CHARLIE CONNELLY takes a look at the life of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
“Saint Laurent has saved France,” declared Le Figaro in January 1958. It was a bold claim but, in fashion terms at least, one that wasn’t a million miles from the truth.
Yves Saint Laurent was 21 years old when he staged his first show for the house of Christian Dior that year. Three months earlier Dior had died suddenly at the age of 53, immediately throwing into doubt France’s place at the head of world couture. A decade on from his revolutionary New Look show Dior had looked set to dominate the fashion world for years to come, and with his death many feared a vacuum that might be filled by designers from elsewhere in Europe or even the United States.
In Yves Saint Laurent, however, Dior had the worthiest of successors and French fashion had its saviour.
Dior had spotted the young Saint Laurent’s talent in 1955 when, at the age of 17, he won a design competition organised by the International Wool Secretariat. Within months Saint Laurent had become Dior’s assistant designer, the master declaring, with some prescience, “Saint Laurent is the only one worthy to carry on after me”.
With just three months to oversee arguably the most important annual fashion event in Europe, if not the world, and with the added pressure and scrutiny of that January show being the first Dior collection after the death of the man himself, Saint Laurent, despite his youth, pulled off a remarkable achievement, bringing a freshness and panache to the house rather than attempting to second-guess what Dior might have done.
It was a brave move and one that would go on to categorise Saint Laurent’s design career, one in which he was never afraid to push boundaries and trust his instincts. He would dominate the world’s catwalks for decades, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, revolutionising the fashion world by making his clothes accessible to high street buyers as well as branching out into fragrances and providing clothes for film, theatre and ballet.
At that 1958 show he dressed women in triangular-style dresses that became known as the trapeze look and in the 1960s he was the first to introduce the trouser suit to women’s fashion, designing pin-striped affairs suitable for the workplace and feminine tuxedos that he called le smoking.
“My small job as a couturier is to make clothes that reflect our times,” he said. “I’m convinced women want to wear trousers.”
He was unafraid to take risks, co-opting such blue-collar items of clothing as the parka, trench coat and maritime pea coat into haute couture. During the following decade he turned to ethnic-style prints and reintroduced shoulder pads into jackets, paving the way for arguably the most visible fashion trend of the 1980s. People would joke that the only item of clothing in circulation that he hadn’t designed was blue jeans. It was far from plain sailing after the laurels of that triumphant first show, however. Indeed, barely three years on from his global triumph Yves Saint Laurent found himself about as far from the glamour and glitz of the catwalk as it was possible to be.
For the next two years Dior had deferred Saint Laurent’s mandatory military national service, but when his 1960 collection drew on the influence of the beatniks many high up at the fashion house felt he was venturing a little too far from the core ideals of its founder.
Marcel Boussac, one of the richest men in France and effectively the owner of the company, was particularly appalled by what he saw on the catwalk that year and rumours circulated that he gave the instruction not to apply for a further deferment of Saint Laurent’s conscription.
The army would be tough enough as it was – French forces were engaged in vicious fighting with Algerian separatists at the time – let alone for a homosexual fashion designer who even during his school years hated physical activity.
Within three weeks of his conscription Saint Laurent was in a military psychiatric hospital following a serious breakdown. A combination of the very real prospect of seeing combat and the taunts and initiation rituals designed to toughen up recruits had the opposite effect on Saint Laurent and it took the intervention of his partner Pierre Bergé to extricate him from the military doctors and place him in a private psychiatric hospital.
At the civilian hospital Saint Laurent was given a range of therapies and medication, many of which were subsequently banned for their debilitating side effects. He made a full recovery, but for the rest of his life Saint Laurent suffered long periods of poor mental health and developed addictions to drugs and alcohol, all of which he attributed to his time at the hospital and the treatment he received there. If the experience did have a positive side it was the perspective it provided.
“I have known fear and the terrors of solitude,” he said. “I have known those fairweather friends we call tranquillisers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober.”
When he’d recovered his health and attempted to return to work he learned that he was no longer employed at Dior and his replacement had already been found. Largely at the behest of Bergé, Saint Laurent sued and won considerable damages which, combined with considerable investment from an American backer, allowed the couple to launch the YSL house that thrives today.
Like many creative people prone to mental illness Saint Laurent tried to keep the demons at bay by throwing himself into a range of projects, working long hours and, certainly in his younger years, spending the time left over partying as hard as he worked.
He filled his days in remarkably creative ways, from designing for theatre and ballet as well as individuals such the French pop star Johnny Hallyday. He dressed his favourite film stars for screen roles, from Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour to Claudia Cardinale for The Pink Panther. He produced his comic strip La Vilaine Lulu, which was as popular with adults as it was with children, not to mention YSL’s massively successful range of fragrances.
His life became as newsworthy as his creations: his regular breakdowns, his homes on the coast of Normandy and at Marrakesh, his close friendships with the some of the world’s most glamorous women. He was seen at the most exclusive nightclubs in Paris and New York with Paloma Picasso, Loulou Klossowski and Betty Catroux, not to mention being in a high-profile gay relationship with Pierre Bergé, until the constant partying and addiction became too much in the late 1970s and Bergé left him. The pair remained the closest of friends and on the designer’s deathbed entered into a civil union.
It was no surprise that, Bergé apart, the closest people to Saint Laurent were the women for whom he designed. He was born in Oran, Algeria, the son of a lawyer who owned a number of cinemas and was rarely home during his son’s childhood. Saint Laurent thus grew up almost exclusively in the company of his mother Lucienne and his two sisters. An outsider from the start he didn’t fit in at school, preferring to squirrel himself away with his mother’s copies of Vogue and becoming obsessed with the theatre and ballet, even building miniature recreations of the sets and staging shows with cut-out paper figures.
By his early teens he was designing outfits for his mother and sisters, Lucienne having them made up by a local dressmaker. While his father hoped Yves might follow him into law, when Saint Laurent came third with his first entry into the International Wool Secretariat design competition Lucienne took him off to Paris where they parked themselves outside the office of Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of French Vogue, until he agreed to see them and look at Saint Laurent’s sketches. Recognising talent in the young boy who’d come from Algeria, de Brunhoff advised him to finish his baccalaureate and enrol in the design school run by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture.
Bored by the conventional techniques he learned there, in 1953 Saint Laurent was convinced his future lay in designing costumes for the stage and left the course. When de Brunhoff showed some of his designs to Christian Dior, he was so impressed he immediately took the youngster under his wing.
Yves Saint Laurent was the first living artist to be given a solo exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and was made a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest civilian honour. Quite the accolades for a man who said that all a woman needed to be fashionable was “a pair of trousers, a sweater and a raincoat”.