From the eldest child of a middle-class French family to one of the world’s most influential fashion designers of all time, the life of Yves Saint Laurent has played host to as many intriguing moments as it has turbulent times. From the bright lights of Paris and the House of Dior, to the depths of depression and drug use, the iconic designer led a particularly poignant life.
Yves Henri Donat Matthieu Saint Laurent was born on 1st August 1936 in Oran, French Algeria. Born to Charles and Lucienne Andrée Mathieu-Saint-Laurent (prosperous French colonialists), Yves grew up in a villa by the Mediterranean with his two younger sisters, Michelle and Brigitte. His father was a successful businessman, however although the family were relatively well-off, life for the young Yves was particularly trying. The future fashion icon was frequently bullied in school for displaying homosexual tendencies, which resulted in becoming a particularly nervous, and often sickly child.
The creative spirit within Yves found great solace in the world of fashion and he would spend hours crafting intricate paper dolls that he dressed in various fabrics. His talent and passion was incontrovertible from an early age. In fact, in a 1985 Vogue interview, Yves recalled how, when blowing out the candles on his 9th birthday cake, he told his family; “My name will be written in fiery letters on the Champs-Elysées.” Indeed, it seems that a nine year old Yves knew exactly what was in store for him, and set about spending all of his teenage years designing and creating garments for his mother and sisters. With his mother’s unyielding support, Yves moved to Paris at the age of 17 to study Fashion Design at Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and it was here that his exceptional talent would be recognised and nurtured.
After gaining first prize in an International Wool Secretariat competition for his design of an elegant asymmetrical cocktail dress (winning over fellow competitor Karl Lagerfeld), Yves commanded the attention of those around him, namely the editor of French Vogue, the great Michael de Brunhoff – coincidently an acquaintance of his parents’. Brunhoff was immediately struck by the similarity between Yves’s own sketches of those of couturier Christian Dior, prompting him to arrange an introduction which swiftly led to Saint Laurent being immediately appointed as Dior’s design assistant.
There was no doubt that this young, passionate designer was on the right path, or rather, the right runway. At the time he began working for Dior, the house had two dozen ateliers and was responsible for selling over half of all French fashion worldwide. In just two years Saint Laurent had graduated from an apprentice design assistant (whose first assignment was decorating the shop window) to the protégé of Christian Dior himself. Laurent established a particularly close working relationship with Dior and it was Dior’s tutelage that would allow the young designer to truly hone his skills and evolve his designs into iconic fashion pieces. Speaking of Christian Dior in 1991, Saint Laurent reflected, “He was both an extraordinary designer and an extraordinary man. For me, he was very much like a father.” So naturally, when Christian Dior passed away as a result of a heart attack in October 1957, Saint Laurent was devastated.
Only a month later, at the tender age of 21, Saint Laurent was named as Dior’s successor – allegedly Christian Dior’s dying wish. Saint Laurent had only 10 weeks to turn sketches on paper into a fully-fledged new collection which was planned to be presented to the press and public at the end of January. On 30th January 1958, thousands gathered on the streets of Paris outside Dior for the grand unveiling of the ‘Trapeze Collection’, which was a great success. Vogue hailed the collection as “the most important and fully formulated line in Paris” whilst the rest of the press hailed Saint Laurent himself as the saviour of French fashion. It was clear that a 9 year old Yves had been right on the money with his prediction but, alas, his success was set to be short-lived.
In September 1960, Yves was conscripted into the French army to fight for Algeria’s independence having previously deferred three times as a result of his blossoming career. Shortly after his conscription, Saint Laurent suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown and, after undergoing gruelling treatment, he was unceremoniously discharged from the Val de Grace mental institution and the army on 14th November 1960. A broken Saint Laurent was set to fade away into history after learning that, in his absence, his former assistant Marc Bohan had been appointed Head Designer at Dior – a devastating blow.
However, some weren’t ready to let Saint Laurent’s inextricable talent go to waste, namely Pierre Berge who would later assist in establishing the House of YSL. Armed with his business-savvy partner and lover Berge, plus £48,000 as a result of suing Dior for breach of contract, Saint Laurent opened a salon in rue Spontini. The Yves Saint Laurent Couture Collection made its début on 29th January 1962 and was hailed by Life Magazine as “the best collection of suits since Chanel”.
Under the instruction of the formidable duo of Saint Laurent and Berge, the YSL empire went from strength to strength. The fashion industry saw the development of the iconic YSL ‘Le Smoking’ Tuxedo, the Pea Coat and the equally famous sheer ‘Cigaline’ blouse during the 60s. Within five years the industry witnessed the YSL name embossed on over 150 products following an extended collection of accessories and perfumes including the aptly named ‘Y’ and ‘Opium’ fragrances. During these two decades, Paris was at the forefront of putting couture on a pedestal – but Saint Laurent saw an opportunity to make fashion history. In 1966 he became the first ever couture designer to turn his attention away from the exclusive ateliers and move to the relative accessibility of prêt-à-porter – aka ‘ready to wear’ and ‘off the rack’ collections.
In 1983, fashion empress Diana Vreeland organised a retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent’s work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York for the man, and friend, she referred to as “a living genius”. Thousands flocked from all over the world to see the exhibition. It was the first time that this honour had ever been accorded to a living designer. Yves Saint Laurent was now known as one of the industry’s ‘jet set’, often rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Gettys, Rothschilds and Jaggers. However, rumours of Saint Laurent’s drug and alcohol addiction were rife, so much so that he was once accidentally reported on the radio as having passed away.
In a multi-million pound deal in 1993, YSL was sold to Elf Sanofi and then again to Gucci in 1999. Although Laurent remained its figurehead, his now very public addiction to alcohol and cocaine grew deeper as he struggled to maintain creative control against a new generation of designers with whom he claimed he had “nothing in common.” Saint Laurent argued that true beauty and elegance had been banished from the fashion industry but this didn’t hinder the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs and John Galliano from applauding the individual they regarded as the figurehead of couture.
The turn of the century saw the iconic designer find his footing once again as his designs were rediscovered by a fashion elite that had grown tired of the grunge movement that dominated the runways. Saint Laurent, too, seemed to have conquered his own personal demons and in 2000 his portrait appeared on the last franc pieces minted before the introduction of the Euro. Following this, a museum entirely dedicated to Saint Laurent’s work opened in Paris in the legendary Hôtel Particulier where Yves Saint Laurent spent nearly thirty years designing his collections. After another bout of industry success, Saint Laurent formally announced his retirement in 2002. On the 40th anniversary of the founding of his couture house, Yves Saint Laurent showed his final collection at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and took his final bow. French actress and model Catherine Deneuve commented, “For women, for fashion, it is the end of an era.”
Yves Saint Laurent passed away on 1st June 2008 in Paris, after a brief illness. There is no doubt that he has left behind an incredible legacy that will continue to inspire and influence designers for many years to come. His garments were truly iconic, his life – eventful, his talent – incontrovertible. Only Yves himself could have predicted that a shy and nervous young boy would become one of the greatest names within the fashion industry.