He created many things that I hated, laughed at, and wouldn't wear if you paid me. But at his best, he also created some of the most gorgeous gowns imaginable. He could flaunt the female body, with outrageous see-through "dresses" or he could design a dress perfect in every way that made a woman look like the million dollars the dress probably cost.
Yves Saint-Laurent died of brain cancer at age 71 on Sunday. He had lived a life of intense creativity and abuse. Born August 1, 1936 in Oran, Algeria, into a wealthy family of the upper bourgeoisie, he arrived in Paris seventeen years later and began to work in the atelier of the great Christian Dior. Dior died prematurely and the young Saint-Laurent took over the artistic leadership of the enterprise. He created a sensation in 1958 with his "Trapeze" dresses (didn't we all have at least one?) that broke the rules of the times on cinched waists and belts. In the early 1960's he opened his own house and began a four-decade long career of audacious, breathtaking, and often controversial, not to say outlandish, creations.
In the world of haute couture you have to regard the creations more as "art" than as wearable clothing. They can inspire or repel, according to the motivations of the designer. If he really wants the woman to look beautiful he can do it, if he wants to get publicity or cause scandal, he can do that too. Saint-Laurent certainly did both.
Saint-Laurent created African, Moroccan, and Chinese collections, as well as a celebrated collection inspired by Russian ballets. A lover of art, he took his inspiration from Picasso, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Braque and Matisse. He designed sets and costumes for theater, musicals and high society galas. And perhaps most significantly, in 1966 he launched the ready-to-wear designer clothes movement, that resulted in the democratization of what had been until then a rich woman's privilege. His ready-to-wear shop called Saint-Laurent Rive Gauche allowed anybody with a little cash to buy a beautiful dress with the YSL label.
Unfortunately, I think this whole movement failed in the end. "Designer" clothes became as easy to get as ice-cream cones, with youngsters sporting tee-shirts signed Cardin, Calvin Klein, Lauren, Lagerfeld, etc... New perfumes with designer names are a dime-a-dozen, and designer names themselves became so numerous it was hard to keep up. Even sneakers suddenly became "designer", and who doesn't have a pair of Donna Karan socks, etc... So that in the end there is no real haute couture as there had been before YSL democratized the art form where he had been king.
Openly homosexual, his partner, protector and business associate was Pierre Bergé. When Saint-Laurent retired in 2002 he said that the world of haute couture today had changed beyond recognition and that he did not want to be a part of it. Like so many rebels of the 60's he ended up devoured by his own offspring. He also indicated the high price he had paid in his life for his special gifts:
“Every man needs aesthetic phantoms in order to exist,” Mr. Saint Laurent said at the announcement of his retirement. “I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober.”
The above is loosely based on information in Gala.
The photo shows a very worn-looking couturier in 2002 when he took his leave. He is surrounded by his models and his favorite actress Catherine Deneuve on the right. He always dressed her beautifully.
Those interested can read this IHT account of his wild but fascinating life.
And view a slide show here.