The Life and Fashion of Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent Profile Shot B&WYves Saint Laurent was born August 1 1936 and died June 1 2008, two months short of his 72nd birthday. He died a fashion legend.

Though inextricably associated with France, and Paris in particular, he was born in Oman, Algeria and on his death his cremated remains were scattered in Marrakesh, Morocco. Africa was to influence his collections and design philosophy throughout his career.

He was a precocious talent, coming to the attention of another French fashion legend, Christian Dior, where he became his assistant, aged just 17. And then, just four years later, upon Dior’s death, became head of the Dior Fashion House, the wishes of Christian Dior himself.

Yves Saint Laurent Trapeze Dress

Trapeze Dress – The White Elephant – around 1958

His first Dior collection was based on the New Look template and introduced the world to his first statement piece the Trapeze dress; dresses and other outfits that were narrow at the neck and widened out toward the waist.

His time at Dior was though a short one. Subsequent collections were not received well by critics, in particular his ‘Beat Look’ collection. Having been conscripted to the French Army in 1960 he subsequently discovered the label had fired him.

His time in the Army had been traumatic for him; he had been hospitalized and received Electroshock treatment and a heavy course of drugs. He was to be plagued with both drug and mental health issues for the rest of his life. In the 1960’s and 1970’s when he had become financially very secure he was known to have been a heavy user of alcohol and cocaine.

YSL 2011 Safari Kori Richardson

2011 Safari – modelled by Kori Richardson

He quickly bounced back from his experience in the army setting up his own fashion house in 1960. During this period he produced and popularized looks which are now well established and iconic such as the beatnik look, Safari Jackets, tight pants, tall thigh high boots and Tuxedo suits (for both men and women). His first 1960 collection included bubble skirts, turtlenecks and biker-jackets in luxurious fabrics.

His first business partner was also his first (and last) romantic partner Pierre Berge who helped him establish his fashion house. This romantic relationship ended in the mid-1970’s but they remained business partners to the end of his professional career. And they remained close with, prior to Yves Saint Laurent’s death from brain cancer in 2008, the two joining in a same-sex civil union.

In the 1960’s French Fashion was still Haute Couture – his was the first French Fashion House to establish Ready To Wear (Pret-A-Porter) collections. To this end his fashion house also established shops in Paris. His first shop was called Rive Gauche (Left Bank). His first customer was French actress Catherine Deneuve significant because she would become a lifelong fan and muse of Yves Saint Laurent.

Another first for Yves Saint Laurent was the use of non-White models in his collections, most famously, the Somali supermodel, Iman.

Likewise his collections were the first to reference other cultures outside the European traditions usually favoured by European and North American designers at that time.

Another aspect and recurrent theme of his collections were retrospective appraisals of fashions from previous decades, in particular from the 1920’s through to the 1940’s. The silhouettes of these times were often integrated into his 1960’s and 1970’s collections.

Though like many of his collections these were met with a mixed response. A 1971 vintage theme was described as ‘Yves Saint Debacle’ whereas a 1976 ‘Ballets Russes’ collection was positively received as a ‘New New Look’

He was also one of the first fashion designers to branch into other related accessories by way of growing his brand such as with Opium perfume in the late 1970’s.

Russian Ballet 1976 Yves Saint Laurent

Ballet Russes 1976

The heavy drink and drug use, alluded to earlier in this post, was to return to haunt him later in his life. He found difficult the pressures of the demanding fashion schedule that required fashion houses to produce two Haute Couture and two ready-to-wear collections per year. He was known to rely on drink and drugs as a coping mechanism for these pressures of producing collections that were able to meet with both critical and public approval.

In the late 1980’s he finally decided to delegate the design of his collections to his assistants. By this time the critics had fallen out of love with him though his ready-to-wear collections still remained popular with the public.

His collections are also very popular with wealthy and conservative clients. At the same time many of his collections were radical cutting edge ensembles – setting and defining fashion trends rather than following them. Many of his signature pieces – ‘Le Smoking’ (Tuxedo Suit), pantsuit and safari-wear have since become staples in fashion.

Gucci modelled by Jac

Gucci Trouser Suit – modelled by Jac

Another theme of his was androgyny – and other world famous fashion houses such as Gucci and Prada in particular took up this look. Yves Saint Laurent popularized the trouser-suit; previously it had been seen as an unfeminine and unflattering fashion choice for a woman.

His legacy continues not just in his fashion house but also in his influence on many other couturiers and fashion houses.

Christian Lacroix, Jean Colonna and Marc Jacobs have all openly acknowledged the debt they owe to him.

This influence was not always welcome by him though. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; he did not see it that way, when in 1974, he sued Ralph Lauren over a Tuxedo dress, that he considered too similar to one of his own Tuxedo creations from 1970.

Biker Jackets Yves Saint Laurent

Biker Jackets

Though taking a back seat throughout the 1990’s it was not until 2002 that he officially retired. And it should be noted that even in the relative obscurity of the 1990’s he continued to grasp trends and innovate, for example being the first fashion house to broadcast one of their haute-couture runway shows on the Internet in 1996.

In 1996 he had also retired from Ready To Wear passing the designing mantle to Alber Elbaz leaving him to focus on Haute Couture.

In 1999 Gucci bought his fashion-house.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Haute Couture house itself closed in 2002 with a final collection in Paris.

Though Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 his fashion house endures and the fortune it made in 2009 for example according to American publishers of the Rich List, Forbes, made him the top earning dead celebrity for that year.

The Yves Saint Laurent brand continues today enduring along with his legendary fashion status.

Coco – the Musical returns

Coco Chanel

Coco, the 1969 Coco Chanel inspired Broadway Musical, is currently being revived by the Lilian Baylis Studio through to June 12 at Sadler’s Wells, London.

Coco Katherine Hepburn

The original had excellent credentials – written by My Fair Lady author Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Andre Previn and stage-sets by Cecil Beaton – yet it failed. Ostensibly it was to celebrate the (early) life of Coco Chanel but actually focused on a very narrow late period of it (1953/4, when she was out of love with the critics and financially near bankrupt) much to Coco Chanel’s chagrin. Her part was played by Katherine Hepburn. She gave a zesty performance and there were a number of promising titles like ‘A Woman Is How She Loves’ and ‘The Money Rings Out Like Freedom’ – but there were no show-stoppers, nothing out of the musical ordinary.

Musicals about fashion designers provide an opportunity to see the life’s arc of their creations and ‘Coco’ with its finale presents her works from 1919 to 1959 as a fashion show. I wonder how the Lilian Baylis Studio will catwalk her collection.

But musicals tend to be conservatively composed and Coco was no exception.

Alain Chamfort

Last year French singer and composer Alain Chamfort released an album of sixteen songs dedicated to the life of another French Fashion Designer Yves Saint Laurent called ‘Un Vie Saint Laurent’. It clearly lent itself to a musical and this idea has been taken up.

Fashion designers are a ripe subject for musicals – with their lives often as creative and eventful as their collections. The visual representation should not be taxing – a short step from Couturier to Costumer.

It is more whether the music can do them justice.

British Fashion Designers Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood would be fitting subjects for musicals, but the musical accompaniment would need to be an angular punky departure from the usual neutral ersatz string arrangements.

Perhaps Lily Allen for Westwood? Scott Walker for McQueen?!