I want to talk about why Yves Saint Laurent is a genius (in my humble opinion—ha!). For one, he joined the Dior fashion house at the age of 17 and then became head designer at the age of 21 after Doir’s death. At 17, I was trying to be punk and graduate high school. At 21, I was finally legal to be irresponsibly drunk and working on my thesis in college. Not only was he this accomplished at such a young age, but his first collection as head of the Dior Fashion House was an international success. Only five years later he released his first collection under his own label. At 26, I was still waiting to find a job that I could stand for more than 10 months (thanks, City Weekly).
For me, the most ingenious thing about Saint Laurent is his Mondrian haute couture fall-winter 1965-66 collection released in July 1965. Saint Laurent had the insight to realize that Mondrian’s paintings made better fabrics than paintings. Perhaps this wasn’t his personal view on Mondrian, but it is certainly mine. The Bauhaus style is one thing when it comes to architecture and furniture, but I see it as quite a disaster when translated to canvas. It makes for an absolutely stunning dress, however.
In 1966, YSL released his women’s tuxedo, “Le Smoking” suit, making waves in women’s fashion. Women wearing this design were not allowed to enter hotels and restaurants in London and New York when it first arrived on the scene. He made waves in feminism as well as fashion, crossing gender barriers while maintaining elegance and serious sex appeal.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent spearheaded the prêt á porter (ready-to-wear) movement as well. Prêt á porter lines made designer fashion more accessible as the collection is “mass” produced rather than handmade to specific proportions like haute couture. This makes the clothing more affordable (relatively, of course) and available because there are multiple copies and standard sizes of each piece.
The thing about Saint Laurent is that he was an icon. He broke barriers as mentioned with the women’s pant suit, or being the first to present a naked man in a perfume ad (he was the model). He also made fashion more accessible. So much so that anyone with the slightest interest in fashion in the ‘60s and ‘70s knew him whether they could afford his clothing or not. My grandmother would be a perfect example of this. Being hit hard by the depression, losing income due to my grandfather’s WWII induced nervous breakdown, and supporting 3 children, she can spout off about Yves Saint Laurent any day of the week. He was respected as an artist and a star. He created a new world.
In 1983, Yves Saint Laurent was the first living designer to ever have a restrospective of his work, “Yves Saint Laurent, 25 Years of Design” at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, with many more to follow across the world in the following decades. In the fall of 1998 Saint Laurent showed his last ready-to-wear collection and moved strictly to designing haute couture. Alber Elbaz was brought in to take over the Rive Gauche (ready-to-wear) label.
Gucci bought out the YSL label in 1999, and Elbaz was quickly replaced by Tom Ford. Tom Ford made his big splash in the fashion world with his 1995 ready-to-wear collection for Gucci. Ironically, the most notable piece from this collection, in my mind, was the red velvet tuxedo Gwyneth Paltrow donned at the 1995 MTV Movie Awards. Nevertheless, Tom Ford left no notable mark with his attempts at designing for YSL. In 2002 Saint Laurent announced his official retirement noting much displeasure that fashion, once an art, had become an industry based on commercial gain. Tom Ford was replaced two years later by his assistant Stefano Pilati.
The question on my mind is whether YSL can ever return to what it once was. I certainly wouldn’t want to be designing for the Fashion house of a legend who is still standing over your shoulder. Perhaps this is why the last 3 designers had made almost no impact. Is this the end of an era? Chanel was somehow fortunate to find Karl Lagerfeld who was able to maintain the design and elegance we know as Chanel while remaining fresh and interesting. I am doubtful that the same will happen with YSL. Perhaps the House should die with it’s creator. We will have to see if Pilati can make clothing that carries the distinct signature of the Fashion House, but is innovative at the same time. I’m skeptical. (Lindsay Larkin)