“Fashions come and go, but style is eternal.” – Yves Saint Laurent.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I love to tour a fashionable exhibit, from Alexander McQueen to Daphne Guinness to Jean Paul Gaultier. Adding to my dossier, I recently went on the road to visit the Denver Art Museum’s Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, in partnership with the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation. The sole venue for this exhibit in the United States, it’s expertly curated by Florence Müller and overseen by Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s fifty-year business partner and the love of his life.
The 13,000 square-foot retrospective, which premiered in 2010 at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, displays the full arc of Saint Laurent’s impact on fashion’s history with more than 200 pieces of his 15,000-plus haute couture and prêt-à-porter creations. All from his four-decade career that spanned from his early days as Christian Dior’s protégé, at a remarkable 21 years old, to his bid farewell at the final Yves Saint Laurent runway show in 2002.
Season after season, Saint Laurent influenced women’s style from his trestle desk in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. With pencil and paper in hand, he began drawing at the top of the page, beginning at the face, he then sketched downward without a preconceived notion of what would appear before him. But, Saint Laurent ultimately designed with more than a pencil stroke. He worked directly with the fabric for the ideal cut, volume and proportions as he draped it on a live model, coaxing and revealing the lines of the feminine form.
de chine; velvet sheath dress with black lace. © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger // Courtesy Denver Art Museum
According to those who respected, adored and worked along side the master, he scrutinized every detail down to the tiniest millimeter. Saint Laurent focused on defining a garment’s fluid movement, especially while the body was in motion. He liked to say, “What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”
“He was a man that understood his times better than anyone.” - Pierre Bergé
Ahead of any other designer at the time, armed with bolts of fabric and a genius eye, Saint Laurent endeavored to give women the confidence that men had when dressing, and he was known for it. Lauren Bacall was quoted as saying, “If it’s pants, its Yves.” He single-handedly revolutionized the female wardrobe by challenging the dictates of haute couture. He drew inspiration for high fashion from Parisian street style as well as borrowing from traditional menswear such as the trench coat, tailored trouser suit, safari jacket and jumpsuit, which until that time were only worn by airman and parachutists. Many of his transformations are timelessly stylish essentials today.
Installation views of Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum // Courtesy the Denver Art Museum
He further acknowledged women’s changing roles in society by providing her with the masculine-turned-feminine tuxedo. In his signature style, Saint Laurent spun numerous variations on the tux, which evolved from 1968-1996: trench coats, Bermuda shorts, evening dresses, jumpsuits, safari jackets, Kimonos and even a chic bolero. Interestingly enough, the women’s tuxedo didn’t initially take in the world of haute couture but it did with his masstige ready-to-wear line. Catherine Deneuve, long an admirer of YSL and his muse, was an early adopter of the style and insightfully remarked, “Things move faster on the street.”
Other “firsts” for Saint Laurent:
• He introduced the above mentioned ready-to-wear line to the fashion world – he wanted every woman to have access to good design not only high profile socialites and celebrities. He called this line Rive Gauche, which translates to “Left Bank,” where he plucked inspiration from the Bohemian culture and street style.
• YSL introduced the first black model to the runway
• He shocked the world of haute couture by introducing new materials such as sheer fabrics like lace and, the ultra radical material: leather. With experimentation comes great risk and Saint Laurent drew fire from critics for the latter when he created a black crocodile embossed leather jacket for a Christian Dior collection.
• In 1996 he became the first designer to broadcast a runway show live on the Internet
© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger // Courtesy the Denver Art Museum
© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger // Courtesy Denver Art Museum
Yves Saint Laurent, Torero ensemble, haute couture collection, Fall-Winter 1979. Pink lamé bolero and knickerbockers; bright pink satin and taffeta blouse. © Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum
I would not do this exhibit overview justice unless I pointed out the significant influence that other cultures imposed on Saint Laurent’s collections and fabric palettes. With the exception of the Saint Laurent/Bergé home in Morocco, he preferred not to travel, which is difficult to imagine when viewing galleries of vibrant colors with the essence of culture from Russia to India to Japan to Spain to Africa. He breathed exotic life into the world of haute couture from the prowess of his imagination.
Great art was another inspirational factor for Saint Laurent, he paid tribute to his favorite artists by incorporating their work into his fashions such as Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse, as seen here:
© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger // // Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
© Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris / Photo A. Guirkinger // Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
It was quite a show – if you want to skip past the opening drummers, the dresses make their appearance in minute two….
The uncompromising and provocative tour de force that was Yves Saint Laurent left us on June 1, 2008. But not without leaving his sketchbook marks on fashion history with the enduring image of demure elegance and beautifully cut, re-imagined menswear garments for women. As a French journalist wrote of Saint Laurent, “He made what we didn’t know we were expecting.” Exactement!
Got a little YSL fever? Here’s a rental recommendation for your next movie night….
Yves Saint Laurent: L'amour fou chronicles the life of Saint Laurent as told by Pierre Bergé. The documentary also follows Bergé’s decision to auction their collection of art and antiquities with Christie's at the Grand Palais in Paris. The auction raised $483,835,144, the world record sum for a private collection sold at auction. The monies benefitted the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation along with a foundation supporting scientific research and the fight against AIDS. If you love fashion, I highly, highly recommend this movie. It’s no doubt a 10.
Also, if you find yourself in the Denver area, the exhibit runs through July 8, 2012. And, skip the lines with advanced tickets by clicking here.