It goes without saying that Yves Saint Laurent was a true innovator of his time. Born in Algeria in 1936, Saint Laurent moved to Paris at 17 and worked at Christian Dior, becoming chief designer after Dior's death in 1957. Launching his namesake label in 1961 in Paris, Saint Laurent fast became one of fashion's leading lights in his own right. 'He was like Picasso,' said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology at the time of his death in 2008. 'The way he kept transforming his style, yet each new one had an incredible impact on fashion.'
On the occasion of a new documentary on the famed designer, Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections, we revisit some of Saint Laurent's stand-out fashion moments.
Women had worn suits and trousers before Saint Laurent, but as co-founder of the label and partner in life and in business, Pierre Bergé said in 2008: “Gabrielle Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.”
In 1966, at a time when women wearing trousers was considered abnormal and inappropriate, Saint Laurent pioneered Le Smoking, a tuxedo-style suit that quickly became a controversial statement of new femininity. “I wanted women to have the same basic wardrobe as a man,” he told The Observer in 1977. “Blazer, trousers and suit. They’re so functional. I believed women wanted this and was right.”
Le Smoking was a sensation, yet it divided fashion critics, for it was the first time that any fashion designer had presented trousers as an option for eveningwear. Because it was deemed controversial and inappropriate for a woman to wear trousers in public, many were refused entry to public haunts. American socialite Nan Kempner was famously turned away from restaurant Le Côte Basque in New York for wearing her YSL tuxedo suit. Nevertheless, Kempner removed her trousers and waltzed back into the restaurant wearing the blazer as a mini dress, mocking the establishment’s backwards dress code and epitomising the confidence of a modern, Saint Laurent woman.
Although Kempner, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minelli and Bianca Jagger were all fans of the YSL tuxedo, it was photographer Helmut Newton who made Le Smoking iconic. Shot for French Vogue in 1975, the story featured an androgynous woman confidently standing in a hazily lit Parisian alleyway, her hair slicked back, holding a cigarette whilst entwined with a model dressed only in black stilettos.
Fashion comes and go, but Le Smoking is forever.
He brought art and fashion together
Fashion designers have repeatedly turned to art to imbue their creations with a flair of freedom: early examples include French Fauvist painter, Raoul Dufy, who drew nearly 5,000 artworks for the fashion designer Paul Poiret in the early 1910s and the renowned long-standing collaboration between Surrealist artist Salvador Dali and Haute Couture fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s and 40s.
However, Saint Laurent was the designer who dared to go further and he was the first to put art on the runway. One of Saint Laurent's most iconic creations is the Mondrian dress, which featured in his 1965 A/W collection. Inspired by the paintings of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, this collection consisted six classic Sixties-style shift dresses in homage to the Dutch artist’s grid-like paintings and his modernist spirit.
The following year Saint Laurent released a collection inspired by Pop Art, notably by artists such as Tom Wesselmann. Bright and punchy, the collection reflected Saint Laurent’s desire to make fashion more accessible by blurring the boundaries between high art and low culture.
Fashion and art collided again in his S/S 88 haute couture collection, whereby the designer celebrated the works of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse with a series of dresses.
He freed the nipple
In the late 1960s, at the height of the sexual revolution and rise of second-wave feminism, Saint Laurent gradually revealed the female body, however, without vulgarity. In 1968, Saint Laurent designed the most emblematic example of this: a completely transparent chiffon dress with a belt made of ostrich feathers. After all, "Nothing is more beautiful than a naked body".
His long-standing friendship with Catherine Deneuve
For Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour, Saint Laurent created an entire wardrobe for Catherine Deneuve’s character Séverine Serizy, a young bourgeoise who finds meaning in her extramarital encounters in a brothel.The character of Séverine was reminiscent of the young Saint Laurent, a well-behaved and melancholic child tormented by inner demons.
Saint Laurent and Deneuve became close friends; speaking to ELLE France in 1992, he said of Deneuve, 'we write to each other often. I call her ‘Catherine, my sweet,’ and she sends me pale-colored roses.' Subsequently, the designer went on to create costumes for several of her films, including Francois Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983).
The Safari Jacket
Inspired by both the uniforms worn by the Afrika Korps and the outfits worn by East Asian men in Africa, Saint Laurent produced the 'safari jacket'. The original safari babe, Veruschka von Lehndorff, was photographed by Franco Rubartelli in 1968 wearing a YSL front-laced safari tunic that had been specifically commissioned by Vogue Paris for the 1968 July/August issue. Over 40 years later, in the April 2009 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, photographer Peter Lindbergh shot Gisele Bündchen recreating Veruschka’s renowned portrait.