In reality, there’s only a handful of designers who can truly and accurately say that they revolutionized the way women dressed. There’s Paul Poiret, who freed women from their corsets in the early 20th century, and Coco Chanel, who gave women a more streamlined silhouette so they can move freely. There’s also Elsa Schiaparelli, who integrated the art of Surrealism in her designs, and Christian Dior, who modernized the Belle Epoque silhouette and gave it a more modern interpretation in the 1940’s and 50’s. The youngest of all of them, whose influence is still in fashion’s sphere to this day, is Yves Saint Laurent.
Who is Saint Laurent?
He was born Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent on August 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where he grew up. At an early age, he was already passionate about fashion, playing with cut-out paper dolls and pretending to dress his clients, played by his younger sisters Michele and Brigitte. At age 17, he moved to Paris to study haute couture at the renowned Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the official school for learning the craft. He also won the prestigious International Wool Secretariat award for young fashion designers thrice, defeating a young Karl Lagerfeld during one of those times.
Whilst in Paris, his designs caught the eye of then-Editor-in-Chief of French Vogue, Michel De Brunhoff, who introduced the young designer to Christian Dior, the most famous couturier at that time. Impressed by his talents, Dior hired him as his assistant, officially beginning his fashion career. By 1957, his career would take an immediate jump, as he was hired as the new creative director of Christian Dior’s Maison after the founder’s sudden death. His Spring 1958 debut collection for the house received rave reviews, and his new silhouette, entitled the “Trapeze”, became the first of his many iconic looks. The collection won him a Neiman Marcus Oscar that same year.
Saint Laurent Enlisted to the French Army
His succeeding collections for the house, which featured hobble skirts and beatnik looks, however, weren’t well-received. In 1960, he was enlisted to join the French army in the Algerian War, which served as his exit from the house of Dior. He served only 20 days in the military, unable to cope with the bullying from his fellow soldiers, as well as experiencing numerous nervous breakdowns, which resulted in his hospitalization. Upon his return to Paris, he then opened his own line with the help of his business and life partner, French entrepreneur Pierre Berge. His logo, which the brand uses to this day, was designed by Cassandre, the most renowned graphic designer of that era.
From the 60’s to the 70’s, Saint Laurent was the most influential fashion designer, churning out looks that helped change the way women dressed. Among his barrage of iconic pieces during this time were the pop-art dress, the reefer jacket, and the sheer blouse. Arguably, his most iconic look came in 1966, upon the release of his Le Smoking Suit, a tailored women’s tuxedo. It came with an image of a model wearing the suit in the streets of Paris at night while smoking a cigarette – one of the most iconic fashion images in the history of the industry.
He also defied convention and culture, taking inspiration from places like the continent of Africa and the countries of Russia and China. He featured their cultures on his runway shows, with clothes so heavily-embellished, embroidered, and styled, that they seemed to look like national costumes. He also featured models of color in his haute couture shows, one of the first designers to do so, and gave prominence to supermodels like Iman and Pat Cleveland.
It was also around these two decades when he established Rive Gauche, his label’s ready-to-wear line, also one of the very first couture houses to open one. Since he started his fashion career, Saint Laurent knew the significance of streetwear and how it can impact haute couture to make for both elegant and comfortable clothing of high quality. Simultaneously, he also made costumes for a number of different media, from theater to film. One of his most famous works in costume design was French actress Catherine Deneuve‘s wardrobe in the iconic film, Belle du Jour. This period marked the pinnacle of both the designer’s and his company’s success, becoming the most influential couture house at the time.
He still continued to work by the 1990’s, until he retired from designing ready-to-wear in 1998. He was replaced by Alber Elbaz, who worked for the house until the label was bought by the Gucci group. In 1999, Tom Ford replaced Elbaz as the artistic director of the ready-to-wear line, while Saint Laurent himself stayed on as creative director of his couture line. In 2002, the designer announced his retirement from the industry and closed the couture line of his brand. Ford stayed on designing the ready-to-wear until 2004 when he was replaced by Italian designer Stefano Pilati.
Saint Laurent passed away on June 1, 2008, at age 71. Throughout his illustrious career, he battled with a number of personal demons, from drug addiction, alcoholism, and depression, among others. He was survived by his long-time partner Pierre Berge, who himself passed away on September 8, 2017.
To this day, his brand is still going strong and continues to be one of the best-selling labels in the industry. In 2012, Pilati was replaced by Hedi Slimane as the company’s new creative director, who moved the ready-to-wear studio to his home in Los Angeles and changed the name from ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ to ‘Saint Laurent Paris’, which was met with mixed reactions. Slimane also revived the brand’s haute couture line, but instead of presenting collections bi-annually, it was more of a bespoke service for clients. In 2016, Slimane exited the company and was replaced by Anthony Vaccarello, who is now the current creative director.