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YSL: The Man who Created Modern Woman’s Wardrobe

Updated on January 17, 2014
Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008)
Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008)

Every once in a while, we come across an individual whose genius leaves such indelible marks that continue to persist even his lifetime. The same can be said about Yves Saint Laurent, the man credited with creating the modern woman’s wardrobe. This French fashion designer ruled the world of fashion during the sixties and seventies, and lived a life that was as glamorous as the dresses he used to conceive. Seventy five years after he was born and three years after his death, YSL continues to outlive himself. In 2009, he was rated as the top earning dead celebrity by Forbes.

Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent

Childhood and Early Life in Algiers

Born as Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent in Oran, Algeria on 1 August 1936, Yves was a quiet, emotional and introspective child. His father, Charles Mathew Saint Laurent was an attorney and his mother, Lucienne-Andree Saint Laurent used to look after Yves and his two younger sisters, Michelle and Brigitte.

Even as a child, Yves always appeared more interested in visual arts than sports or reading. As he grew up, his interest in costumes and stage-setting became more and more apparent. Saint Laurent completed his baccalaureate degree at Lycee d’Oran in 1954, following the wishes of his father, but by this time, it was becoming clear that both his talents and interests lay somewhere else.

Introduction to Paris and the world of fashion

One of the sketches made by Saint Laurent won the third prize in the Annual International Wool Secretariat contest held at Paris in December, 1953. As he travelled to Paris with his mother, he was recommended to Michel de Brunhoff, the Editor-in-Chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine. Brunhoff was very impressed with the sketches of Saint Laurent and advised him to shift to Paris and join a course of study in Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the council assigned with the task of regulating and training Haute couture industry, which Saint Laurent readily accepted. During his meeting with Brunhoff immediately after he won the next Wool Secretariat Contest in 1954, Brunhoff was fascinated by the striking similarity of his sketches with the designs that Christian Dorr had drawn that same morning. He immediately arranged a meeting of Saint Laurent with Dorr, who was the reigning king of fashion and designing in Paris at that time. The rest, as they say, is history!

On looking at the designs of Saint Laurent, Dorr felt exactly what Brunhoff had felt. The sophistication of Saint Laurent’s designs made Dorr interested in this budding genius. Within a year, the nineteen year old Saint Laurent found himself working for the King of fashion industry. His affiliation with Dorr and his obvious talents as a prodigy made him stand out very soon. Then came 1957, when Christian Dorr suddenly passed away, and Saint Laurent was named as the Chief Designer of the Dorr House, with a responsibility to fill the void created by Dorr’s death. At that point, the livelihood of around two thousand workers of Dorr house depended upon the ability of Saint Laurent to carry on Dorr’s legacy.

Saint Laurent responded to this challenge with a new Spring Collection of 1958, which later came to be called Trapeze. The runaway crowds it attracted made sure that it was picked up overnight by the manufacturers. Trapeze featured a fresh design conception, wherein the dress was cut narrow at the shoulders and then swung out at an ‘A’ line at a new refreshing short skirt length, marking it as one of the first trend changing contributions of Saint Laurent’s genius.  It was also at the gala opening of Trapeze that Saint Laurent first came across Pierre Berge, a young talented businessman, who was destined to become a business partner and a lover of Saint Laurent in years to come.

The Setbacks, Depression and Recovery to Success

After an incredible rise in the world of fashion, Saint Laurent was subjected to a series of setbacks that almost rocked his career as a designer, apart from leading to a prolonged physical and psychological sickness. After the grand success of Trapeze, his next few collections had a very different fate. His Fall of 1958 Collection didn’t do well, but worse fate awaited his collections in 1959 and 1960, which were almost mocked upon by the critics and rejected by the masses. Around the same time, he was conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. There were also rumours that Marcel Boussac, the powerful owner of Dorr House had actually managed to save him from conscription in 1958 and 1959, but following the disastrous fate of his designs, he actually got him conscripted in 1960, so that he could be easily replaced.

Saint Laurent’s stint in the Military lasted for only 21 days. His fashion industry persona led to his receiving a lot of hazing at the hands of fellow soldiers, which he was unable to withstand, ending with sickness at the Military Hospital. It was there that he was informed about his being fired by the Dorr House. The severe stress required heavy treatment with sedatives. Saint Laurent often connected his subsequent drug problem as having a genesis in these troublesome times.

In November, 1960, Laurent was discharged from the Hospital. He filed a suit against Dorr House and won. With his business partner, Pierre Berge, he started his own fashion house, and was back to his usual success very soon. During the sixties and seventies, he virtually ruled the industry. Many of the fashion trends of those times were his individual creation, including the beatnik look, the safari jackets for men and women, tall, thigh-high boots and the tight pants. However, his most remarkable creation was the classic tuxedo suit for women in 1966, called Le Smoking. He was also the first French couturier to come out with a prêt-a porter or ready to wear designs. The first of the company’s Rive Gauche stores, selling these lines, opened in 1966. The ready to wear lines brought him a lot of profit, making him a very rich designer.

Personal Life and the Legacy of YSL

The health of Saint Laurent suffered over the years because of the pressure of coming up with two collections each for haute couture and prêt-a porter lines every year. Though doing reasonably well, he increasingly sought relief in heavy drinking and cocaine. After the 1987 show, he gave up the responsibility of the prêt-a porter lines to others. Finally, in 2002, he retired and began spending most of his time at his mansions in Normandy and Marrakesh. His main companion there was his French Bulldog, Moujik.

Saint Laurent was always very popular among his female clientele. He had many muses who inspired him, including the Somali supermodel, Imaam, whom he once described as his ‘dream woman’. Others included Loulou dela Falaise , an Anglo-Irish fashion model; the half Brazilian, half French, Betty Catroux; Catherine Daneuvre, the French actress; Nicole Dorier, the top YSL model from 1978 to 1983; the Senegalese Supermodel, Katoucha Niane and supermodel Latitia Casta. Perhaps it was the influence of these women that made Saint Laurent frequently opt for ethnic models in his runaway shows.

In 2001, Saint Laurent was awarded the rank of Commander of the Légion d'Honneur by French President Jacques Chirac. In 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy honoured him with the rank of Grand officier de la Légion d'honneur. Saint Laurent passed away on June 1, 2008. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh. Those attending his funeral included Empress Farah Pahlavi, Madame Chirac, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, apart from his long term associate Pierre Berger, with whom he is said to have entered into a same-sex civil union in France, a few days before his death.

The legacy of YSL will continue to be recalled and retold for a very long time, for he was one of those who designed what the modern womenfolk have been wearing during the last five decades. His collections, from the trapeze to the tuxedo, will always be considered an important step in the contributing to the way the modern woman chose to cover herself.

© 2011 V Kumar


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