Considered as one of the greatest fashion designers of the 20th Century, Yves Saint Laurent, sadly passed away from a brain tumour in June of 2008. The last of the traditional Parisian courtiers he was not only a celebrated fashion designer but also an artist whose legacy will live on through the luxurious garments that he created.
Born as Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint-Laurent on 1st August 1936 in Oran, Algeria. Yves father worked as an insurance broker and his mother was fanatical about clothes which rubbed off on her young son Yves who would spend much of his youth flicking through the pages of glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue.
At the age of 17 Yves travelled to Paris in order to pursue his passion for fashion. Studying at the L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris, just three months into his course Yves was snapped up in 1953 after a 15 minute interview with Christian Dior. Initially Yves worked as Dior’s assistant but when Dior suddenly died of a heart attack in 1957 Yves became Chief Designer of the House of Dior at the tender age of 21.
His first collection ‘Trapeze’ was revolutionary, attracting International recognition. A believer that elegance and style were the key ingredients to couture, this line sported the Trapeze dress which had narrow cut shoulders and wide swinging skirt. A welcome change to the face of couture as for years women were restricted to wearing tight fitting clothes and girdles. This inspirational collection catapulted Yves Saint Laurent into overnight stardom.
Throughout his career Yves star had risen and fallen depending on his collection at the time. In 1960 Yves designed The ‘Beat Look’ for Dior, but this collection was to attract negative responses as the pale zombie faces of the models, adorned with leather suits and coats, high pullovers and knitted caps were too controversial for the fashion press. He was instantly replaced as chief designer and asked to leave the fashion house of Dior
Shortly after Yves was drafted into the military service, an experience that shattered the designer as he often suffered with severe bouts of depression. Within a year he was medically discharged due to a nervous breakdown. This illness was to forever mark his career. At an early age he had been bullied because of his homosexuality and because of this he constantly suffered with both physical and mental illness through much of his life. His romantic and business partner Pierre Berge is once quoted as saying that “Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown.”
However, this illness was not to keep Yves from returning to his love of fashion and in 1962 he presented the first collection under his own name. This collection consisted of a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons, which was worn with white Shantung silk pants. It took 80 dressmakers and tailors working day and night in three workshops to produce however, the hard work paid off as this collection once again brought Yves Saint-Laurent’s name back into the fashion domain.
In 1963 he was heavily influenced by the ‘Op Art’ movement and produced a line of clothes with this particular look and in 1965 he created the iconic ‘Mondrian’ dress. Based on a painting by Piet Mondrian this particular dress is brightly coloured against thick black lines, a signature design of Yves Saint Laurents it has become the Holy Grail for fashion collectors.
By 1966 Yves collections were such a success that he opened his first Rive Gauche boutique for ready-to-wear fashions. It was during this period that he also designed the ‘Pop Art’ dress and in the boutique could be found rails of clothes inspired by the Pop Artists of the day. The ‘See Through’ looks were another inspired range at this time and again showed how revolutionary and ahead of his time Yves was with his creations.
Yves also loved to use ethnic inspired designs in his garments, which is evident in his 1967 Spring/Summer “African,” “Safari” and “Carmen.” This was an example of how Yves excelled at keeping his finger on pulse by producing exciting modernist pieces combined with traditional refined French couture.
Another example of his expert visionary was the famous “Smoking Jacket” Tuxedo for women. Once again, turning fashion on its head and proving that women can look just as elegant and sophisticated in a suit otherwise worn by men.
In 1971 Yves posed nude for an advertisement of his new YSL aftershave and in 1977 he launched the female ‘Opium’ perfume. A provocative advertising campaign with the model Jerry Hall it encapsulated a sex, drugs and Rock-n-’Roll lifestyle. Today this is one of the most successful scents on the market and even the bottle has become collectable in its own right.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1983 held a retrospective of his work, which was to be a great honour as this was the first ever exhibition to be held at the museum for a living designer. Dubbed ‘The Pied Piper of Fashion” Yves Saint Laurent had broken the mould, not only for the diversity of his collections but also for making high fashion accessible.
Yves stunning creations also ensured that he was awarded with the Legion d’Honneur in 1985 after shows being held at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and in Beijing. Hailed a National Treasure one of the most sensational events that Yves Saint Laurent showed at was the 1998 World Cup Final. As France became excited about their final match against Brazil Yves led 300 models onto the pitch to take centre-stage for an on field retrospective of his work.
In 2002 Yves, aged 65 announced that he was retiring from fashion – a sad end of an era for those in the fashion industry. He had already sold the rights to his label to the Gucci group three years earlier and felt that it was an appropriate time to retire because in his opinion fashion was no longer about creativity but more marketing led.
The ‘King of Fashion’ Yves Saint Laurent’s innovative creations empowered and revolutionised the lives of women. He caused uproar in the 1960’s suggesting that trousers should be everyday wear for ladies and even now, after his death has been referred to as a man who threw bombs at the legs of society.
A true design genius, this quiet and shy man has left behind a very loud and colourful legacy.