A Fashion Colossus
In 1983, the first YSL retrospective was organised in New York. The first time a living designer had been so honoured – over a million people attended. The exhibition then went round the world for an incredible seven years. The latest retrospective is in the UK this month at The Bowes Museum, Durham
Article by A YSL Aficionado
The couturier Yves Saint Laurent ushered modernity into French haute couture and was the inventor of a style which became a way of dressing – his look was unmistakable, covetable and unique – it resonates still. During a career of over four decades, he became the late 20th century’s most influential and versatile designer, lauded and loved with a faithful, fanatical following. YSL devotees adored the cut, shape and proportion of his clothes which were simple, rigorously elegant, flattering and enduring – they defied time.
Saint Laurent loved women and was dedicated to their enchantment and saw his work as a support for what he termed, “women’s struggle for liberation over the past century”. His work has been called, “the love letter to women”. He actually hated fashion, having early on espoused Chanel’s aversion to it and came to realise style was all important – he became passionate about that. Against re-vamping collections each season, he dealt with his clothes in an evolutionary development which gave them durability and meaning – even now a 1969 coat and trousers, 1980s suit or 1990s jumpsuit don’t look démodé. It gave him pleasure to see his customers mixing old and new pieces for his clothes were surprisingly practical – his maxim was, “Good clothes which don’t date are modern”. He had an elastic idea of youth, “from 15 to the young at heart”, and his clothes found favour with elegant women of all ages.
He had begun his career in a Paris still dominated by couture houses dictating fashion by the season, at Dior where he worked, garments were padded, corseted and restrictive; Saint Laurent had noticed that his follow young in Paris were making their own style and would never accept imposed fashion. The late 1950s were seeing great changes in social structure, the beginnings of a youthquake and women were finally becoming independent.
Yves Saint Laurent had had the luck to be taken on by Dior on the strength of fashion sketches; when Dior died he found himself in charge of design and at only 21, he famously, “saved” France and Dior with his trapeze line which freed the waist. In 1959, he moved further away from his mentor’s silhouette and a nascent YSL look emerged in garments based on various French smocks. Already he was being referred to in French reviews as a poet and a man who would be hugely successful. By 1960 his intuitive modernising went too far when he picked up on Paris beatnik clothes and transposed them to haute couture. He lost his job but many years later said it was the first important definition of his style.
Bankrolled by an American admirer, YSL and his partner Pierre Berge, opened the house of Saint Laurent in 1961 and the following year showed a rather subdued collection – mainly a rehash of his Dior designs, but it featured a pea jacket that would go on to become one of his signature pieces.
His house had opened at a time when there was a thirst for the new. Already London and New York were doing vibrant youth fashion and in Paris, futurist designers were scoring with space age influenced collections.
After several unremarkable seasons, Saint Laurent had a hit in 1965 with a group of so-called Mondrian dresses which were hastily added to a collection he was dissatisfied with. These were simple columns of white jersey with geometric primary coloured blocks lifted from the Dutch artists’ work. They were received with cheers, made it into the glossies and copied worldwide.
The next year he launched ready-to-wear becoming more and more affected by the aspiring young and obsessed with making clothes easier to wear and more youthful. At Rive Gauche Paris, the first of his boutiques, the rails were filled with trouser suits, pop art dresses, vinyl raincoats, tunics, skimpy jumpers and there were long boots, thick tights, buckled shoes and clinky belts.
Other clothes for contempory dressing included 1940 and 50s suits, little black dresses, draped evening wear, kimono and dressing down coats and le smoking – a feminised dinner jacket.
By the 1969 student riots, his personal style had gone from rather buttoned up to hippie. He dedicated his collection for that year to the students and showed duffel coats and fringed suede suits. Saint Laurent became a cult figure to the young and fashionable but at the time thought of quitting.
In 1967, Yves Saint Laurent put women into trouser suits which were mercilessly mimicked and became part of female attire. He often showed them with high heels, lengthening the leg and lending attitude. But he was always determined that women in menswear remained feminine and the suits were often softened with bow tied blouses and matching sashes.
As an artist, aesthete and dreamer, he looked to, “the beauty of the past” for inspiration drawing on history, art and folklore. He picked up early on garments such as the American pea jacket, safari jacket, smocks and trench coats and endlessly re-interpreted them over the years to become iconic items – quintessential YSL. Yves Saint Laurent was not without controversy – in 1968, the transparent blouse and the chiffon dress revealing the breasts caused mild shock, as did a bride in a white trouser suit. In 1971, he did a collection evoking the 1940s – his favourite era – it was panned by the press as vulgar and tarty and it angered his compatriots who were reminded of the clothes of certain women in occupied France.
Yves Saint Laurent appropriated the dress of various countries around the world including Japan, China, Spain and Scotland but masterfully re-interpreted them into his own inimitable style. Saint Laurent admired Chanel’s uniform and paid homage to her in his collections, the respect was mutual and she appointed him her successor. Schiaparelli also influenced him – he adopted her extended shoulder line, using her pagoda shoulder in a 1970s fantasy collection and he was also an admirer of Madeleine Vionnet, famous for her draping techniques.
YSL had long felt couture was anachronistic and predicted its demise, he felt it represented huge wealth and pampered women. He did drop it for a while only to be persuaded back. This was not hard as it was a great love. Unlike many designers, the fashion empire masterminded by Pierre Berge allowed him to deal in unadulterated opulence, with the likes of intricately beaded jackets based on art works, dripping full length furs and lustful evening ensembles. It was also where his brilliance with colour was shown to full effect – he had an extraordinary colour palette unparalleled in Paris.
Fed up with the plagiarism of his 1960s innovative designs, Saint Laurent did fantasy collections in the 1970s showing his versatility and theatricality. He was always able to arouse emotion with his clothes – for instance the 1976 so-called Opera Collection was received with much hysterical crying, screaming, shouting and thunderous applause.
He was on a constant quest for visual perfection which was reflected in his later collections. These were always the longest in Paris, the clothes becoming ever more refined, sophisticated and seductive. No other designer was so cherished – Yves Saint Laurent more than earned the wish to become a legend.
Enquiries: The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co Durham. DL12 8NP / 01833 690606 / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/visitus/whatson/yvessaintlaurentstyleiseternal