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Yves Saint Laurent


Yves Saint Laurent (1936 – 2008) In 2002, when Yves Henri Donat Matthieu-Saint-Laurent assessed his reputation as one of the 20th Century’s greatest names in fashion design, he said, “Chanel freed women…I empowered them.”

Born in Oran, Algeria, to Charles and Lucienne Andrée Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, Yves grew up in a villa by the Mediterranean Sea with two younger sisters. Among his early interests were creating intricate paper dolls that inspired him to design dresses for his mother and sisters.

When he was 18, Yves moved to Paris and entered the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, where his sketches quickly gained notice. Michel De Brunhoff, editor of French Vogue, introduced Saint Laurent to Christian Dior. “Dior fascinated me,” Saint Laurent later recalled. “I couldn’t speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years I spent at by his side.” With Dior’s encouragement and guidance, Saint Laurent’s style matured and attracted more attention and recognition.

Although Dior instantly saw Laurent’s talents and accepted him as an apprentice in 1954, Yves spent his first year at the House of Dior decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection and in each fashion season that followed, Dior added more of his designs.

In 1957, Dior met with Saint Laurent’s mother and told her he’d chosen Yves to succeed him as designer. His mother later said that she had been confused by the remark since Dior was then only 52 years old. She and her son as well as the entire fashion world were, therefore, stunned in October of that year when Dior died of a massive heart attack at a health spa in northern Italy.

Consequently, at just 21, Laurent found himself head designer of the House of Christian Dior. His spring 1958 collection is said to have saved the enterprise from financial ruin. Saint Laurent’s creations included straight lines, which was a softer version of Dior’s New Look. With it, Yves vaulted to international stardom with what would later be known as the “trapeze dress.” Other dresses in the collection had narrow shoulders and flared gently at the bottom.

Unlike many overnight sensations Saint Laurent managed to remain at the top of his profession as fashion changed from an emphasis on formal, custom-made haute couture to casual sportswear. From 1957 to 2002, he almost singularly changed the way women dressed: he put them into pants for both day and night, into pea coats and safari jackets, and into the “smoking jacket.” His designs also encouraged women to wear leopard prints, trench coats and, for a time in the 1970’s, peasant-inspired clothing in rich fabrics.

His fall 1958 collection did not receive the kind of approval his first collection garnered. Even his later collections for the House of Dior that featured hobble skirts and beatnik fashions were savaged by the press. Nevertheless, in 1959, he was chosen by Farah Diba, a student in Paris, to design the wedding dress for her marriage to the Shah of Iran.

In 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War. Speculation suggests that Marcel Boussac, owner of the House of Dior and a powerful press baron put pressure on the government not to draft Saint Laurent in 1958 and 1959 but reversed course after the disastrous 1960 season so Yves could be replaced.

Saint Laurent was in the military for 20 days before the stress of being hazed by fellow soldiers caused him to enter a military hospital where he received the news that he had been fired by Dior. Unnerved, he ended up in Val-de-Grâce, a French military hospital, where he was given large doses of sedatives, other psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy. Saint Laurent himself blamed this period for causing his later history of mental problems and drug addiction.

Released from the hospital in November 1960, Saint Laurent sued Dior for breach of contract and won. After a short convalescence, he and his partner, industrialist Pierre Bergé, started their own fashion house -Yves Saint Laurent YSL -with funds provided by the Atlanta millionaire J. Mack Robinson.

In the 1960s and 70s, the firm popularized fashion trends that included the beatnik look; safari jackets for men and women; tight trousers; tall, thigh-high boots; and, in 1966, the famous tuxedo suit for women, Le Smoking.

Yves Saint Laurent distinguished himself by embracing contrast: the masculine and feminine, highbrow and lowbrow, the classic and the modern. He took traditionally male silhouettes and transformed them into womenswear, empowering women to dress in new and bold ways. These pieces were daring, new and different.

Among the women who wore his clothes were Catherine Deneuve, Paloma Picasso, Nan Kempner, Lauren Bacall, Marella Agnelli and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild.

While mostly known for fashion design, the House of Saint Laurent also produced costume jewelry typically associated with the bold, colorful look that epitomized the 80s. Bright blues, reds and greens crafted from materials such as crystal and glass gripoix were set in a rich gold frame creating classic statement pieces. In 1966, the House opened a boutique in America. Monet produced some of Yves’ jewelry. Mark: “Yves Saint Laurent.”

By 1983, when he was 47, Yves Saint Laurent’s output was recognized by fashion scholars as so fundamentally important to women’s dress that a retrospective of his designs was held at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first time the museum had honored a living designer. Diana Vreeland, the legendary magazine editor who was the driving force behind the exhibition, called him “a living genius” and “the Pied Piper of fashion.”

“Whatever he does,” she said, “women of all ages, from all over the world, follow.” That exhibition engendered further retrospectives in Paris, Beijing, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tokyo and Sydney, Australia.

Saint Laurent was the first French couturier to present a full ready-to-wear line. It became popular with the public if not the critics but eventually earned many times more for Saint Laurent than the haute couture line.

The YSL brand continued its expansion through the early 1990s with women and men’s fragrances after having launched its cosmetic lines in 1978. At its height, the brand had boutiques around the world that sold scarves, jewelry, furs, shoes, men’s wear, cosmetics, perfumes, and even cigarettes.

Yves was commissioned to design sets and costumes for ballet, theater and movies (most notably, for Catherine Deneuve in “Belle de Jour” in 1967.) He received numerous awards including the French Legion of Honor in 1985.

Over the years, the House of Saint Laurent was acquired by various owners including Lanvin-Charles of the Ritz and Squibb-Beach Nut. In 1993, it became part of the state-owned French pharmaceuticals conglomerate Elf Sanofi although almost half of the fashion group remained in the hands of Bergé (Yves’ partner) and Saint Laurent who retained control of the couture section of the business until 2001.

In 2000, the ready to-wear and fragrance collections were acquired by the Gucci Group and was then designed by the American fashion icon Tom Ford.

Mr. Ford, who simultaneously designed the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent collections introduced racy and sexualized ideas during those years, but left the company in 2003. Since then, the Yves Saint Laurent collections have been designed by one of his former assistants, Stefano Pilati.

In the first years of the 21st Century, Saint Laurent’s health, already been failing for years, became erratic because of pressure of designing two haute couture and two ready to wear collections each year. He turned more and more to alcohol and drugs. At some shows, he could barely walk down the runway at the end of the show and had to be supported by models.

In 2002, Mr. Saint Laurent announced his retirement. Rife speculation suggested that Saint Laurent had felt pressured to resign. He and Mr. Bergé denied it and a week later announced plans to turn the house into a museum, which has since displayed exhibitions of the clothes Saint Laurent designed. The Paris foundation Yves created with Bergé to trace the history of the house of YSL, holds 15,000 objects and 5,000 pieces of clothing.

Saint Laurent died 1 June 2008 of brain cancer at his Paris residence. According to The New York Times, a few days before his death, he and Bergé entered into a same-sex civil union in France. When Saint Laurent was diagnosed as terminally ill with only one or two weeks left to live, Bergé and the doctor mutually decided it would be better for Yves not to know of his impending death.

Bergé said, “I have the belief that Yves would not have been strong enough to accept that.” Saint Laurent was survived by his mother and sisters.

Saint Laurent was given a Catholic funeral at St Roch Catholic Church in Paris. Funeral attendees included former queen of Iran Farah Pahlavi, Bernadette Chirac, and President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni. In 2009, Forbes rated Saint Laurent the top-earning dead celebrity.

On September 8, 2017, The New York Times published an obituary for Pierre Bergé (b. 1930) whose wealth, power, and personality made him a social star in his own right. The cause of death was myopathy, a neural muscular disorder.

In February of that year, an auction of 733 items was held by Christie’s. It included paintings by Picasso and ancient Egyptian sculptures. Before the sale, Bergé said the proceeds would be earmarked for the creation of a new foundation for AIDS research.

Also in 2009, some YSL stores closed in San Francisco and New York. The New York location, on Madison Avenue had been the brand’s first in the United States, having opened in 1969. In January 2010, the Chicago boutique on Oak Street also closed.

In 2012, the current owner, Kering (previously known as PPR) announced that Hedi Slimane had replaced Stefano Pilati as creative director. Slimane had previously worked with Dior Homme until 2007.

Despite the fact that Hedi Slimane had previously worked with the house, a controversy ensued following his appointment, particularly after it was announced that the ready-to-wear line would be rebranded simply as Saint Laurent. However, the Yves Saint Laurent name and iconic YSL logo were retained for accessories including handbags, shoes, and cosmetics (licensed to L’Oréal).

Designed by Slimane, the Paris flagship boutique opened in May 2013. The previous deep red and gold color scheme was replaced by a monochrome interior, with varying materials, including marble and nickel plated bars. This concept was used in the renovated Beverly Hills boutique, and a new London boutique on Sloane Street, as well as new stores in the United States.

In 2013, a men’s store—a first for the brand—opened in San Francisco, a full-line store opened in New York City, in its SoHo neighborhood, and a full-line store opened in Chicago at the Waldorf Astoria on Rush Street, where private showings had been given since the Chicago store closed in 2010.

In July 2013, Francesca Bellettini was named the new CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. She took over the top spot at the fashion house in September replacing Paul Deneve.

International locations include a strong presence in Europe, with boutiques in Barcelona, Munich, Berlin, Warsaw, and Kiev, Bologna, Rome, Moscow, and Cannes. Locations in the Middle East and Africa include Casablanca, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, and Jeddah. In Asia Saint Laurent boutiques can be found in Jakarta, Bangkok, Seoul, Macau, and Hong Kong. The brand has a heavy presence in Japan with boutiques in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka as well as outlet locations across the country. In China standalone boutiques are located in Wuhan, Shanghai, and Beijing.

In 2014, the movie, “Yves Saint Laurent” was released internationally and covered the critical years of St. Laurent’s life from working with Dior to the opening of his own House. Pierre Niney, who portrayed YSL, received the Best Actor Cesar Award, the French equivalent of the Academy Award, for his performance.

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