Yves Saint Lauren was born on this day in 1936 in Algeria, but he grew up in France. He was bullied at school, yet found solace at home, drawing and designing dresses for his mother and sisters.
When he was only 17 years old, he started studying in Paris, where he won first prize in a 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 designer work as an assistant. Dior named Saint Laurent “the Dauphin”. When Dior died in 1957, Saint Laurent took over the House of Dior, and his first collection for Dior the next year was a big success. His 1960 collection for Dior gave us a new “Left Bank Style” of black leather jackets, knitted turtlenecks, and crocodile jackets. The fashion world was fascinated as street fashion was redesigned by the young, skilled designer.
That same year, Saint Laurent was drafted to fight in the French army in the Algerian War. Discharged months later, he returned to Pairs and discovered that he had been replaced as lead designer at Dior, so he simply started his own company. Voilà!
Under his own name, he produced elegant, wearable clothes, inspired by many cultures and international influences. He made use of the trend toward androgynous clothing that was sweeping Europe and the USA in those mod mid-1960s.
At just 25 years old, Saint Laurent showed his first collection under his own name. He received rhapsodic reviews from Paris to New York. He dressed female members of high society on both sides of the Atlantic, but he also had a younger, hipper crowd at his first show, including Françoise Sagan, who caused a sensation with her new novel Bonjour Tristesse; ballet dancer Zizi Jeanmaire; cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein; and Victoire, model of the moment.
In the 1960s and 1970s, cool women wanted to wear Saint Laurent, especially actor Catherine Deneuve, who remained a lifelong friend of the designer after he did her costumes for the Luis Buñuel film Belle De Jour (1967). She was one of his first customers on the day he 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 also a major perfume house, was sold to an international conglomerate. It has changed leadership several 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 often be found at the coolest clubs in Paris and New York City. He liked booze and cocaine. He started to spend more time at his famous home in Marrakech. In the late 1970s, he and Bergé purchased a neo-gothic villa near Deauville, France. Saint Laurent was a fan of gay writer Marcel Proust who had been a frequent guest at this villa. Saint Laurent and Bergé commissioned famous interior designer Jacques Grange to furnish it using themes inspired by Proust’s novel Remembrance Of Things Past.
His prêt-à-porter line was popular with the public, but not with critics, but it made much more money than the haute couture line ever did. However, Saint Laurent went a but nutty because of the pressure of designing two haute couture and two prêt-à-porter collections every year. He began doing more drinking and more drugs. At some shows, he could barely walk down the runway at the end.
In 1987, his prêt-à-porter show in New York City featured $100,000 jewel encrusted leather jackets just hours after the big “Black Monday” Stock Market Crash. It was not received well (people walked out), and his depression deepened. He was only happy twice a year, on the days his newest collection was shown, but the next day he would be depressed.
His gayness was no secret in the fashion world, yet Saint Laurent couldn’t bring himself to come out of the closet until 1991,when he came clean in an interview in the daily newspaper Le Figaro. No one was shocked.
In 2002, after years of drug abuse, depression, alcoholism, and too much criticism, Saint Laurent closed the House Of YSL. After that, Saint Laurent became increasingly reclusive, spending his last years alone at his house in Marrakech. He took that final walk down the runway of life in June 2008, gone from brain cancer at 71 years old. His ashes are spread around the garden at 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.“
After Saint Laurent was gone, Bergé became the partner of painter Bernard Buffet for the next ten years. In spring 2017, Bergé married famed gardener, Madison Cox. Six months later, he was taken by myopathy at 86 years old. The Saint Laurant / Bergé home on Paris, and their garden and home in Morocco are open to the public, the Marrakech property also houses their Berber Art Museum and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum.
The biopic Yves Saint Laurent was released in 2014 to rapturous reviews. Pierre Niney won a César Award for playing the title role. Don’t confuse it with the far more interesting and better, smart, stylish, scintillating SLaurent (2014) starring Gaspard Ulliel as Saint Laurent and Jérémie Renier as Bergé, with the late 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.