The Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum featured an incredible overview of the designer’s career. I was so excited to have the opportunity to view Yves Saint Laurent’s work in person. Each room in the gallery told a story about YSL. His life, his work and his inspirations.As I walked through the exhibit featuring so many garments I’ve studied over the years, I was in awe of the craftsmanship in each piece. From modernizing haute couture, to pioneering high end ready to wear to bringing masculine styles to women’s clothing, there is so much history on Yves Saint Laurent and his contributions to the fashion world. I’ve put together key facts on the designer’s incredible career and why he is such an important fashion icon. Yves Saint Laurent truly is the perfection of style.Yves Saint Laurent was born on August 1, 1936, in Algeria. He grew up near the Mediterranean with his two younger sisters, Michelle and Brigitte. From an early age, he showed an interest in fashion and liked to create intricate paper doll designs. By his early teens, he was creating dresses for his mother and sisters.
When YSL was 17, his mother took him to Paris for a meeting she had arranged with Michael de Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue. YSL impressed de Brunhoff, and moved to Paris the following year to enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, where his designs quickly gained attention. After completing his studies, De Brunhoff introduced YSL to designer Christian Dior, who hired him to be his assistant. After Christian Dior’s sudden death in 1957, YSL was named designer for the house of Dior.
The first collection YSL designed for Christian Dior was called ‘Trapeze’ which introduced a new, oversized silhouette. The collection was a huge success and received fantastic reviews. In 1960, YSL was called back to his home country of Algeria to fight for their independence. YSL managed to receive an exemption based on his health, but when he returned to Paris, Dior did not renew his contract.
With the help of his partner, Pierre Berge, YSL started his own brand in 1962. After his first show, John Fairchild from Women’s Wear Daily said, “This guy is the only designer in Paris who really belongs to the sixties because he’s apart of the world around him and therefore understands it.”
Over the years, YSL introduced many styles that are still popular today. He was one of the first designers to put women in blazers and trousers, he called Le Smoking. Never one to shy away from controversy, the blazers were worn with see through blouses, which had never been done before. YSL also introduced attire like the peacoat, the safari jacket and more masculine wardrobe pieces for women.In 1966, YSL launched his ready to wear line, Rive Gauche. The name ‘Rive Gauche’ came from the Bohemian Left Bank of Paris. The collection captured the 60’s youthful and rebellion spirit with a lot of trickle-up inspiring from street culture. Over the next two decades, YSL’s amassed a huge following with his collections. He was the first designer to explore the interaction between creative style and street life. You no longer needed to be rich to have style.
The art and pop culture world was a huge influence on YSL. His inspirations including Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Pop Art, African Art, and Chinoiserie. One of the most famous art inspired designs was the Mondrian dress. The classic 60’s shift dress was the perfect canvas for Saint Laurent to play with bold block prints as an homage to artist Pierre Mondrian. In person, I was surprise to see the white blocks are actually very soft pale peach fabric.
By the 1980s, Yves Saint Laurent was a true icon. He became the first designer to have a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, celebrating 25 years of style. This was overseen by Diana Vreeland, who said: ‘It is an opportunity to show the work of a living genius. Yves is the Pied Piper of fashion. Whatever he does, women of all ages, from all over the world, follow. All of the clothes in the show – from 1958 to today – could now be worn by anyone everywhere.”
The final act for YSL for his design house took place January 2002 when he presented his last haute couture show and officially retired to Marrakech. Five years later, Saint Laurent’s influences on French culture was cemented when he was appointed Grand Officer of the Legion d’honnerur by French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yves Saint Laurent passed away in Paris on June 1, 2008 after a brief illness.
For more information on Yves Saint Laurent, visit Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent Foundation