Prince of fashion

“Fashions fade, style is eternal,” Said Yves Saint Laurent; the man who epitomised style in its truest form.

The YSL brand is synonymous with fashion. It is also the name of the legendary designer who spearheaded a phenomenal fashion power house for a large part of the twentieth century.

Born in Oran, Algeria, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent discovered his true calling at an early age. After experimenting with designs for his sisters at the age of 12, he left home to pursue a career in fashion at the age of 17.

For three years, Saint Laurent worked closely with the iconic designer Christian Dior, who referred to him as “my right arm.” Dior’s sudden death in 1957 sent shock waves through the industry. The House of Dior quickly named Saint Laurent its head designer at the age of 21. The designer found himself at the head of a $20-million-a-year fashion empire, succeeding an icon that had radically changed the way women dressed in 1947 with the wasp-waisted new look.

Though thrust in the middle of the spotlight, Saint Laurent was never quite comfortable in the public eye. Despite commanding hordes of followers, he preferred to spend time with the company of a few close friends.

Just as his career began to take off, Saint Laurent was conscripted into the French Army in 1960. His time in the services was brief and he was soon transferred to a French mental hospital suffering from stress. Here he underwent psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy, for a nervous breakdown -- the first of many over the next several decades. Two people visited him every day at the hospital, his mother and Pierre Bergé, a young man who had become his closest friend.

Saint Laurent said, “I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilisers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober.”

In 1962, Saint Laurent started his own label, YSL financed by his companion, Bergé. The famous YSL logo was designed by Cassandre, one of France's greatest graphic artists. The company’s famous Rive Gauche boutiques for women were established in 1966 launching the famous ‘ready to wear’ line. Men's wear followed in the 1970s.

The designer is perhaps most famous for "Le Smoking" tuxedo jacket, see-through blouses, peasant blouses, bolero jackets, pantsuits and smocks. Saint Laurent wanted to make men’s clothing more suitable for women. He not only adapted the male tuxedo for women, but also safari jackets, pea jackets and flying suits.

As his popularity soared, Saint Laurent was soon regarded as a designer who made real clothes for real women. He created what one American woman called, "Dresses I can Twist in and go to the bathroom in." Actress Catherine Deneuve was most closely associated with the designer as were other world renowned celebrities.

The designer’s life was marked by a fair share of controversy. Describing his life, the New York Times states, “In 1971, he appeared nude in an advertisement for his men’s cologne, ‘YSL.’ Then, in 1977, he named one of his women’s perfumes ‘Opium,’ which led to charges that he was glamorising drug use and trivialising the 19th-century Opium Wars in China. Its slogan was “Opium, for those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent.” In 1992, his plans to call another perfume ‘Champagne’ prompted a lawsuit by French wine makers.”

In December 1983, a few months after the launch of ‘Paris,’ another women's fragrance, the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art paid homage to YSL with a historic 25-year retrospective of his work. It was followed over the next several years by retrospectives in Beijing, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad and Sydney. His name was also entered in the Larousse dictionary.

In 1993, the Saint Laurent fashion house was sold to the pharmaceuticals company, Sanofi, for approximately $600,000,000. YSL held a 300-model fashion extravaganza at the final match of the 1998 World Cup football tournament in the Stade de France, and the following year he was awarded a 'Lifetime Achievement’ award from The Council of Fashion Designers of America.

The Ballets Russes collection, his unparalleled sense of colour combinations, the artistry of his cut, designer denim and the launch of a significant fragrance and beauty business with a designer name can all be attributed to YSL. He was also the first to use models of colour on the runway.

He left an indelible mark on other designers as well. Jean Paul Gaultier states, "For me, Saint Laurent is and has always been the absolute master. In his work, I find the energy to do my work. He gave us glamour, he loves women—and he opened a lot of doors for fashion. What we are all doing is because of Saint Laurent."

Throughout his life, Saint Laurent tried to escape from the public gaze. With homes in Paris and New York, a villa in Marrakech and a chateau in Normandy, he could create his own environments. He owned paintings by Goya, Matisse, Leger, Munch, Klee, Picasso and Cezanne but it was the writer Marcel Proust whose work most informed his life.

Saint Laurent often said he wanted to write his autobiography and continually referred to his frustration at not being able to complete it. The closest he came was with the publication of his book, La Vilaine Lulu, in 1967. It recounted the adventures of Nasty Lulu, a cartoon character that many considered to be the designer’s alter ego.

In 2001, he was awarded with the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honour by the then French president, Jacques Chirac.

David Teboul created a documentary in 2002 which captured the essence of this designer who himself explained how hard it was to come to terms with his homosexuality during his formative years.

His mother was considered one of his biggest fans always seen in the front row of his shows wearing her son’s designs.

In January 2002, Saint Laurent announced plans to retire at a tearful press conference attended by many of his longtime fans. That October the designer left his atelier and his office for the last time. "I am much more at peace now," he told reporters, adding he had no regrets. "I am not sad—just nostalgic." He became increasingly reclusive after his retirement and spent much of his time at his house in Morocco.

The fashion industry wore a look of sadness on June 1, 2008 as Yves Saint Laurent died at the age of 71. Noted designer Vera Wang said, "I think I'm in shock. I'm in fashion today because of him. I lived in Paris right next to his first couture house. My mother adored his work and introduced me to it when I was 16. I feel in love with fashion because of Yves Saint Laurent. He was the first international superstar in the modern era."

At his funeral he was honoured with a military salute. Only fitting for the man that many regarded as France’s “prince of fashion.”

Published in Signature Magazine, August 2008