August 1, 1936– Yves Saint Laurent:
“Fashions fade, style is eternal.”
Yves Saint Lauren was born in Algeria and raised in France. He was bullied at school, but found solace at home with his drawing and painting and designing of dresses for his mother and sisters.
When he was only 17 years old and studying in Paris, Saint Lauren won first prize in a dress design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat.
When the great designer Christian Dior saw Saint Laurent’s designs, he was so impressed that he offered the younger man a job as an assistant and referred to Saint Laurent as the “Dauphin”. When Dior died in 1957, Saint Laurent took over the House Of Dior. His first collection for Dior in 1958 was greeted enthusiastically. His 1960 collection for Dior appropriated the new “Left Bank Style”, with black leather jackets, knitted turtlenecks, and crocodile jackets. The fashion world watched with fascination as street fashion was redesigned at the hands of a skilled couturier.
In that same year, Saint Laurent was called up to fight in the Algerian War. When he was discharged several months later, he discovered that he had been replaced as head designer at Dior. He then just simply created his own company. Voilà!
Under his own name, Saint Laurent produced his elegant wearable clothes that drew on a huge range of influences. He successfully tapped into the vogue for androgynous dressing that spread throughout Europe and the USA in the mid-1960s.
With that first collection that Saint Laurent showed under his own name, when he was just 25 years old, he was already astonishingly famous, having been the boy wonder at the House Of Dior since he was 21. He received glowing press from Paris to New York and dressed the female members of high society on both sides of the Atlantic. He also attracted a new, younger, hipper crowd to his first show: Françoise Sagan, who had just caused a sensation with her novel Bonjour Tristesse; the ballet dancer Zizi Jeanmaire; cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein; and Victoire, the model of the moment.
In the 1960s and 1970s, all the cool women wanted to wear Saint Laurent, including, or rather especially, actor Catherine Deneuve, who remained a lifelong friend of the designer after being costumed by him for the Luis Buñuel film Belle De Jour (1967), and by being among his very first customers on the day Saint Laurent launched his prêt-à-porter line (she purchased a white pantsuit). Bianca Jagger wore a white Saint Laurent tuxedo with nothing underneath when she married Mick Jagger in 1971.
In 1993, YSL Inc, which was, by then, also a major perfume house, was sold to a major international conglomerate and it has changed hands a number of times since, becoming part of Gucci in 1999, with American Tom Ford as designer and creative director.
In 1958, Saint Laurent met Pierre Bergé (1930-2017), who was, at the time, the manager for and the lover of the Parisian painter Bernard Buffet. In a scene out of Stephen Sondheim‘s A Little Night Music, at a weekend party Buffet met his future wife, and Saint Laurent and Bergé roused a romance that lasted until 1976. After their breakup, Bergé continued to serve as Saint Laurent’s business manager and in a very modern arrangement, remained living in the couple’s home until 1986.
For 40 years, Bergé managed the business while Saint Laurent focused entirely on the creative side. Bergé:
Fashion is a tennis match; between the fashion designer and women. If you don’t have those two people, you cannot create.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Saint Laurent could be spotted at clubs in Paris and NYC. He liked to drink and do cocaine. He also spent more time at his famous home in Marrakech, Morocco. In the late 1970s, he and Bergé had purchased a neo-gothic villa, Château Gabriel near Deauville, France. Saint Laurent was a great admirer of writer Marcel Proust who had been a frequent guest at the villa. When they bought Château Gabriel, Saint Laurent and Bergé commissioned the famous interior designer Jacques Grange to furnish it in themes inspired by Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past.
His prêt-à-porter line was extremely popular with the public, if not with the critics. It earned much more money for Saint Laurent and Bergé than the haute couture line ever did. However, Saint Laurent became more erratic with the pressure of designing two haute couture and two prêt-à-porter collections every year. He turned to more drinking and more drugs. At some shows, he could barely walk down the runway at the end. He had to be propped-up by his models.
His 1987 prêt-à-porter show in New York City, which featured $100,000 jewel encrusted leather jackets only days after the “Black Monday” Stock Market Crash, was a disaster.
As his depression deepened, Saint Laurent found a way to be happy only twice a year, on the days a new collection was shown, usually to wild acclaim. But, within 24 hours that joy would evaporate. Saint Laurent was so attached to his favorite designs, that to part with even one of them would leave a black hole in his life.
Although his sexuality was hardly a secret in the fashion world, Saint Laurent did not publicly acknowledge his gayness until 1991, in an interview in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. Surprising no one.
In 2002, with years of poor health, drug abuse, depression, alcoholism, and criticisms of YSL designs, Saint Laurent was forced to face the indignity of having Gucci close the illustrious couture House Of YSL. Afterwards, Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive and spent the last years of his life alone at his house in Marrakech. He took that final walk down the runway in June 2008, taken by brain cancer. He was 71 years old. His ashes were spread in the garden of the villa in Morocco. Bergé spoke at the funeral service:
I know that I will never forget what I owe you and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms.
A French produced biopic, Yves Saint Laurent was released in 2014 to rapturous reviews. Pierre Niney won the César Award for Best Actor for playing the title role. Don’t get it confused with the far more interesting and better, smart, stylish, scintillating SLaurent (2014) starring Gaspard Ulliel as Saint Laurent and Jérémie Renier as Bergé, with Helmut Berger as an older Saint Laurent. This one focuses on Saint Laurent’s life from 1967 to 1976, when the designer was at the peak of his career. It was selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards and it received ten César Award nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.