at this time that he made his first trip to New York, accompanied by Bergé. Richard Salomon (of Charles of the Ritz) acquired all the stock of the Yves Saint Laurent design company. At this time, too, Saint Laurent began a long friendship with the dancer Rudolph Nureyev, for whom he designed stage costumes and street clothes. He also created the wardrobe that Sophia Loren wore in Stanley Donen's film Arabesque (1966), as well as the costumes for Roland Petit's Notre-Dame de Paris.
For his summer 1966 haute couture show Saint Laurent presented the first see-through garments, the "nude look," and the first dinner jacket: "If I had to choose a design among all those that I have presented, it would unquestionably be the tuxedo jacket.… And since then, it has been in every one of my collections. It is in a sense the 'label' of Yves Saint Laurent" (Vacher, p. 64). For his haute couture collection of winter 1966–1967 he introduced the Pop Art collection. He met Andy Warhol and Loulou de la Falaise, his future muse. On 26 September 1966 Saint Laurent opened his first ready-to-wear shop, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, at 21, rue de Tournon, with Catherine Deneuve, for whom he had designed the costumes in Luis Buñuel's film Belle de jour (1967), as godmother.
With the designs of Saint Laurent, ready-to-wear fashion established its pedigree, for he himself supervised the creation, manufacture, and distribution of the clothing: "The ready-to-wear is not a poor substitute for couture. It is the future. We know that we are dressing younger, more receptive women. With them it is easy to be bolder" (Benaïm, p. 153). That same year he won the Harper's Bazaar Oscar award; published an illustrated book, La vilaine Lulu; and launched his so-called African dresses. It was at that time that Saint Laurent and Bergé discovered Marrakesh, where they bought a house. For the spring–summer 1968 show, he presented the first jacket for the safari look, more see-through garments, and the jumpsuit, which would be successfully repeated in 1975. The style "Il" or "He" was born, comprising mini evening dresses and men's suits: "I was deeply struck by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich wearing men's clothes. A tuxedo, a blazer, or a navel officer's uniform— any of them. A woman dressed as a man must be at the height of femininity to fight against a costume that isn't hers" (Buck, p. 301). In September, the first Saint Laurent Rive Gauche shop was opened in New York. In a television interview, Chanel identified Saint Laurent as her spiritual heir, while galleries in London and New York exhibited his theater drawings.
The autumn–winter 1969 collection was dominated by the tapestry coat, patchwork furs, and jeweled dresses created by his sculptor friends the Lalannes. He continued to work in the cinema, designing costumes for Catherine Deneuve in François Truffaut's La sirène du Mississippi (1969); then, with Bergé, he opened the first Saint Laurent Rive Gauche shop for men at 17, rue de Tournon. In 1971, inspired by the designer Paloma Picasso, who bought her clothes at flea markets, he created the Libération collection, also known as Quarante, which provoked a scandal with its "retro" style. Saint Laurent later said that this collection—featuring puffed sleeves, square shoulders, platform shoes, and his famous green fox short jacket—was a humorous reaction to new fashion tendencies. In its wake, he posed nude for the photographer Jean-loup Sieff to advertise his first eau de toilette for men, YSL pour Homme, provoking another scandal.
Beginning in 1972 great changes took place. Pierre Bergé, whose ultimate aim was to recover all the stock of Yves Saint Laurent, repurchased from Charles of the Ritz (which had become a subsidiary of the American pharmaceutical giant Squibb) its shares in the couture house, thereby taking control of the couture and ready-to-wear businesses. Bergé and Saint Laurent then developed a licensing policy; although it had existed earlier, it was strengthened and enforced. The designs presented in the spring of 1972 (embroidered cardigans, padded jackets, "Proust" dresses with taffeta frills) were greeted triumphantly by a press once again overflowing with praise: "the man is pure and simple, the greatest fashion designer in the world today," said Harper's Bazaar (March 1972, p. 93). To close the season with a flourish, Andy Warhol did a series of portraits of Saint Laurent.
The following years found Saint Laurent ever more in demand in the world of film and theater. He designed costumes in succession for Anny Duperey in Alain Resnais's film Stavisky …, for Ellen Burstyn in the same director's Providence, and for Helmut Berger in Joseph Losey's The Romantic Englishwoman. He created the costumes for the ballets La rose malade (1973) and Schéhérazade (1974) for Roland Petit; for Harold and Maude (1973), a play by Colin Higgins; and for Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Depardieu in The Ride across Lake Constance (1974) by Peter Handke. In 1974 an exhibition of his costume and stage set sketches was staged in the Proscenium gallery in Paris. In July of the same year, the couture house moved from its cramped quarters to a Second Empire mansion at 5, avenue Marceau.
In 1976 the Opéra-Ballets Russes collection (homage to the Russian ballet producer Sergey Diaghilev) enjoyed international success and was featured on the front page of the New York Times. Saint Laurent, who was celebrating his fortieth birthday, said: "I don't know if this is my best collection, but it is my most beautiful collection" (Au-gust 16, 1976, p. 39). At about this time, Saint Laurent suffered a severe depression, and beginning in 1977 rumors circulated about his impending death. He replied with major colorful collections with exotic themes: the Espagnoles, with dresses straight out of a painting by Diego Velázquez, and the Chinoises, celebrating the annals of imperial China. He also launched a new perfume, Opium, the advertising for which, orchestrated by the Mafia agency, created a scandal with the slogan "For those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent."
In 1978, having just designed the sets and costumes for Cocteau's L'Aigle à deux têtes and for Ingrid Caven's cabaret show and written the preface for Nancy Hall-Duncan's book The History of Fashion Photography (1979), Saint Laurent demonstrated with his spring-summer collections, "Broadway suits" that he was still in touch with the current climate. He said, "This collection is very elegant, provocative, and at the same time wildly modern, which might appear contradictory. I have sought for purity, but I have interjected unexpected accessories: pointed collars, little hats, shoes with pompons. With these kinds of winks, I wanted to bring a little humor to haute couture, … give it the same sense of freedom one feels in the street, the same provocative and arrogant appearance as, for example, punk fashion. All of that, of course, with dignity, luxury, and style" (Yves Saint Laurent, p. 23).
During the ensuing decade Saint Laurent carried on with his favorite themes—the now classic blazer, dinner jacket, smock, pea jacket, raincoat, pants suit, and safari jacket—while presenting his collections in the form of the homage to various artists and writers. Pablo Picasso, the surrealist poet Aragon, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Cocteau, the French artist Henri Matisse, Shakespeare, the American painter David Hockney, the French artist Georges Braque, the French painter Pierre Bonnard, and the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh were invoked in turn, inspiring strongly colored garments in which were inscribed the emblematic forms of the painters and the verses of the poets. His creations were "setting static things in motion on the body of a woman," he said in Paris-Match (12 Février 1988, p. 69). The press around the world never stopped singing his praises.
The 1980s were full and rich for Saint Laurent. In 1981 he designed the uniform for the writer Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie Française, and launched a men's perfume, Kouros. The year 1982 was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of his couture house; the occasion was celebrated at the Lido, where he received the International Fashion Award of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
In 1983 he showed the Noire et Rose collection, introduced the perfume Paris, designed costumes for the play Savannah Bay by Marguerite Duras, and enjoyed the opening of the exhibition "Yves Saint Laurent, 25 Years of Design" at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the largest retrospective ever devoted to a living couturier. One million visitors attended the exhibition, organized by Diana Vreeland. As Vreeland put it, "Saint Laurent has been built into the history of fashion now for a long time. Twenty-six years is proof that he can please most of the people most of the time four times a year. That's quite a reputation" (Time, December 12, 1983, p. 56). That same year he made his appearance in the Larousse dictionary.
President François Mitterrand awarded Saint Laurent the medal of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1985, the same year the African Look collection debuted. Accompanied by Pierre Bergé, he traveled to China for the exhibition devoted to his work at the Fine Arts Museum of Beijing (which recorded 600,000 visitors) and received, at the Paris Opera, the award for Best Couturier for the body of his work. In 1986 he presented his fiftieth haute couture collection, and a retrospective of his work was given at the Musée des Arts de la Mode in Paris. Bergé and Saint Laurent, with the participation of Cerus, purchased Charles of the Ritz, owner of Yves Saint Laurent perfumes, for $630 million.
The next year retrospectives were mounted in the U.S.S.R. (Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) and in Australia (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). That season five hundred of his pieces sold, principally to a foreign clientele. In 1988, Saint Laurent became the first couturier to present a show for the French Communist Party, at the Fête de l'Humanité. Shares of the Saint Laurent group were introduced on the secondary market of the Paris Bourse in 1989, and the revenues of the house of Saint Laurent reached 3 million francs.
The decade of the 1990s began with an exhibition at the Sezon Museum of Art in Tokyo; the opening of the first shop for accessories, at 32, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré; and the presentation of the collection Hommages, considered a "farewell" by some of the press. Scandal arose, however, from an interview Saint Laurent gave to Le figaro, in which he spoke of detoxification, his homosexuality, his overuse of alcohol, and his fits of nervous depression. But in 1992, like the phoenix reborn from his ashes, he presented his 121st collection, Une Renaissance, and celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Saint Laurent fashion house by inviting 2,800 guests to the Opéra Bastille.
In May 1993 the Yves Saint Laurent group merged with the Elf-Sanofi company. With this acquisition, Elf-Sanofi became the third-largest international prestige perfume and cosmetic company, after L'Oréal and Estée Lauder. Saint Laurent then launched the perfume Champagne, "for happy, lighthearted women, who sparkle." On 21 July, he presented his 124th haute couture collection, with models parading to the melody of The Merry Widow. In a major spectacle at the Stade de France, for the opening of the 1998 World Cup of soccer Saint Laurent and Bergé paraded three hundred models before a packed stadium, while two billion spectators watched the event on television. In November of that year, in order to devote himself entirely to haute couture, Saint Laurent turned women's ready-to-wear over to Albert Elbaz and men's ready-to-wear to Hedi Slimane.
In 1999 François Pinault, owner of the department store Printemps, bought Saint Laurent from Elf for 1.12 billion euros and pumped in an additional 78 million euros to take control of all rights to the label, which he turned over to Tom Ford, the Texan designer for Gucci, a house also controlled by Pinault. Bergé announced the opening of the Centre de Documentation Yves Saint Laurent, in Paris, planned for January 2000.
After forty-four years of fashion designing, Saint Laurent announced the closing of his house at a press conference given on 7 January 2002. He took his leave of haute couture with these words: "I have always stood fast against the fantasies of some people who satisfy their egos through fashion. On the contrary, I wanted to put myself at the service of women. … I wanted to accompany them in the great movement of liberation that they went through in the last century. … I am naïve enough to believe that [my designs] can stand up to the attacks of time and hold their place in the world of today. They have already proved it."
Saint Laurent fixed the ephemeral and constantly sought beauty, shifting between classicism and provocation. Favoring methodical work, recurrent themes, and improvisations in the form of homages, he referred to other artists as catalysts. Shakespeare, Velázquez, Picasso, Proust, and Mondrian each, in turn, served as an inspiration to him. By pushing to extremes the exoticism of the street and delving into forgotten folk traditions, he brought forth a new spirit that illuminated his palette, for example, in the African, Ballets Russes, and Chinoises collections. In an even more radical shift, he took on the male wardrobe, diverting and transposing the dinner jacket, pants suit, safari jacket, and pea jacket to bring masculine and feminine together in a single design. But, it is Pierre Bergé who best describes Yves Saint Laurent's contribution for Yves—and herein lies his uniqueness— each collection is a means of bringing dreams to life, expressing fantasies, encountering myths, and creating out of them a contemporary fashion" (Saint Laurent, p. 27).
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Saint Laurent, Yves
SAINT LAURENT, Yves
Born: Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent in Oran, Algeria, 1 August 1936. Education: Studied at L'École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, 1954. Career: Independent clothing stylist, Paris, 1953-54; designer/partner, 1954-57, chief designer, Dior, Paris, 1957-60; began designing for theater and film, 1959; founder/designer, Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, from 1962; Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line introduced, 1966; menswear line introduced, 1974; firm purchased by Elf-Sanofi SA, 1993; designer Elber Albaz hired, 1998-2000; acquired by Gucci Group NV, 1999; Tom Ford took over as creative director, 2000; renovated Madison Avenue store reopened, 2001; retired from designing, 2002; fragrances include Y 1964; Rive Gauche, 1971; Opium, 1978; Paris, 1983; Champagne, (renamed Yvresse, 1996) 1993; Opium relaunch, 1995; Opium for Men, 1996; Baby Doll, 1999; Nu, 2001. Exhibitions: Yves Saint Laurent, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983; Yves Saint Laurent et le Théâtre, Musée des Arts de la Mode, Paris, 1986; Yves Saint Laurent, 28 Ans de Création, Musée des Arts de la Mode, 1986; retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 1987. Awards: International Wool Secretariat award, 1954; Neiman Marcus award, 1958; Harper's Bazaar award, 1966; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1981; CFDA Lifetime Achievement award, 1999; Fifi Fragrance award (for Baby Doll ), 2000. Address: 5 avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris, France. Website: www.yslonline.com.
By SAINT LAURENT:
Yves Saint Laurent, New York & London, 1984.
Yves Saint Laurent par Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, 1986.
Bergé, Pierre, and Yves Saint Laurent, Yves Saint Laurent, London & New York, 1996, 1997.
Yves Saint Laurent: Forty Years of Creation, New York, 1998.
Love, by Yves Saint Laurent, New York, 2000.
On SAINT LAURENT:
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A great adaptor, Yves Saint Laurent responds in his designs to history, art, and literature. Vast ranges of themes are incorporated into his work, from the Ballet Russes to the writings of Marcel Proust, who inspired his taffeta gowns of 1971; the paintings of Picasso to the minimalist work of Mondrian and the de Stijl movement, shown in the primary colors of his geometrically blocked wool jersey dresses of 1965.
Saint Laurent has a great love of the theatre. He has designed costumes for many stage productions during his long career and the theatre is an important source of ideas for his couture collections. Flamboyant ensembles, such as the Shakespeare wedding dress of brocade and damask of 1980 and his extravagant series of garments inspired by a romantic vision of Russian dress, reflect his passion for theatrical costume.
Less successful have been his attempts to engage with countercultural movements such as the 1960 collection based on the bohemian Left Bank look. The criticism leveled by the press on being confronted with the avant garde on the couture catwalk led to Saint Laurent's replacement as head designer for Dior, even though his 1958 trapeze line had been an enormous success and he had been fêted as the savior of Parisian couture. At this time the House of Dior was responsible for nearly half of France's fashion exports, so there was a heavy burden of financial responsibility on Saint Laurent's shoulders.
The 1960 collection appropriated the Left Bank style with knitted turtlenecks and black leather jackets, crocodile jackets with mink collars, and—a design which was to crop up again and again in his repertoire—the fur jacket with knitted sleeves. In 1968 Saint Laurent produced a tailored trouser collection reflecting his sympathy with the cause of the student marchers who had brought the streets of Paris to a standstill. The clothes were black and accessorized with headbands and fringes.
Where Saint Laurent sets the standards for world fashion is in his feminizing of the basic shapes of the male wardrobe. Like Chanel before him, he responded to the subtleties of masculine tailoring seeking to provide a similar sort of style for women. He produced a whole series of elegant day clothes, such as the shirt dress, which became a staple of the sophisticated woman's wardrobe of the 1970s. Saint Laurent is justly acclaimed for his sharply tailored suits with skirts or trousers, le smoking (a simple black suit with satin lapels based on the male tuxedo, which became an alternative to the frothily feminine evening gown), safari jackets, brass buttoned pea jackets, flying suits—in fact many of the chic classics of postwar women's style.
Saint Laurent's designs contain no rigid shaping or over-elaborate cutting but depend on a perfection of line and a masterful understanding of printed textiles and the use of luxurious materials. He worked with silk printers to produce glowing fabric designs incorporating a brilliant palette of clashing colors such as hot pink, violet, and sapphire blue. A sharp contrast is produced with his simple, practical daywear and romantic, exotic eveningwear, which is more obviously seductive with its extensive beadwork, embroidery, satin, and sheer fabrics such as silk chiffon.
Less interested in fashion than in style, Saint Laurent is and will always be a classicist, designing elegant, tasteful, and sophisticated apparel, perfectly handcrafted in the manner of the old couturiers. He did, however, use industrial methods to produce his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line, created in 1966, and sold in his own franchised chain of boutiques. The popular line was later taken over by Alber Elbaz, who had worked for Guy Laroche, in 1998, and then by Tom Ford in 2000.
There was been a radical change in the small company founded by Yves Saint Laurent and business partner Pierre Bergé in 1961. It became a massive financial conglomerate, listed on the Paris Bourse, the result of profitable licensing deals. In the 1990s the firm changed ownership several times, ending up as part of the Gucci Group in 1999. Called "fashion's shiniest trophy," by the International Herald Tribune (16 November 1999), the YSL acquisition was another example of the fashion industry's tightening consolidation.
In the 21st century, YSL remained an acclaimed couture house, though its namesake and Rive Gauche designer Tom Ford rarely saw eye to eye. In January 2002, however, such creative differences were moot: Saint Laurent announced he was leaving the firm that bore his name and retiring. Roundly considered the last of the true haute couturiers, the industry lost one of its most elegant and inspired purveyors.
updated by Nelly Rhodes
Yves St. Laurent
Yves St. Laurent
Beginning his career in the late 1950s as the head fashion designer at the internationally renowned House of Dior in Paris, Yves St. Laurent (born 1936) quickly rose to become one of the most talented designers of haute couture of the twentieth century.
Yves St. Laurent possesses an unwavering confidence in his ability to design beautiful clothes. Innovative in his approach to style—he has adapted everything from 1930s platform shoes to military jackets to see-through dresses for display on Paris fashion runways. St. Laurent drew on his own sense of line, drape, and color, as well as inspirations gained from 1940s menswear, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, the designs of Coco Channel, and other influences, to make his name synonymous with style, and familiar to generations of sophisticated, fashion-conscious women and men. Through his many long-term friendships with such high-profile individuals as artist Andy Warhol, actress Catherine Deneuve, and dancer Rudolph Nureyev, he has become a recognizable symbol of the continuing interrelationship between high fashion and other contemporary arts.
A Reflective Childhood in Algiers
St. Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria, on August 1, 1936. His father, Charles Mathieu St. Laurent, was an attorney, while his mother, Lucienne-Andree St. Laurent, looked after Yves and his younger sisters, Michele and Brigitte. A quiet, emotional, and introspective child, he showed little interest in sports or reading, preferring to create visual art by designing miniature stage sets and costumes. Following the wishes of his father, St. Laurent applied himself to his secondary studies, earning his baccalaureat degree at the Lycee d'Oran in 1954.
By this point, it had become clear to his parents that St. Laurent's talents lay someplace other than the law. In fact, despite being untrained in fashion or design, one of his sketches had been awarded third place in the annual International Wool Secretariat contest held in Paris in 1953. He was encouraged to travel to Paris, his portfolio of fashion and costume sketches and a letter of recommendation to Michel de Brunhoff in hand. Brunhoff, then editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine, was a powerful arbiter of fashion, and he was impressed by St. Laurent's sense of style and a sophistication surprising in one so young. The editor was also struck by several of St. Laurent's designs, which were similar to some Brunhoff had seen in the upcoming collection of consummate designer Christian Dior. It was obvious that the two men must meet.
Adopted as Protege of Leader of House of Dior
Dior had been the reining king of high fashion since 1947, when his first collection had impressed Paris runway crowds with its sleek lines. When he met St. Laurent in 1954 and studied his portfolio of sketches, he understood what Brunhoff had seen: a similar sophistication and style. St. Laurent's success at the International Wool Secretariat— three first-place awards out of a possible four—convinced Dior to take an interest in the young fashion designer. In 1955, at the age of 19, St. Laurent found himself working as an assistant in the most prestigious design firm in the world: the House of Dior.
The world of high fashion in the mid-twentieth century was a competitive one, dominated by a few top "names" who based their design houses in Paris. During the 1950s, the name Christian Dior was most well known in a group that also included Karl Lagerfeld, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, and Coco Chanel. His affiliation with Dior, as well as his obvious talent, quickly elevated St. Laurent to more than just an assistant. When Dior passed away suddenly in October 1957, it was no surprise that St. Laurent was quickly named to the position of chief designer of the House of Dior. Some feared that the House would fall upon its namesake's death—and with it the jobs of over 2,000 people. St. Laurent's 1958 collection assuaged any such pessimism. His "Trapeze" collection, which featured a dress cut narrow at the shoulders and then swinging out in an "A" line at a new, refreshing shorter skirt length, impressed runway crowds and was quickly picked up by manufacturers. At the gala following the successful showing, St. Laurent was introduced to Pierre Berge, a young man with a talent for business. Despite, or perhaps because of their differing temperaments, the quiet, high-strung designer and the savvy, public-minded businessman would become lovers and eventual business partners.
Personal and Professional Partnership
Credited for saving the House of Dior from ruin, St. Laurent grew more confident in his talents. The conservative Dior following viewed his 1959 designs, with their curved lines and longer, hobbled skirts, as controversial. However, by the following summer, a more feminine look graced Dior's lithe runway models. Unfortunately, by the fall of 1960 the house's chief designer was removed from his post, not through lack of popularity but because of France's mandatory requirement of 27 months of military service. Suffering from a nervous breakdown only months into his required service, St. Laurent was hospitalized. Berge aided his recovery by encouraging the designer to do costume work for several Paris theatre productions. While the House of Dior, unwilling to risk its future on the recovering designer, dismissed St. Laurent, Berge acquired $700,000 from U.S. businessman J. Mack Robinson as start-up funds for a new design house: the first Yves St. Laurent haute couture collection debuted on January 29, 1962.
Over the next several years, St. Laurent would introduce many collections via the Paris fashion runways, each with a trademark theme, and each accompanied by a gala party to which fashion magazine editors, buyers, and wealthy arbiters of modern fashion would flock to see and be seen. Some, like his "Arc" line created while he was still at the House of Dior in late 1958, would rouse only lukewarm enthusiasm. Others, such as his "Mondrian" dress designs of 1965 and the trouser suits, menswear look, and safari-styled jackets of the late 1960s and 1970s, quickly found their way to upscale versions in major department stores worldwide. The popularity of the St. Laurent look was further aided by the designer's close association with actress Catherine Deneuve, and his costume designs for the 1965 Louis Bunuel film Belle de jour.
During the 1960s and 1970s, design houses expanded their creative efforts beyond textiles, and introduced fragrances to a public eager to adopt all that a "name" designer had to offer. While his women's fragrances, "Y", "Rive Gauche," and "Opium"—released in 1960, 1971, and 1978 respectively—were newsworthy, St. Laurent's move into the men's market made the news outside fashion circles. While his first showing of men's clothing had occurred during the 1969 runway season, his "YSL for Men" line of fragrances was marketed through a photograph of the designer sans any fashion at all. This nude photograph of St. Laurent, while appreciated for its aesthetic merits and adopted as an icon by gays during the 1970s, infuriated many in the fashion community and was banned from the pages of several periodicals.
Fashion Industry Moves to Mainstream
High fashion was traditionally produced as a collection of one-of-a-kind garments designed to catch the eye of the press and those few wealthy individuals able to afford them. The new "styles" filtered down to mainstream markets through the manufacturers that incorporated them into their own lines. During the 1960s several noted designers had begun to market a line of pret-a-porter or ready-to-wear clothes: garments bearing a designer label but mass-produced for marketing to less affluent consumers. In 1971, Berge and St. Laurent also made the move to pret-a-porter, opening the first St. Laurent Rive Gauche showroom. In conjunction with this effort to woo a more mainstream consumer, St. Laurent's designs began to stabilize along classic lines, his more creative efforts now focused on theatrical costumes designed for theatres in Paris and New York. One exception to this was his 1976 collection, which he based on the colorful, abstract costumes created for the Ballet Russe by painter Leon Bakst in the 1920s.
Ill-Health and Business Turmoil
While St. Laurent had suffered from health problems in the late 1970s, he continued to produce lavish shows through the end of the decade. However, in the late 1970s and into the next decade rumors began circulating that he had contracted AIDS. While his public appearances at shows and parties repeatedly put such rumors to rest, it was noted that such appearances by the designer were becoming less and less frequent. However, through the efforts of Berge, the Yves St. Laurent name continued to flourish, through licensing arrangements with manufacturers, advertising campaigns, and the establishment of Rive Gauche boutiques in several major cities, including New York.
The relationship between the St. Laurent and Berge had become strained, due in part to a change in their personal relationship. Although they appeared in public together as honors were heaped upon them for their joint accomplishment in building the Yves St. Laurent name, by the late 1980s the interests of the two men had become diametrically opposed. In 1986, with the help of an Italian businessman, Berge acquired control of the YSL perfume division.
In 1989, the Yves St. Laurent business entity went public, selling shares on the Paris stock exchange and removing all but creative control from the designer. While his 1990 haute couture collection proved to be a success, the stress of the company's transition took its toll on St. Laurent, and he was admitted to a French hospital. Within two years the company was openly for sale, with business negotiations officiated by Berge. In 1993, the Sanofi Corporation purchased Yves St. Laurent for $650 million. The sale made both St. Laurent and Berge rich, although Berge was fined on suspicion of insider trading in conjunction with the business deal.
Despite the dismantling of his business empire, St. Laurent received numerous accolades for his talents as a designer. In 1985, he was made a Chevalier of France's Legion of Honor, one of his nation's most esteemed awards. Shortly thereafter, a retrospective of his works was organized and toured throughout Europe, China, Australia, and the United States. Through the 1990s, St. Laurent would continue to design both the YSL haute couture and pret-a-porter collections, continuing to refine his timeless, elegant designs for sophisticated women.
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Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Virago Press, 1985.
Times Saturday Review, July 21, 1990. □
Laurent, Yves Saint
YVES SAINT LAURENT
French designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936–) was born in Oran, Algeria, and, at age seventeen, settled in Paris, France. There he attempted to secure work as a fashion and costume designer. Two years later, after the publication of several of his sketches, he was invited to meet the celebrated designer Christian Dior (1905–1957). Dior immediately hired the young designer and became his mentor. Then Dior suddenly died. At the age of twenty-one Saint Laurent was designated Dior's successor, becoming chief designer at the House of Dior.
Saint Laurent scored a major success with his first show, in which he presented what was dubbed the "trapeze" look. Trapeze skirts were flat-fronted and flared out from the waist in an almost triangular fashion. In 1960 he launched the elegant "Beat Look," spotlighting knit sleeves, turtlenecks, and black leather jackets bordered in fur. Two years later Saint Laurent left the House of Dior and opened his own fashion house. He soon became an expert at adapting his haute couture (high fashion) designs for average, middle-class, style-conscious women.
The 1960s found Saint Laurent offering additional innovative designs: the Mondrian dress (1965), which borrowed the geometrical shapes found in the paintings of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944); "le smoking," an androgynous, or gender-neutral, women's tuxedo/smoking jacket (1966); and the jumpsuit, a one-piece suit consisting of shirt and pants or shorts (1968). He designed pea coats, safari jackets, peasant blouses and dresses, and see-through blouses. He incorporated pop art into his designs, which during the 1960s was a trendy art style that included such familiar images as product packaging and newspaper comic strips. In 1966 he started a line of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear (off-the-rack versus custom-made) clothing, and he began designing menswear in 1974. Over the decades, the Yves Saint Laurent (or "YSL") name has been licensed to a range of products, including eyeglasses, bath and bed linens, furs, and perfume. He also was the first major designer to employ models of varied ethnic backgrounds.
From the late 1960s on, more and more women entered the workplace. To accommodate their needs, Saint Laurent designed work attire that included pants and blazers rather than skirts and dresses. These innovations were not immediately accepted. At first, the classic Saint Laurent pantsuit was not considered appropriate work-place apparel for women. Occasionally, women wearing them were turned away from fancier restaurants.
In 1983 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented an exhibit spotlighting a quarter-century of Saint Laurent's creations. It was the first time a still-active designer was so honored. In October 1998 Saint Laurent introduced his final ready-to-wear collection, and the following year he sold his business to Gucci. Saint Laurent announced his retirement in 2002. Yves Saint Laurent's life and career may be summed up by what is perhaps his most celebrated declaration: "Fashions fade, style is eternal."