"Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it."
Yves Saint Laurent
Do Designers Reflect Or Create The Mood Of The Times?
Yves Saint Laurent was arguably the most influential fashion designer of the mid and late twentieth century. The question arises, do designers reflect the mood of the times, or do they, perhaps, influence the mood? From the conforming and nesting of the fifties, the rebellious sixties, the social changes of the seventies, and the wealth and status seeking of the eighties and nineties, Saint Laurent had his fingers on the of the pulse of society and, with his designs, expressed these sentiments as no one else could.
He began his career in couture, but with a firm belief that all women, not just the rich and famous, deserved to have access to high fashion,he eventually dominated ready-to-wear. He was the first to introduce African and Asian models on the runway in what had previously been the exclusive domain of the white model. Although he battled substance abuse and depression most of his life (his long time partner Pierre Bergé claimed “He was born with a nervous breakdown”), his genius was, and is undeniable.
Yves Early Years
Yves was born in 1936 into a well-to-do family in Oran, Algeria. He grew up in a Villa by the Mediterranean and was extremely close to his mother. His gift for fashion was apparent at a young age as he loved creating beautiful and intricate paper dolls. Although he had a happy and loving home life, childhood was hard for Saint Laurent. He was bullied and beaten at school by the other more macho boys who saw him as effeminate and homosexual. Already a frail and sickly child, these social tortures left him nervous and depressed.
Meeting Dior And His Life Changed
As a teen he began creating clothing for his mother and sisters, and at age seventeen, his mother, recognizing both his talent and his need for a different life arranged to take him to Paris to meet Michael de Brunhoff, the editor of the prestigious magazine ‘French Vogue’. Brunhoff was impressed by the young man's drawings and helped arrange Yves’ acceptance into the Paris design school Chambre Sydicale de la Couture. Yves talent was soon attracting attention and de Brunhoff set up a meeting between the young designer and fashion icon Christian Dior. Yves was in awe of Dior and in later years claimed Dior had taught him his art.
At Age 21 Yves Became The Head Of A Major Design House
After seeing Saint Laurent’s drawings, Dior hired him on the spot. Although Yves spent several years doing mundane tasks, Dior did allow him to submit some drawings and with every passing fashion season, more of Yves' designs were incorporated into Dior’s couture collection.
In 1957, to the shock of the fashion world, Dior named Yves Saint Laurent as his successor. Ironically, later that same year Dior, at the age of fifty two, died suddenly of a heart attack. Yves, at the tender age of twenty one, found himself the head of a major design house. It was also at Dior’s funeral that Yves met Pierre Bergé who was destined to become his lover and lifelong business partner.
A Young Yves Saint Laurent
Fired, Substance Abuse and The YSL Label
Yves' first collection in the spring of 1958 made him an instant and international star and likely saved the House of Dior from almost certain financial ruin. His next few collections, however, were not well received and the 1960 collection was a complete disaster. It was at this time Yves found himself conscripted into the French army to fight in the Algerian War of Independence. Sources claim that Marcel Boussac, the owner of Dior and a powerful press baron, pressured the government into conscripting Saint Laurent as he wanted to replace him.
Yves only lasted twenty days in the army before he was checked into a military hospital with a nervous breakdown caused by the cruel hazing of his fellow soldiers. Things were to get worse for Saint Laurent as it was while he was in the hospital that his lover Bergé had to inform him he had been fired from Dior.
At the hospital he was subjected to large doses of psychoactive drugs and was treated with electroshock therapy. In later life he claimed that this was the beginning of his struggles with mental health issues and substance abuse.
Once he was released from the hospital he sued Dior for wrongful dismissal and won a large settlement. With this money and an investment from American Millionaire J. Mack Robinson, he and Bergé opened their own couture house and the Yves Saint Laurent label was born.
His Work and His Art
The sixties and seventies were extremely successful years for the designer. He became known for popularizing such looks as the trench coat, the safari jacket, the beatnik look, and the iconic Le Smoking Suit. He was one of the first to put women into pant suits. The suits were influenced by men’s tuxedos, but with a feminine twist. With the feminist movement in full swing at the time, women embraced the look. It still has influence today and is know as the ‘power suit‘.
Although his career was extremely successful, his cocaine and alcohol use were worsening. He was considered part of the Paris jet set crowd and was seen at the most popular clubs and restaurants, often staying out all night.
In 1966 he opened his first ready- to- wear boutique and it was a huge financial success, however, he got scathing reviews from the press who rejected it as “boring”.
The pressure to design both the couture line and the ready to wear line took its toll on Yves and his addictions were spinning out of control. At times he could barely walk down the runway at the finale of his fashion shows and had to supported between two models.
A Stunning Artist
Depression and The Final Show
His depression worsened and he became reclusive. He and Bergé bought a villa near Deauville, France, and he seldom left the confines of his home except when he was actively supervising a collection. In the early 1990’s he quit using drugs and alcohol, however he continued to be plagued by depression. By the end of the decade he was slowing down his work pace and allowing his assistants to design most of the ready to wear collection. In 2000 he and Bergé sold the business to the Gucci Group.
In January of 2002 St. Laurent put on his last fashion show, a gala event with over three hundred models wearing his most famous designs. Only two thousand people were invited to attend, but it seemed most of Paris lined the streets outside the venue, the Centre Pompidou, to watch the show on big screens. His long time friend Catherine Deneuve sang Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour during the emotional finale. Yves remained rather stoic, however many of those in the audience and those participating in the show were in tears.
The icon retired and spent his final years in his home in Marrakech in Morocco. He died in 2008 after a long battle with brain cancer.
In spite of his fame, wealth, genius and prestige, Yves Saint Laurent suffered life long loneliness, perhaps the most cruel of life’s emotions. He was once quoted as saying “I am so very secluded, so very alone”.
“Fashions fade, style is eternal”.
Yves Saint Laurent
A Tribute to Yves St. Laurent
Fast Facts About YSL
-Yves was a life long art collector and after his passing his collection was auctioned off for 484 million dollars.
-He was the first living designer to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
-In 2001 he was awarded the rank of Commander of the Legion d’Honneur by French president Jacques Chirac.
-He and Bergé created a foundation to trace the house of YSL.
-In 2007 he was awarded the rank of Grand Officeir dé la Légion d’honneur by French president Nicolas Safkozy.
-Three documentaries have been made about his life:
Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times
Yves St L Marceau 75116 Paris