The life of Yves Saint Laurent was a tumultuous one. His artistic genius along with his fragile mental state have made him one of the most illustrious designers in fashion history; so illustrious that two movies came out in 2014 about the late designer. Yves Saint Laurent by director Jalil Lespert and Saint Laurent by director Bertrand Bonello are both biopics that attempt to recreate the drama of YSL’s life. These movies represent only a subset of the depictions of his extraordinary life like the French documentary L’amour Fou and book The Beautiful Fall. At the very same time, a massive retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s life’s work has been installed in the Bowes Museum in England as well as a smaller exhibit in Paris with Saint Laurent’s most scandalous collection: that of Spring 1971. So what exactly did Yves Saint Laurent do to change the course of fashion history?
Early Life and Dior
Yves Saint Laurent’s (pronounced “eve sahn laurahn”) childhood was a difficult one. His slight frame and homosexuality made him an outcast from the very beginning of his life. Yet the struggles he faced socially led him to develop his eye for fashion at an early age. He would give his mother and relatives fashion advice when he was barely ten years old and would even use paper dolls to hold pretend fashion shows attended by his two sisters, who would later place orders as if they were his clients. His sketching ability allowed him to be accepted into the fashion institute of the period, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture which was both the main committee on haute couture (still is) as well as a training center for future designers. Yves graduated the top of his class and even landed a job at Dior after they saw Yves’s sketches looked almost identical to Monsieur Dior’s without ever seeing Dior’s collection. Dior also saw the innate genius of Yves and while he was given menial tasks at the beginning of his job, Dior named him his successor just months before he suddenly passed away. Yves Saint Laurent was only 21 years old.
Shortly thereafter however, he was drafted into the French army for the Algerian War (French colony at the time). He was hazed mercilessly in the army and went to the hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown within a month of joining where he was subjected to various drug and electroshock therapies. He was not allowed visitors (though his boyfriend Pierre Bergé snuck his way in) and he even received notice of his firing from Dior. Later, Yves himself postulated that all his mental problems stemmed back to his time in the hospital. After getting out of the hospital, Pierre convinced him to start his own couture house after they sued Dior for breach of contract. The house began and was the rest was history.
The Height of His Career
This post would be WAY too long if I tried to detail every memorable moment from Yves Saint Laurent’s career but I’ll do my best.
- He was ahead of his time as he experimented with ready-to-wear designs while still maintaining his couture house. He was the first couturier to do both and is credited with making ready-to-wear a reputable approach to fashion. While the couture house closed after his death, the ready-to-wear line (now rebranded as just “Saint Laurent”) still runs strong.
- His work included artistic references like the famous Mondrian dress and embroidery inspired by Van Gogh’s sunflowers.
- He was one of the first “jet set” fashion designers with his posse that followed him all around the world. Their glamorous lives also included heavy drug use in famous clubs like New York’s Studio 54 and in Yves’s and Pierre’s Moroccan home.
- He is also credited with having introduced the tuxedo suit for women. He debuted “Le Smoking” in 1966 and it became an instant classic for women who wanted to appear equal parts glamorous and strong.
- He was considered radical for his use of non-white models in his shows. Naomi Campbell – who just last week spoke out against industry racism – even credited the designer with giving her her first Vogue cover. As she said on news of his death in 2008, “He has done so much for people of colour.”
- In 1983, he was the first living designer to be featured in a retrospective exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Many criticized it as tacky advertising but Diana Vreeland who curated the show famously said, “Follow Yves down the garden path, there's always a pot of gold at the end!”
His Death and Legacy
Yves Saint Laurent battled intensive drug and alcohol use along with his mental issues (which today would be described as manic-depressive, but back then he was just considered a “tortured genius”). Bergé even stated that Saint Laurent was only happy twice a year – when his collections were being shown. He retired in 2002 and passed away on June 1, 2008 from brain cancer. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco, in the Majorelle Garden (which has become a major tourist attraction), a residence and botanical garden that he owned with Bergé since 1980 and often visited to find inspiration and refuge. Just after his death, Pierre Bergé sold the majority of their extensive art collection because without Saint Laurent "it has lost the greater part of its significance." The collection which ranged from paintings by Picasso to ancient Egyptian sculptures was auctioned off at Christie’s with the proceeds proposed for the creation of a new foundation for AIDS research. Pierre Bergé is still living today and running the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent to keep his work known and trace the house’s history with its extensive archive of 15,000 objects and 5,000 pieces of clothing – most of which is on display at the Bowes Museum.
If you are in England, I recommend you see the exhibit at the Bowes Museum; if you are in Paris, see the exhibit on his 1971 collection; if you are anywhere else in the world, check out any of the movies about his extraordinary life (at the time of this writing, L’amour Fou and Yves Saint Laurent are both on Netflix) but be sure to have a tissue box on hand.
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