In a bit of luck of timing, I happened to be visiting my family in Colorado while the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective exhibit was at the Denver Art Museum. My mother and I decided to take advantage of this once-in-lifetime opportunity and spent the day there. It was an interesting exhibit that highlighted Yves Saint Laurent’s creative contributions, as well as his game-changing influence via his democratization of fashion and influencing the women’s movement. I enjoyed seeing the details on the clothing up close and felt a little remiss on not knowing the whole backstory on this truly remarkable designer and person.
Yves Saint Laurent started his career in fashion at Christian Dior, who recognized his talent immediately. For the first year, he was relegated to doing mundane tasks but then Dior steadily began incorporating Saint Laurent’s sketches into his collections. When Dior died suddenly in 1957 of a heart attack, Saint Laurent took the helm of Dior at the age of 21. Saint Laurent’s softer interpretation of Dior’s New Look, the “trapeze dress”, catapulted him into international stardom.
Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, Short evening dress, “Trapeze” haute couture collection, Spring-Summer 1958, Valse [Waltz] design. White silver-sequined tulle. © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger.
However, Saint Laurent’s collections after that caused a furor due to taking influence from the proletariat lifestyle, and after the disastrous 1960 collection, he found himself conscripted (at the owner of Dior’s behest) into the French army in Albania. He was hazed mercilessly and ended up in a military hospital where he found out he’d been replaced at Dior, given psychoanalytic drugs and electric shock therapy. Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime friend Pierre Bergé rescued him in November of 1960, set him up with a salon and investor and they started their own fashion house in 1962.
Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall 1965 show caused a sensation by the introduction of Le Smoking, a tuxedo designed for the women’s body which spoke to the burgeoning women’s movement. Women were suddenly free to cross into finer establishments and in the workplace wearing the austere suiting.
Yves Saint Laurent was the first French couturier to come out with a full prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) line in 1966, and brought the popular Le Smoking suiting to the masses at an affordable price. It would be a silhouette that he’d revisit again and again throughout his career.
Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer to use ethnic models in his runway shows in the 1970s and to reference other than European cultures in his work.
While Yves Saint Laurent would never reach the high levels of acclaim as he did in his earlier years, he made an indelible mark on fashion and history. In an interview, Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime partner Pierre Bergé said this about Yves legacy:
Saint Laurent is, along with Chanel, the most important fashion designer of the 20th century. It was a different time of designers, a time of great masterminds. I’ve seen wonderful dresses by Balenciaga and Christian Dior – but the difference between those fashion designers and Chanel and Saint Laurent is that they stayed on the aesthetic field. Saint Laurent and Chanel went to the social field – they changed the lives of women around the world…Chanel gave liberty to the women; I think Saint Laurent gave them power. We can see that today, everyday.
If you’d like to know more about Yves Saint Laurent, there are a couple of documentaries that can be viewed on Youtube. The first film is a 1992 biopic by Vogue’s Hamish Bowles which was 10 years before the closure of YSL Haute Couture and the second film ”Yves Saint Laurent: 5 Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris” (2002) details the construction of the Yves Saint Laurent’s last women’s collection in 2001.