Pamela Golbin. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 3. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
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).