Spotlight: Yves Saint Laurent

PUBLISHED: 13:00 04 November 2017

Yves Saint Laurent (1936 - 2008) in the office of his Paris studio, January 1982

Yves Saint Laurent (1936 - 2008) in the office of his Paris studio, January 1982

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Throughout his career, the designer acted as a curator of his own work. As our culture correspondent VIV GROSKOP reports, we now have two museums fit to showcase that talent

A museum dedicated to the work of Yves Saint Laurent has just opened in Marrakech.

That is big news: it’s an unusual place for a fashion museum and the opening made headlines across the world.

But, on the quiet, a second – perhaps far more important – museum opened last month in Paris, the product of decades of preparation: the mansion on Avenue Marceau, where Saint Laurent designed his creations, has been turned into an exhibition space.

The late designer’s own working space, complete with pots of pencils, trademark geek glasses and portraits of Bianca Jagger, is the centrepiece. Finally, the vision that Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, had been planning for his entire lifetime has come to fruition.

In the end both museums, although longed for by the designer who wanted his legacy to live beyond him, were the brainchild of Saint Laurent’s business partner and one-time lover Pierre Bergé.

Before Bergé’s death earlier this year, he was instrumental in shaping the legacy of the fashion house, saying that Saint Laurent was “the greatest designer of the second half of the 20th century” and cementing his reputation as the natural heir of Christian Dior. Bergé died in September, aged 86, after a long illness, only weeks before the opening of the two museums. Before his death, he said that he had put everything in place: “I am going to die totally at peace.”

The Paris museum is one of the most extraordinary and exhaustive in the fashion world as Saint Laurent, encouraged by Bergé, meticulously catalogued the evolution of his designs from the 1960s onwards. Throughout his career Saint Laurent wanted to be aware of his own significance. He acted as if he was preparing for a major retrospective of his work.

The museum holds the prototypes for more than 5,000 pieces. Everything was archived: prototypes, sketches, client books. By the 1980s he was even marking pieces with the letter ‘M’ for museum.

Few fashion houses were so aware of their historical legacy. Of course, the danger with this museum is that they just have so much to exhibit. It could easily look over-crowded. Instead they have chosen to squirrel away some of their greatest pieces and unveil them in a series of special exhibitions: the first will be Yves Saint Laurent’s Imaginary Asia in October 2018.

Saint Laurent opened his Rive Gauche boutique in 1966. It was the first ready-to-wear line by a couturier and revolutionised the fashion industry.

It’s hard for us to imagine now how forward-thinking he was for the time. In the same year his first boutique opened, the New York socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from a Manhattan restaurant for wearing a tuxedo (le smoking) because this was not appropriate clothing for women. Told by the restaurant’s manager that it was ‘as vulgar as wearing a swimsuit’, she took off her trousers and said it was a dress. The designer later paid homage to her by creating a jacket dress inspired by that moment.

Saint Laurent’s mission was to give women the freedom in their clothes that men felt in theirs: tailored suits, jumpsuits, trenchcoats.

The run-up to the shop opening had been a long one. Saint Laurent staged his first couture show as early as 1953. But even before then he had been planning for years.

Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1936, he grew up dreaming of Paris, sketching fashion designs and making paper dolls. By his teens he was designing dresses for his mother and sisters.

His family was wealthy as his father was a lawyer who owned a chain of cinemas. He had glamorous friends in Parisian circles and counted the editor of French Vogue among his friends.

When Saint Laurent moved to Paris at the age of 17, he was introduced to Christian Dior by that same editor of French Vogue, having seen a series of sketches Saint Laurent had drawn that were so similar to Dior’s recent work (which Saint Laurent could not possibly have seen at the time) that it was breathtaking.

Dior mentored him and helped to establish his reputation. Four years later, Dior met with Saint Laurent’s mother to tell her that he wanted her son to succeed him at the fashion house.

She was surprised as Dior was only in his early 50s. However, he secretly knew he was in poor health and died later that year. Saint Laurent found himself at the helm of Dior at the age of 21.

Saint Laurent’s own life, let alone his career in fashion, was almost cut short when he was conscripted to serve in the French Army in the Algerian War.

He lasted 20 days of hazing by fellow soldiers before being admitted to hospital with severe psychiatric problems. Meanwhile he was fired by Dior. He convalesced, returned to Paris, sued Dior successfully and set up his own fashion house with funds from an American investor.

Although it is easy to look back on his rise to greatness with awe, his designs were slammed many times as everything from eccentric and offensive to boring and tired.

His collections were often poorly reviewed in the French press and it wasn’t until he achieved commercial success with the prêt-à-porter line (the first customer in the shop was Catherine Deneuve) that he really started to establish himself as a household name – and the last word in 20th century French chic.

Now, finally, his complicated life and legacy can be examined fully. Whilst representing all things luxurious and exciting, Saint Laurent could be a tortured character, known for his misuse of alcohol and drugs – and his constant overworking.

There were some shows where he was so exhausted that the models had to hold him up to walk him down the catwalk. He surrounded himself with excess. A new book Yves Saint Laurent Accessories showcases the 15,000 accessories he archived.

The house collected paste jewellery. Whilst initially many of Saint Laurent’s clients were not interested in these pieces because they had their own, real jewels, he insisted on collecting vast quantities of fakes for inspiration and soon YSL’s own costume jewellery designs became collectibles in their own right.

A second new book, All About Yves by Catherine Ormen, features intimate photographs of his sketching in his studio. It shows his extraordinary talent as an artist: thousands of sketches of visionary designs which all demonstrated his ability to create a brand.

The thing that he did that was most remarkable (and he shares this in common with Chanel) is that he married high fashion and commercialism in a way that transcended nationality.

He created a design aesthetic that was easily recognisable as his own. According to Bergé, “designing made him miserable” and he had to be constantly reassured about his worthiness.

This seems an extraordinary thing. Without Bergé’s constant encouragement, Saint Laurent would have given up before he had barely started. These two museums are a testament not only to Saint Laurent’s talent and genius, but also to the power of friends to make us see the better parts of ourselves.

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