Yves Saint Laurent at 80: an appreciation
Today would have been Yves Saint Laurent’s 80th birthday. The legendary designer passed away from brain cancer in June 2008 and fashion, and the world, lost a true visionary. Today seems a good day to revisit some of his most enduring designs.
It’s hard to overestimate Saint Laurent’s impact on fashion and, indeed, on the lives of modern women. Some of the looks we take for granted today – pantsuits (women in trousers full stop), tuxedo jackets, colour-blocking and safari jackets to name just a few – would not have become mainstream without him.
By today’s standards these things may seem tame but by the standards of the time they were ground-breaking; women were famously turfed out of bourgeois Parisian restaurants and parties for turning up in a Le Smoking tuxedo suit instead of a more acceptable little black dress.
Today the tuxedo suit is a cornerstone of many women’s eveningwear wardrobe and how many people (men and women) turn to a tux jacket to smarten up an otherwise casual look? Lots - and that’s thanks to Saint Laurent. Quite something to think that a look he invented 50 years ago remains relevant to this day.
Saint Laurent was a true fashion democratic, he anticipated the end of couture’s dominance and became the first designer to set up a ready-to-wear operation in his name (but that didn’t mean cheap as he would never compromise on quality) plus he appreciated the importance of a good pair of jeans. He famously said jeans were the one item of clothing he wished he had invented. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes,” he said.
A prodigious talent Yves Saint Laurent was born in Oran in Algeria. That North African upbringing was to have a profound impact on his work and his outlook. He was one of the first Western designers to reference non-European culture in his fashions and famously used women of colour in his shows from the outset (even today fashion still has much to do when it comes to racial diversity in shows, editorial and advertising).
He moved to Paris at the age of 17 and enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Around this time he also submitted some sketches to a prestigious fashion competition organised by the International Wool Secretariat beating a certain Karl Lagerfeld to the top prize. Lagerfeld, who went on to head up Chanel and Fendi, and Saint Laurent had a lifelong rivalry.
Shortly after that win he was introduced to Christian Dior by the then editor in chief of French Vogue, Michel de Brunhoff. Dior hired him on the spot. Following Dior’s untimely death, Saint Laurent was appointed chief designer at the house of Christian Dior in 1957 at the age of 21. Yes, that’s right 21.
The appointment wasn’t to last but while there he did pioneer a number of enduring looks, not least of which was the Trapeze line dress, which was immortalised in the above image by Irving Penn. Three years later Saint Laurent was called up to serve in the French Army and while he was there he was sacked and replaced by Marc Bohan (another great designer of the era who stayed at Dior until the late 80s). He successfully sued Dior for breach of contract and went on to found his own house with his lifelong partner Pierre Bergé. Bergé provided the business nous, leaving Saint Laurent to focus on creativity and the partnership went on to yield some of the most memorable looks in fashion history.
Saint Laurent stood down from his own house due to poor health in 2002. By that point he was only designing the couture line (his farewell show was a revisit of his greatest hits and he took his final catwalk bow flanked by Laetitia Casta and Catherine Deneuve wearing Le Smoking naturally), the ready-to-wear responsibility had already been handed to a young, American designer called Tom Ford. Saint Laurent was famously disparaging about Ford’s, as he saw them, flashy designs but, to be fair to Ford, who on earth was going to follow in Saint Laurent’s footsteps while he was still alive and not get some flak? Ford was replaced by Stefano Pilati in 2004 and it’s said that Saint Laurent looked upon his intellectual designs relatively favourably.
The next designer to tackle the storied house was Hedi Slimane who joined in 2012, four years after Saint Laurent’s passing, and whose appointment was sanctioned by Bergé. Slimane went on to offend sensibilities with his grunge-inspired collections and dropping the Yves from the brand name.
He stood down at the start of this year and went on to sue the brand for revoking his non-complete clause and the monetary compensation that went with it (you have to think Saint Laurent himself may have approved). But, while he was a controversial figure and failed to win over every fashion critic, he turned the house around. Its current owner the Kering Group revealed last week the Slimane’s Saint Laurent had been one of its star players.
Anthony Vaccarello, formerly of Versus, takes the reins next. Here is the legacy he has to live up to. We wish him luck.
The year of the famous Mondrian collection with its primary colours applied to simple shifts to great effect. They appeared on the cover of French Vogue under the headline "idées choc" or shocking ideas.
This was a bit of a vintage year for Saint Laurent. The original Le Smoking tuxedo suit appeared this year (it still forms the cornerstone of every Saint Laurent collection and many a woman’s wardrobe) and his pop-art collection caused a sensation. Saint Laurent became famous for his unexpected and brave colour pairings.
To be fair, this one might still raise an eyebrow today, though it wouldn’t cause the outrage that this transparent look, styled with no underwear, did almost fifty years ago. It still looks incredibly chic, though, and the transparent full-length skirt styled over a shorter skirt to preserve modesty, has been revisited by countless designers in recent years and is once again a key evening look.
In complete contrast to the transparent evening look, this year also yielded another Saint Laurent signature look that would remain in his collections for years to come – La Saharienne or safari jacket. He also made them for men and they were one of his personal favourite looks.
This has to be one of the most famous images of an Yves Saint Laurent look; Bianca Jagger in a white YSL tuxedo skirt suit marrying Mick Jagger. Most shots of the outfit however, only focus on the top half so many believe she got married in trousers but, as this shot shows, that was not the case. It was still a pretty radical, and unquestionably chic, wedding outfit though.
Meanwhile on the catwalk in 1971 Saint Laurent caused outrage when he showed his famous 1940s collection. Critics called it insensitive to show women so provocatively and frivolously dressed in the style of an era during which the world was at war. But nonetheless it was a beautiful collection (though at the time it was branded the ugliest show in Paris) and a key piece, a bright green chubby fur, was reprised in Saint Laurent’s farewell show in 2002 and was worn by Naomi Campbell.
Helmut Newton took this enduring image of an androgynous model wearing Le Smoking. It’s a timeless shot and shows the perfection of the design.
This is Saint Laurent pictured outside his famous ready to wear boutique on Paris’ Rive Gauche. The store had been opened in 1966 and legend has it that the first customer was none other than Catherine Deneuve, who went on to be a lifelong friend and supporter. Saint Laurent had been a trailblazer in realising the future of fashion lay in ready-to-wear and wanted to bring his clothes to a wider audience than those who frequented the rarified salons of haute couture.
Though it was ready-to-wear, it wasn’t cheap as Saint Laurent would never compromise on fabric and construction quality. However it is fair to say that in pushing ready-to-wear he did pave the way for what was to become the high street meaning pretty much anyone who wanted to could indulge their love of fashion. For that and for the designs that did nothing short of liberate women, he deserves our thanks and reverence.
Happy birthday Yves.