Yves Saint Laurent in last curtain call
Celebrated French couturier Yves Saint Laurent announced his retirement in January, bringing to an end nearly half a century as the pre-eminent figure in post-war fashion. Here we profile his exceptional career.
Yves Saint Laurent was that rare phenomenon - a fashion designer who began his career at the top at the tender age of 21, and stayed there throughout his working life.
An innovator in everything he did, Saint Laurent achieved the kind of fame reserved for a chosen few, due largely to his consummate artistic skill and flair for colour which can justly be said to have revolutionised the world of couture.
He also brought everyday wear onto the catwalk, revolutionising the concept of what was and what was not fashion.
It is a tribute to his standing that even people who had no idea about, nor interest in, fashion at least knew his name, while within the business, so often characterised by bitchiness and petty jealousy, Saint Laurent stood alone, admired by his peers and revered by his wealthy customers.
For fellow-designer Christian Lacroix, the reason for his success was his astonishing versatility. There had, Lacroix said, been other great designers but none with the same range.
"Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Dior all did extraordinary things. But they worked within a particular style," he explained. "Yves Saint Laurent is much more versatile, like a combination of all of them. I sometimes think he's got the form of Chanel with the opulence of Dior and the wit of Schiaparelli."
But equally important, perhaps, was the timing of his rise to fame. Having learned his trade at the house of Dior, he founded his own couture house at the start of the 1960s, at a time when the world was changing and there was a new appetite for originality.
He rode his luck through the rise of the youth market and pop culture, fuelled by the economic boom of the 1960's, when women suddenly had more economic freedom.
His name and the familiar YSL logo became synonymous with all the latest trends, highlighted by the creation of the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear label and the perfume of the same name, as well as the astute licensing deals for accessories, from belts and shirts to sunglasses and bed linen, signed by his erstwhile lover, Pierre Berge.
Berge's business acumen freed Saint Laurent to concentrate on the essential task in hand, creating the clothes and not worrying about the finances.
It is true that Berge once described Saint Laurent as "a man of exceptional intelligence practising the trade of an imbecile", but was also on record as saying: "The only reason why this company exists is to enable Yves to design his couture collections. It's up to him how he does it. If he needs anything, he asks for it and I pay the bills."
Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in the coastal town of Oran, Algeria, on 1 August, 1936, at a time when the North African country was still under French rule.
A shy, lonely, child, he shunned his contemporaries and became interested in clothes at an early age, and later, looking back at his childhood, he admitted: "I was born with nervous depression."
In 1953, when he was 17, he showed some of his drawing to Vogue editor Michel de Brunoff, who published them in the magazine.
The following year he won three of the four categories in a design competition in Paris (the fourth went to his contemporary Karl Lagerfeld, now at Chanel).
Discerning the young man's immense potential, de Brunoff advised Christian Dior to hire him and he rapidly emerged as heir apparent to the great couturier, and took over the house when Dior died suddenly three years later.
Saint Laurent would say of his mentor: "Dior fascinated me. 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 spent at his side."
What happened next was that Yves was called up for military service in 1960, to fight in his native Algeria. But 17 days after being drafted, Saint Laurent was in a military hospital, unable to eat or walk, slowly wasting away.
Returning to Paris, he discovered that Dior had appointed Marc Bohan in his place and he and Berge decide to set up in business on their own. The rest, of course, is history.
Saint Laurent's success lay in the harmony he achieved between body and garment - what he called "the total silence of clothing."
But, like Coco Chanel before him, he was acutely aware that fashion does not live solely in the hothouse atmosphere of the couture houses, but has its outward expression in everyday life.
So it was that in what was to be his last season with Dior, he took the leather jackets, turtle-necked sweaters and boots he saw daily on the streets of Paris and elevated them to the catwalk, where they were suddenly not at all out of place and every bit as stylish as the fur coats and the ballgowns they rubbed shoulders with.
In that sense, he pushed back the frontiers of fashion in a way no-one else has, challenging the conventional wisdom of what women could and could not wear, evolving clothes better-adapted to everyday life than the more burdensome dresses of earlier times.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Saint Laurent set the pace for fashion around the world, opening up the Japanese market which would later become crucial in the 1980s and 1990s, subsequently expanding in Asia to South Korea and Taiwan.
What he achieved was to constantly re-invent the rules, from his trapeze dress for Dior, through his own collections, featuring the pea jacket and workman's smocks, trouser suits, tuxedo jackets for women, inspired by Marlene Dietrich, safari suits and knickerbockers, as well as the controversial see-through dress he showed in 1968.
He was also instrumental in redefining the received wisdom of what female beauty consisted in, by working with models from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds as inspiration for his artistry.
The main dates in the career of Yves Saint Laurent:
- 1936: Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent born 1 August in Oran, Algeria, which was then considered part of France
- 1953: Arrives in Paris where he shows his designs to Michel de Brunhoff, editor of Vogue magazine. Brunhoff introduces him to Christian Dior.
- 1954-5: Works as assistant to Dior.
- 1957: Becomes artistic director of Christian Dior fashion house following the death of its founder.
- 1958: First collection, Trapeze.
- 1961: Creates fashion house with Pierre Berge.
- 1962: Presents first fashion parade at the home of Forain, a painter.
- 1964: Launches first perfume, Y.
- 1966 : Creates first ever tuxedo for women. Opens first Paris boutique.
- 1971: 40 collection creates scandal. Poses nude for launch of Rive Gauche perfume line.
- 1977 Launch of Opium perfumes, one of the world's greatest successes.
- 1985: Receives Legion of Honour from the late French president Francois Mitterrand.
- 1986: Buys out Charles of the Ritz, then in control of property rights on Saint Laurent perfumes and cosmetics.
- 1993: French industrial giant Elf Sanofi takes control of fashion house.
- 1998: Decides to devote himself solely to haute couture.
- 2000: Fashion house takes over control of Gucci.
- 2001: Receives Golden Rose of Palermo awarded to leading cultural figures.
- 2002: Yves Saint Laurent fashion house celebrates 40th anniversary on 22 January.