The YSL brand has been long considered synonymous with French classic design. Now a there is a museum dedicated to the couturier’s work at the premises of his former haute couture house located at 5, avenue Marceau in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. Housed in the Second Empire mansion where the designer’s team worked for three decades, the museum covers all the major themes in Saint Laurent’s work, including: the most emblematic designs embodying the designer’s quintessential style, such as the tuxedo, the safari jacket, the jumpsuit and the trench coat; his various tributes to art such as the famous Mondrian dress and the collections inspired by his imagined journeys to such faraway places as China and India.
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.
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.
With reporting by Carol Mongo