Adieu to the King of Style —For many of us in fashion, today marks the end of an era. Yves Saint Laurent, the undisputed king of fashion, has been laid to rest and I, like many other style mavens on this planet, mourn the lost of this great fashion legend. Long before there were rebels like Jean Paul Gaultier with his signature conical bras, or innovators like Issey Miyake who transformed objet d’art into sculpted metal bustiers or even Phat Farm’s gritty, hip-hop, “streetwear, there was Yves Saint Laurent who introduced all of this and more to the world of high fashion. “I participated in the transformation of my era. I did it with clothes, which is surely less important than music, architecture, painting … but whatever it’s worth I did it,” the designer said in 2002 upon his retirement.
Yves Saint Laurent has always impacted my mode of dress. As a teenager growing up in Detroit, most of the clothes I bought were inspired by him, unbeknownst to me. Only after my arrival in the Paris did I realize that the color-blocked shift I wore on my sixteenth birthday was a line-for-line copy of the French designer’s Mondarin dress, and that my canvas safari jacket, my wool sailor pants, my cotton voile gypsy blouse and my three-tiered floral peasant skirt were all lifted from St. Laurent’s previous catwalk shows. These clothes made me look and feel good and so it was a thrilling discovery to know I had been part of this man’s left bank revolution. Much later, when my finances allowed, I indulged in a few “Rive Gauche” treats: a velvet “artist” smock jacket over matching, straight-legged trousers, a silk charmeuse blouse with a soft bow at the throat, and a gorgeous black cashmere blazer with his signature square shoulders and quarter-sized horn buttons worn simply over jeans…all essential wardrobe staples I continue to wear today. “The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves. But for those who haven’t had the fortune of finding this happiness, I am there,” said Saint Laurent in 1983. Boyfriends have come and gone but Yves has always been there for me.
Born on August 1, 1936 in Orlan Algeria, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was inspired by the elegance of his mother. He developed a love for fashion and as a teenager, would design clothes for her. (She, in turn was his most loyal fan, wearing only his designs.) A precocious talent, by the age of 15, Saint Laurent amassed an impressive portfolio. He sent sketches to Michel de Brunhoff, editor of French Vogue, who immediately recommended the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Couture school to hone his skills. In 1954, Saint Laurent headed to Paris and after briefly attending classes, entered the International Wool Secretariat contest where he won first prize for a cocktail dress: a black silk velvet column tied with a white satin bow he called “Soiree de Paris.” It attracted the attention of a certain Christian Dior who hired him as his right hand assistant.
For three years, the two men worked closely together until the untimely death of Dior in 1957. Saint Laurent, barely 21 years of age, found himself at the reigns of a 20 million dollar a year empire. His first collection featured his famous “trapeze dress” and was a colossal success, drawing raves from the press who hailed him as the “savior of French fashion.” But several seasons later in 1960, a rebellious Yves rejected what he called the “false values of the bourgeoisie,” as he introduced “streetwear:” pea coats, knitted turtlenecks, leather jackets and other “chic Beatnik” favorites (meticulously executed in luxury fabrics, of course) into the hushed world of haute couture. This created a scandal and worried the owners. After all, Dior represented 50 percent of French fashion exports and the owners could not take a chance on the impact an unpopular collection would make on the economy. Saint Laurent soon found himself inducted into the army.(There were rumors that this had been orchestrated by Dior’s owners as a solution to the “problem.”)
After three short weeks, the designer was diagnosed with a nervous breakdown and discharged. Upon returning to Paris, Saint Laurent discovered his contract with Dior had been broken and he had been replaced by Marc Bohan. After Bohan’s successful first collection, Saint Laurent sued Dior for severance pay and damages and was thus awarded 680,000 francs (about $140,000). With the help of his companion/financial partner Pierre Berge who found an American investor, J. Mack Robinson (a businessman from Atlanta) Saint Laurent opened his own couture house in 1961. His first collection was presented in 1962 to mixed reviews.
Still he was clearly on track to becoming a major force in French fashion with a brand new, more relaxed style. Saint Laurent was best known for `Le Smoking,”a man’s tuxedo re-cut for women, introduced in 1966. New York socialite, Nan Kempner created a scandal when she tried to wear her first tuxedo to a Manhattan, four-star French restaurant in 1968. The maitre d’ told her she could not enter wearing trousers and the socialite promptly removed her pants and proceeded to dine wearing only the jacket. Saint Laurent was never afraid of controversy. In 1971, the transparent blouses of his 1940’s “Liberation” collection with bare breasts peeking out from under sheer black lace, shocked critics as did the advertising campaign for the first YSL men’s fragrance, “Pour Homme,” in which he posed nude, wearing only his thick black rimmed glasses. He launched a perfume called “Opium” in the 1980’s, reflecting the drug culture prevalent amongst his inner social circle and later, in the 1990’s he went to battle with France’s Champagne growers for insisting on naming his fragrance after the bubbly wine. (He was forced to change the name to “Ivresse” or “Drunk” in English. In fact, the late Pierre Balmain regarded Saint Laurent as a trouble maker in the world of couture for insisting that the future of fashion was the ready-to-wear market and sealing the deal with the introduction of his “Rive Gauche” line.
He was young, hip and full of effervescent ideas, bringing art and music into his designs. There were homages to his art buddies, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust whose works were reinterpreted in the form of elegant dresses and jackets. Op-art, pop-art and even the French impressionists became beautifully embroidered, wearable works of art worn by the world’s fashion plates from the late Jackie Kennedy to muse Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda to Paloma Picasso.
In an industry where the uniform is a sea of black, Saint Laurent had an extraordinary color sense that married turquoise, yellow and emerald green or royal blue, mauve and the most shocking of pinks, harmoniously within the same outfit. After attending his couture shows, I would run home and paste color chips into a notebook as a way of documenting the master’s color schemes for future reference.
Saint Laurent took us on a wild and wonderful tour of the world to lands as far away as Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia via exotic silhouettes and whimsical color palettes. As with all things that endure, by the mid-1980’s Mr. Saint Laurent had traded in his radical skin for that of the elder statesman. The YSL brand had became synonymous with French classic design. Only with the arrival of Christian Lacroix in the mid-1980s did he feel the need to reassert himself as “king of fashion” with a collection extraordinary gowns based on the vibrant paintings of the Van Gogh, Monet and other Impressionists.
The arrival of the 1990 marked the decline of elegance as a younger generation adhered to anti-fashion trends, most notably “grunge.” Sales at YSL began to slip and by the end of the decade, the rights to the YSL ready-to-wear label were sold to the Gucci Group NV. By 2002, the world of fashion, now controlled by multi-national corporations dictating cost effectiveness over creativity, had become totally foreign to the couturier. After an illustrious 40 year career, the man known as the king of fashion stepped down and away from his throne, closing his couture business behind him. In his last years out of the spotlight, he suffered from severe depression before finally succumbing to brain cancer last Sunday.
Though Yves Saint Laurent is gone, his work will never be forgotten. Myself, I will continue to wear his classics I have in my wardrobe, updated with, perhaps, a new piece of jewelry or pair of shoes. Says Jean Paul Gaultier, “He was my role model for both the creativity of his clothes which were so Parisian and the elegance of his personal lifestyle. He was the synthesis of the women’s social revolution in the late 1960’s and was the first to mix up the sexes (clothes-wise). He created a new vocabulary for the modern woman’s wardrobe which was right on the mark for the times. It was him and the shock of his “Liberation” collection in 1971 that inspired my (fashion) vocation. In spite of his passing, his work will live on and will always remain relevant to today’s lifestyles.”