Beginning his career in the late 1950s as the head fashion designer at the internationally renowned House of Dior in Paris, Yves St. Laurent (born 1936) quickly rose to become one of the most talented designers of haute couture of the twentieth century.
Yves St. Laurent possesses an unwavering confidence in his ability to design beautiful clothes. Innovative in his approach to style—he has adapted everything from 1930s platform shoes to military jackets to see-through dresses for display on Paris fashion runways. St. Laurent drew on his own sense of line, drape, and color, as well as inspirations gained from 1940s menswear, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, the designs of Coco Channel, and other influences, to make his name synonymous with style, and familiar to generations of sophisticated, fashion-conscious women and men. Through his many long-term friendships with such high-profile individuals as artist Andy Warhol, actress Catherine Deneuve, and dancer Rudolph Nureyev, he has become a recognizable symbol of the continuing interrelationship between high fashion and other contemporary arts.
A Reflective Childhood in Algiers
St. Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria, on August 1, 1936. His father, Charles Mathieu St. Laurent, was an attorney, while his mother, Lucienne-Andree St. Laurent, looked after Yves and his younger sisters, Michele and Brigitte. A quiet, emotional, and introspective child, he showed little interest in sports or reading, preferring to create visual art by designing miniature stage sets and costumes. Following the wishes of his father, St. Laurent applied himself to his secondary studies, earning his baccalaureat degree at the Lycee d'Oran in 1954.
By this point, it had become clear to his parents that St. Laurent's talents lay someplace other than the law. In fact, despite being untrained in fashion or design, one of his sketches had been awarded third place in the annual International Wool Secretariat contest held in Paris in 1953. He was encouraged to travel to Paris, his portfolio of fashion and costume sketches and a letter of recommendation to Michel de Brunhoff in hand. Brunhoff, then editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine, was a powerful arbiter of fashion, and he was impressed by St. Laurent's sense of style and a sophistication surprising in one so young. The editor was also struck by several of St. Laurent's designs, which were similar to some Brunhoff had seen in the upcoming collection of consummate designer Christian Dior. It was obvious that the two men must meet.
Adopted as Protege of Leader of House of Dior
Dior had been the reining king of high fashion since 1947, when his first collection had impressed Paris runway crowds with its sleek lines. When he met St. Laurent in 1954 and studied his portfolio of sketches, he understood what Brunhoff had seen: a similar sophistication and style. St. Laurent's success at the International Wool Secretariat— three first-place awards out of a possible four—convinced Dior to take an interest in the young fashion designer. In 1955, at the age of 19, St. Laurent found himself working as an assistant in the most prestigious design firm in the world: the House of Dior.
The world of high fashion in the mid-twentieth century was a competitive one, dominated by a few top "names" who based their design houses in Paris. During the 1950s, the name Christian Dior was most well known in a group that also included Karl Lagerfeld, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, and Coco Chanel. His affiliation with Dior, as well as his obvious talent, quickly elevated St. Laurent to more than just an assistant. When Dior passed away suddenly in October 1957, it was no surprise that St. Laurent was quickly named to the position of chief designer of the House of Dior. Some feared that the House would fall upon its namesake's death—and with it the jobs of over 2,000 people. St. Laurent's 1958 collection assuaged any such pessimism. His "Trapeze" collection, which featured a dress cut narrow at the shoulders and then swinging out in an "A" line at a new, refreshing shorter skirt length, impressed runway crowds and was quickly picked up by manufacturers. At the gala following the successful showing, St. Laurent was introduced to Pierre Berge, a young man with a talent for business. Despite, or perhaps because of their differing temperaments, the quiet, high-strung designer and the savvy, public-minded businessman would become lovers and eventual business partners.
Personal and Professional Partnership
Credited for saving the House of Dior from ruin, St. Laurent grew more confident in his talents. The conservative Dior following viewed his 1959 designs, with their curved lines and longer, hobbled skirts, as controversial. However, by the following summer, a more feminine look graced Dior's lithe runway models. Unfortunately, by the fall of 1960 the house's chief designer was removed from his post, not through lack of popularity but because of France's mandatory requirement of 27 months of military service. Suffering from a nervous breakdown only months into his required service, St. Laurent was hospitalized. Berge aided his recovery by encouraging the designer to do costume work for several Paris theatre productions. While the House of Dior, unwilling to risk its future on the recovering designer, dismissed St. Laurent, Berge acquired $700,000 from U.S. businessman J. Mack Robinson as start-up funds for a new design house: the first Yves St. Laurent haute couture collection debuted on January 29, 1962.
Over the next several years, St. Laurent would introduce many collections via the Paris fashion runways, each with a trademark theme, and each accompanied by a gala party to which fashion magazine editors, buyers, and wealthy arbiters of modern fashion would flock to see and be seen. Some, like his "Arc" line created while he was still at the House of Dior in late 1958, would rouse only lukewarm enthusiasm. Others, such as his "Mondrian" dress designs of 1965 and the trouser suits, menswear look, and safari-styled jackets of the late 1960s and 1970s, quickly found their way to upscale versions in major department stores worldwide. The popularity of the St. Laurent look was further aided by the designer's close association with actress Catherine Deneuve, and his costume designs for the 1965 Louis Bunuel film Belle de jour.
During the 1960s and 1970s, design houses expanded their creative efforts beyond textiles, and introduced fragrances to a public eager to adopt all that a "name" designer had to offer. While his women's fragrances, "Y", "Rive Gauche," and "Opium"—released in 1960, 1971, and 1978 respectively—were newsworthy, St. Laurent's move into the men's market made the news outside fashion circles. While his first showing of men's clothing had occurred during the 1969 runway season, his "YSL for Men" line of fragrances was marketed through a photograph of the designer sans any fashion at all. This nude photograph of St. Laurent, while appreciated for its aesthetic merits and adopted as an icon by gays during the 1970s, infuriated many in the fashion community and was banned from the pages of several periodicals.
Fashion Industry Moves to Mainstream
High fashion was traditionally produced as a collection of one-of-a-kind garments designed to catch the eye of the press and those few wealthy individuals able to afford them. The new "styles" filtered down to mainstream markets through the manufacturers that incorporated them into their own lines. During the 1960s several noted designers had begun to market a line of pret-a-porter or ready-to-wear clothes: garments bearing a designer label but mass-produced for marketing to less affluent consumers. In 1971, Berge and St. Laurent also made the move to pret-a-porter, opening the first St. Laurent Rive Gauche showroom. In conjunction with this effort to woo a more mainstream consumer, St. Laurent's designs began to stabilize along classic lines, his more creative efforts now focused on theatrical costumes designed for theatres in Paris and New York. One exception to this was his 1976 collection, which he based on the colorful, abstract costumes created for the Ballet Russe by painter Leon Bakst in the 1920s.
Ill-Health and Business Turmoil
While St. Laurent had suffered from health problems in the late 1970s, he continued to produce lavish shows through the end of the decade. However, in the late 1970s and into the next decade rumors began circulating that he had contracted AIDS. While his public appearances at shows and parties repeatedly put such rumors to rest, it was noted that such appearances by the designer were becoming less and less frequent. However, through the efforts of Berge, the Yves St. Laurent name continued to flourish, through licensing arrangements with manufacturers, advertising campaigns, and the establishment of Rive Gauche boutiques in several major cities, including New York.
The relationship between the St. Laurent and Berge had become strained, due in part to a change in their personal relationship. Although they appeared in public together as honors were heaped upon them for their joint accomplishment in building the Yves St. Laurent name, by the late 1980s the interests of the two men had become diametrically opposed. In 1986, with the help of an Italian businessman, Berge acquired control of the YSL perfume division.
In 1989, the Yves St. Laurent business entity went public, selling shares on the Paris stock exchange and removing all but creative control from the designer. While his 1990 haute couture collection proved to be a success, the stress of the company's transition took its toll on St. Laurent, and he was admitted to a French hospital. Within two years the company was openly for sale, with business negotiations officiated by Berge. In 1993, the Sanofi Corporation purchased Yves St. Laurent for $650 million. The sale made both St. Laurent and Berge rich, although Berge was fined on suspicion of insider trading in conjunction with the business deal.
Despite the dismantling of his business empire, St. Laurent received numerous accolades for his talents as a designer. In 1985, he was made a Chevalier of France's Legion of Honor, one of his nation's most esteemed awards. Shortly thereafter, a retrospective of his works was organized and toured throughout Europe, China, Australia, and the United States. Through the 1990s, St. Laurent would continue to design both the YSL haute couture and pret-a-porter collections, continuing to refine his timeless, elegant designs for sophisticated women.
Further Reading on Yves St. Laurent
Lambert, Eleanor, The World of Fashion: People, Places, Resources, R. R. Bowker, 1976.
Rawsthorn, Alice, Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography, Doubleday, 1996.
Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Virago Press, 1985.
Yves Saint Laurent, edited by Diana Vreeland, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983.
Times Saturday Review, July 21, 1990.