The legendary Yves is back in fashion

French designer Yves Saint-Laurent salutes the crowd with French model Laetitia Casta and French actress Catherine Deneuve at the last Haute-Couture show ever of his.

First Hollywood turned its attention to Coco Chanel, now it’s the turn of Yves Saint Laurent. As two new movies are released, Louise O’Neill looks at the life of the iconic designer.

JALIL LASPERT’S movie, Yves Saint Laurent, based on Laurence Benaim’s biography of the legendary designer, has topped the box-office in France, grossing €294,000 on its first day.

The Weinstein Company has snapped up the US distribution rights, and it will open Berlinale’s Panorama film festival next month (it also opens here then). There is another bio-pic of the designer hot on its heels: Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent opens in France on May 24.

Unlike Laspert’s movie, Bonello’s has been made without the authorisation of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner. “Two films on YSL?” Bergé has said. “I hold the moral rights over YSL’s work.... and have only authorised Jalil Lespert.”

Perhaps it is the shadow of Bergé over the filming of Yves Saint Laurent that has led to it being described by Le Nouvel Observateur as a ‘corporate film’, with Thomas Bidegain, scriptwriter for the Bonnello movie, saying “Saint Laurent had a very complicated life and Bergé always managed the legend. His role, even when Saint Laurent was alive, has been: ‘I tell the story.’”

What a story. Born on August 1, 1936, in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s family were well-off. His father owned a chain of cinemas, but Saint Laurent was ostracised for his homosexual tendencies, and beaten up by other boys at school.

Finding comfort in the creation of paper dolls and in sketching, by his teens Saint Laurent was designing clothes for his mother and his two sisters. Recognising his talent, his mother, Lucienne, arranged a meeting with the editor of French Vogue, Michel de Brunhof, when Saint Laurent was just 17.

De Brunhof was impressed and encouraged Saint Laurent to consider becoming a designer.

Thus, at the age of 18, Saint Laurent moved to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and subsequently won the International Wool Secretariat competition (Karl Lagerfeld came second).

De Brunhof remained enthusiastic about the boy’s talent and sent him to show his sketches to Christian Dior. The two became extremely close, with Saint Laurent declaring that Dior “taught me the basis of my art” and Dior responding that “Saint Laurent is the only one worthy to carry on after me.”

The comment was said to have confused Lucienne, as Dior was only 52 at the time, but within two years he had died of a massive heart attack, leaving Saint Laurent as the head designer of the house of Christian Dior. He was only 21.

Although his first collection, for spring 1958, was deemed a success, with his loosely swinging ‘trapeze’ dresses, the years following were difficult. His 1959 ‘Beatnik’ collection, now seen as a foreshadowing of the thigh-high boots and leather jackets that would become emblematic of 1960s chic, was derided by critics. The loss of confidence in Saint Laurent was so dramatic that there were rumours that his sudden conscription into the French Army, during the Algerian War of Independence, was orchestrated by the owner of Dior, Marcel Boussac, to replace him with another designer.

Saint Laurent struggled with the army regimen and the ‘hazing’ he endured from fellow officers.

Within 20 days, he had a nervous breakdown, exacerbated by the news that he had been fired by Dior. In the French military hospital, Val-de-Grace, Saint Laurent was given sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and underwent electroshock therapy, which the designer felt contributed to his later mental health issues and drug addiction. Saint Laurent was finally rescued by Bergé, who successfully sued Dior for breach of contract and helped Saint Laurent establish his own design house, with the £48,000 payout and backing from an American millionaire, J Mack Robinson.

The 1960s saw Saint Laurent as the reigning king of Parisian chic, with the designer popularising the ‘beatnik’ look, safari jackets, thigh-high boots and, most famously, the introduction of the tuxedo for women, with his ‘Le Smoking’ jacket, in his fall 1965 collection.

While the appropriation of men’s clothes by women is common today, it’s difficult to appreciate how radical this was, with women reportedly banned from restaurants for wearing YSL suits.

With the opening of the Rive Gauche boutiques (the first ready-to-wear line by a French couturier), Saint Laurent was fast becoming an icon and the pressure was beginning to show.

“So they crowned me king,” he said in 1968. “Look what happened to the other kings of France.”

His work in the 1970s gained mixed reactions from the critics, with his transparent, chiffon blouses sparking outrage and the split-to-the-naval, white trouser suit Bianca Jagger wore at her wedding to Mick Jagger deemed shocking.

Nevertheless, Yves’s career was thriving, and he was the first living designer to have a retrospective of his career at the Met, in New York.

He and Bergé split up romantically in 1976, but remained business partners, with the latter’s acumen having increased the stock value of YSL from £9.5m to £44m by the mid-1980s.

His puffy and disorientated appearance led to intense speculation about his health in the 1980s, until Bergé, still the president of YSL, had to release a statement insisting that Saint Laurent did not have AIDs. After a disastrous 1987 show, in New York, where his $100,000, jewelled, casual jackets rather unfortunately coincided with the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash, Saint Laurent turned over the ready-to-wear line to his assistants and began to further withdraw his involvement with the company in the 1990s.

Tom Ford took over the Rive Gauche line in 1999, with Saint Laurent retaining control over the haute couture collection. His final couture collection, in 2002, was attended by 2,000 guests, many of whom had been rumoured to have paid thousands of pounds to get tickets on the black market. From then on, he lived a hermit’s existence at his homes in Morocco and Normandy, until he died of brain cancer in 2008, at the age of 71. Saint Laurent’s influence in the world of fashion cannot be overstated.

He went from the ‘enfant terrible’ of fashion to an international icon, and is so beloved that Hedi Slimane, the current designer at YSL, faced huge criticism when he announced plans to change the name of the brand to Saint Laurent Paris.

Saint Laurent has been credited with making ready-to-wear clothing reputable and leading the way in using non-white models in showing his collections.

His designs, particularly the tuxedo suit, have become canonical; with blue jeans remaining one of the few popular garments of the 20th century he didn’t invent (a fact that allegedly annoyed him.)

As his obituary in the Telegraph stated, Saint Laurent “always did it first and he always did it with panache. Long before Gaultier, Saint Laurent borrowed tribal looks from Africa, sending out models with conical bras made from shells.

“Before Issey Miyake, he designed moulded, metal body masks worn over silk skirts; and years before Christian Lacroix and John Galliano introduced peasant costumes and theatre, Saint Laurent sent out collections based on Mongols and Russian Czarinas, North African maidens and Proustian heroines.”

Saint Laurent summed up his own legacy by saying that “Chanel freed women, and I empowered them.”

Yves Saint Laurent is released on March 21


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