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Yves Saint Laurent, who has died at age 71, was regarded as the greatest figure in French fashion in the 20th century, and could be said to have created the modern woman’s wardrobe.


The last of the traditional French couturiers, Saint Laurent dominated the catwalks of the 1960s and 1970s, translating what was happening on the street into elegant clothing that reflected more liberated times. Such was his influence that each time he started a trend, it was greeted as evidence of a new Zeitgeist.


He dressed women in triangular trapeze shapes in the 1950s. In the 1960s he clothed women in blazers, pin-striped trouser suits and smoking jackets, and took risks by turning the workaday parka, the trench coat and the pea coat into haute couture. In the 1970s he dreamed up ethnic prints and put shoulder-padding back into jackets.


He always did it first and he always did it with panache. Long before Gaultier, Saint Laurent borrowed tribal looks from Africa, sending out models with conical bras made from shells. Before Issey Miyake, he designed moulded metal body masks worn over silk skirts; and years before Christian Lacroix and John Galliano introduced peasant costumes and theatre, Saint Laurent sent out collections based on Mongols and Russian Czarinas, North African maidens and Proustian heroines. He was the first designer to open a ready-to-wear boutique and the first to be photographed advertising his own perfume (and he did so in the nude).


 


In the early days Saint Laurent was the “bad boy” of fashion. In the 1960s, women were banned from restaurants for wearing “YSL” trouser suits, and in the 1970s he provoked outrage when he showed a transparent chiffon blouse.

Bianca Jagger (shockingly) wore a white Saint Laurent tuxedo open to the waist when she married Mick in 1971. Yet his designs became classics, spanning class, income and age. Just about the only garment he did not invent was blue jeans, an omission he was said to regret.


Saint Laurent commanded the affection of the French in a way other designers never could, becoming as much a national icon as his lifelong friend Catherine Deneuve (he designed her costumes for Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1965); part of the secret of his mystique lay in the fact that he conformed completely to the Gallic cliché of the tortured genius traumatised by his own talent.


A devotee of Proust, Saint Laurent (who sometimes referred to himself as “Swann”) shared his hero’s fragile emotional and physical health and, over the years, those working with him became accustomed to his regular crises de nerfs and to the frightening possibility that the man on whom the multi-million YSL fashion empire hinged might at any moment become permanently unhinged or even vanish altogether.


During the 1980s he became the “grande malade” of French fashion, living almost as a recluse and emerging in public only to take a bow at his twice-yearly haute couture shows — and sometimes not even then. There was talk of drugs, drink and disease; for several years he arrived on the catwalk looking puffy, disorientated and reeling. At one stage the rumours about his health became so intense that Pierre Bergé, his erstwhile lover and president of YSL, was forced to state publicly that Saint Laurent did not have Aids.


As his neuroses mounted, fashion writers, greedy for novelty, complained that his designs were becoming more conventional and had a field day obituarising his talent: “It’s time someone had the courage to point out the emperor has no new clothes”, snarled one. The only reason YSL continued to sell, suggested another, was the loyalty of women “d’un certain age”.


But the criticisms revealed more about the vagaries of fashion than about Saint Laurent. In the early 1990s, when the arbiters of fashion had tired of grunge, they found their antidote in Saint Laurent, and his designs were scavenged for inspiration. A telling set of photographs from 1994 showed the latest catwalk sensations set alongside strikingly similar gowns by Saint Laurent from the period when he was supposed to be all washed up. 


In 1993 he won an action against Ralph Lauren for having copied his famous tuxedo dress.

“I am no longer concerned with sensation and innovation, but with the perfection of my style,” Saint Laurent announced in 1982. The point was lost on many fashion writers for several years, but even when he was described as yesterday’s man, his muse never deserted him.


 

 

(A prize-winning design for a cocktail dress caught the eye of the Dior fashion house in 1954 and the teenage Yves Saint Laurent’s career in Paris was assured.)


 

Yves Henri Donat Matthieu Saint Laurent was born in Oran, in what was then French Algeria, on August 1, 1936. His father owned a chain of cinemas and his parents were well-off, sociable, amusing and tolerant. But Saint Laurent had a troubled childhood. Yves was severely bullied while at school; he once told a reporter, “Whenever they picked on me, I’d say to myself, ‘One day you’ll be famous’. That was my way of getting back at them.”


By the age of 13 he was already designing dresses for his mother and sister, patterns that the local dressmaker would run up for him. When he was 17 his mother, Lucienne, took him to Paris. 


In 1950, Yves submitted three sketches to a contest for young fashion designers organized by the International Wool Secretariat. He won third prize and was invited to attend the awards ceremony in Paris in December of that year. While he and his mother were in Paris, they met Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of the Paris edition of Vogue magazine. de Brunhoff, a kindly man who enjoyed encouraging new talent, was impressed by the sketches Yves brought with him and suggested he eventually consider a course of study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, the council which regulated the haute couture industry and provided training to its employees. Yves followed his advice and, leaving Oran for Paris after graduation, began his studies at the Chambre Syndicale, but he found the 

syllabus frustrating and left after a few months.

Yves later entered the International Wool Secretariat competition again and won, beating out his friend Fernando Sanchez and a young German student named Karl Lagerfeld. 

Soon afterwards, in 1955, he brought a number of sketches to de Brunhoff who recognized in them close similarities to sketches he had been shown that morning by Christian Dior, then the most prestigious fashion name in the world. Knowing that Dior had created the sketches that morning and that the young man could not have seen them, de Brunhoff sent him to Dior, who hired him on the spot.

 

 

Although Dior recognized his talent immediately, Yves spent his fi

rst year at the House of Dior on mundane tasks, such as decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually, however, he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection; with every passing season, more of his sketches were accepted by Dior. 

Dior became a father figure to him and the admiration was reciprocated: “Saint Laurent is the only one worthy to carry on after me,” Dior declared.  In August 1957, Dior met with Yves’s mother to tell her that he had chosen Yves to succeed him as designer. His mother later said that she had been confused by the remark, as Dior was only 52 years old at the time. Both she and her son were surprised when in October of that year Dior died at a health spa in northern Italy of a massive heart attack. The next month Saint Laurent was named his successor; at 21 he was the world’s youngest couturier. 

(Yves Saint Laurent kissing his mother, Lucienne Mathieu-Saint Laurent, after she congratulated him for his Spring-Summer collection, 1960)



 His first solo collection in Spring 1958 almost certainly saved the House from financial ruin; the straight line of his creations, a softer version of Dior’s New Look, catapulted him to international stardom with what would later be known as the ‘trapeze dress’, which included dresses with a narrow shoulder and flared gently at the bottom. It was at this time that he shortened his surname to “Saint Laurent”, as the international press found his hyphenated triple name difficult to spell. The show was a succès fou and ended with people in the audience being trampled underfoot in the rush to congratulate him : “Saint Laurent has saved France,” proclaimed Le Figaro.


 


But subsequent collections were less favourably received. His “Beatnik” collection of Fall 1959, inspired by Marlon Brando’s portrayal of The Wild One, featured knitted sleeves on mink coats, thigh-high boots and motorcycle jackets in alligator. Though he predicted Sixties’ street chic, buyers and press lost confidence, as did Dior executives.


In 1960 Saint Laurent found himself conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Alice Rawsthorn writes that there was speculation at the time that Marcel Boussac, the owner of the House of Dior and a powerful press baron, had put pressure on the government not to conscript Saint Laurent in 1958 and 1959, but reversed course and asked that the designer be conscripted after the disastrous 1960 season so that he could be replaced.

 

Saint Laurent lasted twenty days in the military before the stress of hazing by fellow soldiers led him to be sent to a military hospital, where he received the news that he had been fired by Dior. This merely added fuel to the fire, and he ended up in Val-de-Grâce, a sadistic French mental hospital, where he was given large doses of sedatives and other psychoactive drugs and subjected to electroshock therapy. Saint Laurent himself traced the history of both his mental problems and his drug addictions to this time in hospital.

 


After his release from the hospital in November 1960, Saint Laurent sued Dior for breach of contract and won. 



After a period of convalescence Saint Laurent and his lover, industrialist Pierre Berge, started their own fashion house with funding from Atlanta millionaire J. Mack Robinson.The couple split romantically in 1976 but remained business partners.


 

 

( Saint Laurent – with his partner Pierre Bergé )


(His dresses caught the world’s imagination. Here a model wears an African-style creation in New York, 1967)


(Yves Saint Laurent with Pierre Cardin) 

 

 

In the 1960s, Saint Laurent was the king of radical chic. The model Marie Helvin recalled him as being “so much younger and cooler than the other couturiers such as Hubert Givenchy or Ungaro. He was the only designer who went to nightclubs. We used to go to the Club Sept. It was full of the coolest people in Paris. Andy Warhol was always there with Paloma Picasso. We would have dinner there and dance until dawn.”


But the pressures took a heavy toll on his nerves: “So they crowned me king,” he remarked in 1968. “Look what happened to the other kings of France.”



Saint Laurent ascended to icon status in the 1980s, becoming the first designer to have a retrospective dedicated to his work in his own lifetime, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. In 1985 he was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.


Meanwhile, Bergé masterminded a strategy that, in 1986, returned to YSL control of its cosmetics from Charles of the Ritz — a move that increased operating income from £9.5 million to £44 million, and later floated the company on the stock exchange, when it was oversubscribed 27 times.


 

(Yves Saint Laurent with Karl Lagerfeld)

 

Thanks to Bergé’s business acumen, Saint Laurent became fabulously rich, but he was increasingly beset by emotional problems and depression. He was often said to escape into self-penned prose exploring his misery, his addictions to cocaine and alcohol and his neuroses about losing his place as the king of fashion.


“Once I was suffering so much I considered attaching the heaviest bronze from my collection round my neck and throwing myself into the Seine,” he told one interviewer — though cynics wondered whether he did not secretly rather enjoy his invalid status. “Like Proust,” he said, “I am fascinated most of all by my perceptions of a world in awesome transition.”


The pret-a-porter line became extremely popular with the public (if not with the critics), eventually earning many times more for Saint Laurent and Bergé than the haute couture line. However, Saint Laurent, whose health had been precarious for years, became erratic under the pressure of designing two haute couture and two pret-a-porter collections every year, turning more and more to alcohol and drugs. At some shows he could barely walk down the runway at the end of the show, having to be supported by models. 

After a disastrous 1987 pret-a-porter show in New York City which featured $100,000 jeweled casual jackets only days after the “Black Monday” stock market crash, he turned over the responsibility of the pret-a-porter line to his assistants. Although the line remained popular with his fans, it was soon dismissed as “boring” by the press.


 


In 1994 Bergé negotiated the sale of YSL to Elf Sanofi, a deal that brought the two men an estimated paper profit of £40 million apiece, and the right to run the fashion business. In the late 1990s, however, Saint Laurent began to wind down his involvement. After Gucci bought the house in 1999, the American Tom Ford took over the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line, while Saint Laurent continued to design the Haute Couture collection.

Saint Laurent’s final show in January 2002, after which he retired to his house in Marrakech, was treated by the French as an event of national significance. Two thousand guests, some of whom were rumoured to have paid £2,000 on the black market for the privilege, converged on the Georges Pompidou centre to see more than 350 classic pieces from the YSL label, as well as 40 new gowns.


In December 2007 Saint Laurent was appointed a Grand Officier of the Légion d’honneur by President Nicolas Sarkozy. 


“Fashion dies, but style remains,” as Saint Laurent once observed; it was a vivid and astonishing reminder of his legacy.


Yves Saint Laurent died on June 1,2008 of brain cancer at his residence in Paris. According to The New York Timesa few days before he died, Saint Laurent and Bergé were joined in a same-sex civil union known as a “civil pact of solidarity” in France. He was also survived by his mother and sisters; his father had died in 1988.

Saint Laurent’s body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco in a botanical garden that he often visited to find influence and refuge. His partner Bergé said during the funeral service: “But I also know that I will never forget what I owe you, and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms.”


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