“For more than 20 years, Yves Saint Laurent has been the creative leader in the very fickle world of highest fashion. High prices have dictated that few women have worn his clothes and that very few ever will. Yet he is the one designer with whom virtually every woman is familiar, the one designer who continues to exert a strong influence over the way we dress.”
Since its launch in 1977, FASHION magazine has been giving Canadian readers in-depth reports on the industry’s most influential figures and expert takes on the worlds of fashion, beauty and style. In this series, we explore the depths of our archive to bring you some of the best fashion features we’ve ever published. This story, originally titled “The World of YSL” by the late David Livingstone, was originally published in FASHION’s Winter 1982 issue.
Yves Saint Laurent hates fashion and loves Proust. He has said so more than once and is in this way special and fresh. He is also serious, awfully so. He dresses bodies, but what he counts as important is the mind, and he himself has one that is delicate, a blessing and a bother. He is strong too, however, or else would not be so successful. His annual income is estimated to be in the neighbourhood of $4 million. He does not, he says, work to make money. Many others are depending on him. He’s got an apartment in Paris, another in New York, a castle in Normandy and a villa in Marrakesh. He can afford expensive habits – his furniture, they say, could go into a museum – but he struggles for more profound satisfaction and quiet. He only wants to make good clothes and endures celebrity as if he were sentenced to it. But like a sentence from his adored Proust, his career goes on and on.
All the records agree that his beginning was one for the books. Christian Dior died in October 1957. In November, Yves Saint Laurent, an assistant designer, was named the chief. On Thursday. January 30, 1958, he presented his first collection. The main silhouette was flared from narrow shoulders to a wide hem and was called the Trapeze. The press and buyers, types that are distinguished by hard eyes and mouths and that don’t go for the display of unrehearsed emotion, could not contain themselves. They cheered. They shed tears! On Friday, you could read all about it in The New York Times. The front page.
Just 21 years old, Saint Laurent fell into fame everlasting. Fuss still attends his every move. In Paris last January he revived shantung. Fabric salesmen in Toronto started pushing shantung. A bellwether for the fashion industry. Saint Laurent is also a subject of general interest. He throws a party and it’s news. Last January, he celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his own couture house with a do at the Lido. The lavish affair, featuring trained animal acts, Paloma Picasso, Ukrainian dancers and Diana Vreeland became a “people” item in Newsweek. In April, his fall collection of ready-to-wear was hailed by Women’s Wear Daily as “Timeless and masterful.” Earlier this year, Joan Rivers joked to a Tonight Show audience, “If Yves Saint Laurent says it’s boobs in the back, it’s boobs in the back.” And what she said was funny because it was coarse, but not because it was entirely inconceivable.
Recurrently one of the primary influences on what earthlings will be wearing next season, Saint Laurent has been responsible for so many trends that Women’s Wear once dubbed him “Monsieur First.” He has popularized pea jackets, safari jackets, smoking jackets, blazers, pant suits, boots and see-through blouses. He didn’t necessarily invent these things – Vogue in 1943 tried to talk its readers into pea jackets and André Courrèges is credited with the first pant suit – but in fashion, to quote from popular song, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the time you do it,” and Saint Laurent always seemed to know when. If he is not with the times, he is ahead of the times, and the times catch up. In the late ‘60s, he persisted with pants to the point where restaurants had to let them in. In 1971, he based a collection on the ‘40s. A few years later the word all over Paris was “retro.”
More recently, Saint Laurent has come to stand for the two operative principles of current high fashion: good sense by day and wonderland by night. In 1974, he told 7, “What will be more and more important is to be able to create, through a style, clothing that won’t go out of style…” thus articulating a concept generally known as investment dressing and expressed to perfection in his classically tailored glen plaid suit that costs a strictly contemporary $1,300. In 1976, triggering an outbreak of after-dark fantaisie, he presented a fall couture collection that was unabashedly unrealistic, a money-to-burn extravaganza of voluminous brocade blouses and taffeta skirts described by a sociologist in New York magazine as “an advertisement that you don’t have to get in a taxi or on the subway.”
In fact, the street has played an important part in shaping Saint Laurent’s approach to fashion. While these “rich peasant” costumes may have seemed to uphold the aristocratic authority of couture, they were called by some, “rich hippie,” and were regarded to be but a borrowing from the layered ethnic look favored by the spaced-out young women that one used to see selling candles on the boulevard. From the days of Rose Bertin, “minister of fashion” to Marie Antoinette, the function of couture had been to provide affluent and mature women of the world with the pleasure of painstakingly crafted luxury to be worn as a sign, not of being with-it, but above it. But in the ‘60s, fashion went all democratic. Youth and the street became important, and Saint Laurent championed ready-to-wear as more relevant than snootily out-of-it haute couture. Having established himself as a couturier judged to be one of the greats, right up there with Balenciaga and Chanel, he opened a ready-to-wear outlet in 1966, the first Rive Gauche boutique of which there are now more than 120 dotting the globe. He did not do the first ready-to-wear collection (Pierre Cardin did that in 1959) but he altered the course of fashion history by making ready-to-wear the main depository of his creative ideas. He broke with the tradition of using couture collections as a laboratory for experiment and introduced his innovations in his off-the-rack lines. In 1971, he told WWD: “I prefer my look to be in my Rive Gauche collections rather than in the couture four months later….La mode … [is] what you see in the street, what women buy and wear, what is copied. It’s ready-to-wear.”
It’s ironic that contact with the outside world should have figured so prominently in the imagination of one whose growing up was marked by isolation. Yves Saint Laurent was born on August 1, 1936, in Algeria, into a French civilization. His mother, a snappy dresser, actively inspired his early interest in clothes. His father, an insurance agent, passively did not discourage it. He had two sisters whom he would amuse by making costumes for their dolls and staging theatrical entertainments complete with a stage, props and sets that he designed himself. As a teenager, seeking advice from Michel de Brunhoff, director of French Vogue, Saint Laurent still considered a career in theatre as a distinct possibility. De Brunhoff encouraged him to attend fashion school in Paris. He also passed some of Saint Laurent’s sketches on to Christian Dior. In 1953, Dior hired Saint Laurent as an assistant.
Yves Saint Laurent was a bony, bespectacled bundle of nerves who left the impression that he never laughed. However, Dior, struck by the young man’s talent more than his timidity, saw in him a natural successor and once confided to his right-hand person, “…[W]hatever happens to me I want Yves to take over.” At the time of Dior’s death in 1957, the House of Dior was the largest dressmaking operation in Paris and his heir was naturally bound to win a lot of attention. Beyond that, Saint Laurent’s first collection was a sensation. One of the Trapeze dresses was sold a record-breaking 147 times. Ingenuously full like a little girl’s smock, the Trapeze signalled the arrival of youth. In 1960, in his fourth collection for the dead giant’s establishment, Saint Laurent shortened skirts to the knee and introduced “beat” themes such as turtlenecks and motorcycle jackets. But for the sedate clientele, this was altogether too freaky. The collection bombed. Suddenly, Saint Laurent, who up until then had been kept from obligatory military service thanks to his powerful employers’ interventions with the French government, was drafted.
September 14, 1960: “St. Laurent of Dior is in the Army Now.” September 19: “Saint-Laurent in Hospital.” November 11: “Dior Designer Out of Army.” The headlines in The New York Times unfolded with a speed that would have been comical had they not represented a sorry episode about which Saint Laurent was still having nightmares more than 15 years later. While his military career was brief, there had been sufficient time for Marc Bohan to have been named chief designer at the House of Dior. Having recuperated from his nervous breakdown, Saint Laurent returned to Paris in 1961 and sued Dior for $120,000. He eventually settled for less, and in the meantime announced the opening of his own couture house. Supported by a business partner, Pierre Bergé, and backed by an American investor, he showed the first collection in January 1962, and there have been bravos ever since.
Today Yves Saint Laurent is a complicated empire. In addition to the couture and ready-to-wear divisions, there are more than 200 licensing arrangements by which his name is attached to a variety of merchandise including jeans, children’s wear, swimwear and so on. It’s a multi-tentacled business, a reminder that if the French make beautiful clothes, they also make beautiful office supplies and have a talent for refined bureaucracy. In North America, a key figure in the Yves Saint Laurent empire is Didier Grumbach, who occupies the position of president of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche-U.S. Related to the Mendès family, famous French manufacturers, who have made Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear since its inception, he is also president of Paris Collections, the marketing and distribution arm of Rive Gauche. Seated in his New York office, decorated to the nines by the celebrated Andrée Putman, he displays the single-mindedness of an organization man. His sense of pertinent is well-defined, logical and precise. His conversation is full of “That’s another story,” “That’s an old story,” and “I don’t think that is important to your story.” He boasts effusively that Saint Laurent Rive Gauche is “an international confederation of retailers” and speaks of the importance of exclusivity and prestige. “In most of the cases when a name is strongly licensed, the desire of the woman to wear the clothes fades. You don’t hear of any woman dressed by Pierre Cardin.” A close-mouthed guardian of the Yves Saint Laurent legend, he seems determined not to be revealing. He has practically no dealings with Saint Laurent himself, about whom his remarks are confined to little more than “Any creative person is inquiet.” As for Bergé, with whom he works closely and who is often in New York, he says, “Well, Pierre Bergé is a Scorpio.”
Following this arcane clue, I ask someone who knows about such things to describe a Scorpio. The immediate response is “Powerful. They go after what they want.” The description seems a perfect match for Bergé, president of Yves Saint Laurent, and as People magazine put it, Saint Laurent’s “main man.” While Saint Laurent has a reputation for being shy and withdrawn, Bergé has a reputation for being mouthy and fierce. A staunch defender of the designer’s genius, he once told WWD, “What I do is sell enthusiasm, about something I believe in and admire.”
Saint Laurent has a knack for inspiring loyalty. “I devote my life and body to Yves Saint Laurent,” says Krystyne Griffin, president of retail at Hazelton Lanes and president of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Canada. Tall and formidable, she is a multilinguist who gives instructions to her secretary in French and is apt to make the press feel they are working for her. She is leggy and quick on her feet. In 1980, she hopped on a plane to Paris when she heard that Creeds would no longer be carrying Saint Laurent and came back with the Canadian franchise. Although she oversees operation of the Rive Gauche boutique at the Lanes and another in Montréal, her most public incarnation is as a publicist. When it comes to promotion, she has a touch that is more like a talent. If an invitation arrives bearing lovely calligraphy, chances are that Griffin has been at work organizing an event such as the launch of Kouros, Yves Saint Laurent’s fragrance for men, or the introduction of his cosmetic line, which is available in North America only at Little Lanes or Hazelton Lanes.
Although he posed naked as a jaybird for advertisements of his first men’s fragrance, Saint Laurent himself has increasingly refrained from personally promoting. And more generally his photographs show him to be one of serious mien. Most that have been published would go nicely on a dust jacket. So far he has turned to literature once. In 1967, La Vilaine Lulu was published. A storybook that also included his drawings, it described the adventures of a pyromaniacal, sadistic little girl. At the launch party, held at New Jimmy’s, a hot Paris nightclub of the day, Saint Laurent warned that Lulu should not be analyzed for psychological meaning, although it seems safe to take her as a sign of what he considers droll. He does however have plans to publish a book that is autobiographical. In 1973, in Interview, he told Bianca Jagger, “I would very much like to write a book…. A very, very beautiful book that would be a summation of everything I love… . “And in 1977 when novelist Anthony Burgess profiled him for The New York Times Magazine he reported having stolen a glance at Saint Laurent’s manuscript. Said Burgess: “I was pleased with the intricacy of sentence construction, the love of rare words, the hints of a mental complexity not usually associated with the dress designer.”
Unlike Charles Frederick Worth, father of haute couture, who affected a velvet beret and the floppy neck scarf that were the sartorial trappings of late nineteenth-century artists, Saint Laurent has not made a habit of playing the artiste manqué. Rather, in 1970 when Helen Lawrenson interviewed him for Esquire, he told her: “I detest courtiers who confuse their work with art. Courtier, haute couture, mode – all these terms are passé. La mode est démodée.”
Such outspokenness seemed to brand Saint Laurent as a ‘60s radical. And, again in 1970, he told WWD: “Hippie is more than a way of dressing, it’s a spirit which fills young people. I don’t know any young people who are not hippies in their spirit. This is what it is all about. When the revolution comes, it will come from the young people.” Throughout the ‘70s, by contrast, Saint Laurent came more and more to stand for the established order. Although The New York Times proclaimed his 1976 collection as “revolutionary” (on the front page, even), The National Village Voice’s headline was less than enthusiastic: “The Yves St. Laurent Bombshell is a Dud.” Following the $250,000 New York party to launch Opium, Saint Laurent’s most recent scent for women, New Times, another countercultural journal, ran a story that mocked the extravagance as decadent.
Over the years, Saint Laurent has dissociated himself from the present and more and more has sought his inspiration from days gone by. In 1974, he told WWD, “I’d rather look to the beauty of the past than the uncertainty of the future.” As designers such as Issey Miyake, Gianfranco Ferre and Ronaldus Shamask have been exploring progressive architectural forms, Saint Laurent has done hommages to Picasso, Proust, the Ballet Russe, Charles Stuart and Shakespeare. For his more practical day wear, he has adapted looks from his own past. The long lean collarless tunics he did for last spring, for example, were an update of the rajah line he showed in 1962.
Most designers, of course, do not last long enough to make this kind of self-reference possible. And while bombs and cancers every day make it more difficult and less desirable to contemplate tomorrow, how lucky is Saint Laurent to have memories rich enough to be nourishing, strong enough to suffice.