The lady's Yves

Yves Saint Laurent's love for women was never so loudly professed as in the lines of his garments.

Published January 22, 2002 6:00PM (EST)

Looking back at the clothes Yves Saint Laurent has presented us in the past 10 years or so -- largely retreads of his greatest hits, including lots of strong-shouldered jackets and trimly tailored trousers and trenches -- it seems that, yes, it probably is time for one of the greatest designers of the 20th century to hang up his shears. But flipping through photographs of the clothes he's given us in a career that spans more than 40 years, I can't help feeling that somehow his time has come too soon.

It's not that he hasn't already given us enough. It's just that there's no one in the current landscape of fashion -- not Alexander McQueen with his outlandish horned frocks, nor John Galliano with his magnificent mastery of bias, nor Hussein Chalayan with his wooden table dresses -- who has proved able to jolt the world awake, as Saint Laurent did in the early '60s, with clothes that were also perfectly cut and beautifully wearable.

The reason for that is simple, and it isn't the fault of any of the contemporary designers mentioned or their colleagues: It's just that in 2002, we're fairly unjoltable when it comes to fashion. Part of what makes Saint Laurent's retirement so hard to bear is that we can't turn back time to an era when fashion could still shock us out of our armchairs. There is no present-day equivalent to Saint Laurent, although the last comforting fact is that there doesn't need to be: He was the right designer at the right time, doing his best work from the early '60s to the late '70s, when the world seemed to be changing at its very fastest. The body of work he leaves is a challenge to everyone who follows, not just for its innovation and its craftsmanship but for its inherent passion. It's fine to make a skirt out of wood, but the next frontier may lie in rediscovering the knowledge of just where a dart should fall. Saint Laurent was there first.

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What must Saint Laurent's "Robin Hood" collection have looked like in 1962? In a photograph from the collection, a model wears a futuristic-beatnik leather balaclava and A-line jacket with crocodile-print boots that stretch from her toes clear up to the place where most decent ladies were still wearing garter belts. Later, Saint Laurent would be accused of stealing street fashion and making it acceptable for proper, moneyed ladies (and for what it's worth, unlike street fashion, his clothes were so expertly crafted they were almost works of art in themselves). "Everyone knows Saint Laurent has been ripping off the kids' street gear for years and even those knock-off waves of his roll in about six months to a year too late," Village Voice fashion columnist Blair Sobol wrote in 1970. It's not that she was exactly wrong: It's just that -- well, what does it matter? The '60s belonged to young people, and they knew it. But by the end of the decade, many of them had forgotten that Saint Laurent was one of the people who'd handed it to them.

The Algerian-born Saint Laurent began his career in the late '50s at the venerable house of Christian Dior, taking it over in 1958, at the age of 21, after Monsieur Dior's death. His fifth collection at Dior, in 1960, was inspired by the Beats of the Left Bank (it featured turtlenecks and a mink-lined alligator jacket), and it caused an uproar among Dior's regular clients and the press. Dior was a couture house, and Saint Laurent was a couturier: That meant the clothes were meticulously handmade for individual clients, who expected a certain gravity and dignity in the product. Those clients also tended to be a bit older than the youngsters from whom Saint Laurent drew his inspiration. Neither Saint Laurent's employer nor the house's clients nor the French press were amused; the collection gave the house of Dior an excuse to dismiss its young star.

In 1962 Saint Laurent and his business partner (to this day), Pierre Bergé, founded the house of Yves Saint Laurent. (Bergé and Saint Laurent were also a couple until the early '80s.) Their relationship is often depicted as volatile -- there's a bit of lore about Saint Laurent's inducing Bergé to chase him with a knife down a flight of stairs -- but it's also far too complicated for any outsider to fathom. It was Bergé who broke the news to Saint Laurent that he'd been dismissed by the house of Dior, as the young designer lay in a hospital bed after suffering a nervous breakdown: Saint Laurent, always a fragile man, had been drafted into the French army to fight against his homeland, Algeria, and apparently the emotional strain was too much to bear. The two decided that day to go into business together.

Saint Laurent became a success partly because he was able to translate the youthful excitement of street fashion into luxe, gorgeous garments for his couture clients. He has sometimes been criticized for trying to make his garments "relevant" to their time; but his earliest clothes look so fresh and so free -- and so devoid of the stodginess that had come to define the world of couture -- that it's just as easy to believe that he loved street fashion for its energy alone. In 1966 he opened his ready-to-wear boutique, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. He may have started out (as well as ended up) devoted to the couture, but he wanted his clothes to be worn and enjoyed by the masses, and not just by a relatively small handful of rich clients.

Saint Laurent has often professed his love for women, but never so loudly as in the lines of his garments. Season after season, for many years, they were romantic, wearable and deeply thrilling. His 1965 "Mondrian" dress, a simple shift divided into strong color blocks, at first glance seems to work at odds with the roundness of a woman's body. Look at it some more, and you realize that the heavy black lines that divide the dress into chunks of color, like pop-art stained glass, are so carefully placed that they sketch out and hint at, rather than obliterate, the curves beneath them. It's a trick dress: Its very "hardness" is the thing that allows it to be so aggressively feminine -- it's like a game to see how many right angles the feminine form can bear (and the woman wins).

Saint Laurent's idea of femininity embraced innocence only some of the time, occasionally taking the form of a big sugar-pink bow or a touch of lace. But he was far more interested in implied femininity, in feeling out the thrumming subterranean pulse that made women feel sexy, playful and unconstrained.

He loved putting trousers on women -- not the sporty flannel Katharine Hepburn kind, and not even the winkingly masculine Marlene Dietrich kind, but softly tailored ones that were generally worn with heels. It wasn't that women's trousers had never been seen before: It was simply that Saint Laurent made them suitable for all occasions. These were intended not as sportswear and not as costume but as clothing to be worn in the workplace and for evenings out.

In 1966 he revealed le smoking, which is easiest to explain as a softened version of a tuxedo, although that doesn't come near to describing its supple elegance. The most famous story about Saint Laurent's trousers and the stir they caused is the one about the evening sometime in the late '60s when socialite Nan Kempner (who has been a vocally enthusiastic Saint Laurent client for nearly all the 40 years of his career) stepped into a tony Manhattan restaurant wearing one of Saint Laurent's remarkable trouser suits, only to be told that women in trousers (I'll bet anything the hostess actually used the word "slacks") were not allowed. Kempner stepped out of the pants and strode into the restaurant wearing only the jacket. Many years later, giving a lecture on couture at New York University, Kempner wanted to make sure people understood the degree of workmanship that went into a completely handmade couture garment (which can take hundreds of hours to make, and tens of thousands of dollars to buy): She slipped out of her Saint Laurent skirt and jacket and passed them around the room. (Her Saint Laurent blouse stayed on.)

As his former employer Dior had done with his New Look, and as his spiritual predecessors Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret had done even earlier, Saint Laurent unveiled certain collections that not only changed the silhouettes of fashion, but changed people's thinking about fashion overall. His 1976 "Ballets Russes" collection -- an assortment of flowing skirts shown with slouchy boots, belted Cossack shirts and luxurious fur hats -- put the women of the world into longer, fuller skirts.

But even then, the romance inherent in Saint Laurent's different looks always counted more than the individual pieces. In 1971, a collection inspired by French wartime fashion started an uproar: Who wanted to look back 30 years? And wasn't it just resurrecting and tarting up tired old ideas? But Saint Laurent made those clothes seem fresh again, allowing later designers the freedom of mining the past with impunity. (Miuccia Prada, a longtime Saint Laurent fan herself -- she proudly proclaims that she wore his clothes even as a student radical handing out pamphlets in the late '60s -- is just one designer who benefited from Saint Laurent's backward-looking foresight. Her highly successful collections of the past few years have mined everything from flirty '40s dresses to '50s bowling bags to '60s Biba wear.)

In some cases, Saint Laurent's clothes have become inseparable from the iconic women who wore them. His outfits for Catherine Deneuve (also a longtime client) in Luis Buñel's 1967 "Belle de Jour" suited both the actress and her character's understated elegance. Among the most famous images associated with Saint Laurent is a 1968 Franco Rubartelli photograph of the luscious Veruschka laced (but just barely) into a canvas safari jacket. The picture captures the essence of how easily Saint Laurent could slip into a woman's world and share her sexiest, most secretive jokes, and also proves that he wasn't afraid to allow the idea of sex to seem at least a little dangerous: This is an outfit just made for big game hunting. Saint Laurent, outfitting a woman for every occasion, could be counted on as a staunch ally.

The Saint Laurent name didn't shine so brightly through the '90s, although he always had loyal clients for his well-cut basics. His health, which had never been particularly robust, became even more fragile. In the '70s, he was known to be a fabulous playboy and carouser. ("I've had an extraordinary sex life," he brashly told New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn in 2000.) But he was also troubled by overuse of drink and drugs, as he himself freely admitted in the retirement speech he gave just a few weeks ago, and he fought depression constantly throughout his career.

In recent years he has been shy with the press and reclusive in general. One of his closest companions is a French bulldog named Moujik. It hasn't always been the same dog, but it has always had the same name. As his partner explained habits like these in the New York Times: "'It doesn't matter at all what is real or not,' Bergé says, laughing a little. 'Everything must be the same, and that may be because Yves is frightened everything will be replaced.'"

But then, if you'd built a world out of the most beautiful clothes imaginable, wouldn't you want to stave the real one off, too? Bergé's statement is that much more mournful considering that Saint Laurent was replaced in a sense, when Gucci bought the Rive Gauche line in 1999 and later installed Tom Ford as its designer.

Saint Laurent continued to design his couture line, which was where his heart had come to lie. Over the years he'd become disenchanted with the ready-to-wear movement he'd championed earlier, claiming that it was dispiriting to work with factories instead of an atelier (the latter being a designer's workroom, supported by an intimate team of seamstresses and assistants). Saint Laurent has said nothing publicly about Ford; Bergé has said that for Saint Laurent, Ford does not "exist."

But Ford does exist, and his fall 2001 collection for Rive Gauche showed that he acknowledges the existence of Saint Laurent as well. The line included silk peasant tops and a rustling, tiered skirt that paid homage to some earlier designs of Saint Laurent's without being carbon copies. It was as wearable and beautiful a collection as any designer could hope for.

But even though the clothes carry the name of Saint Laurent, they're nothing more than a gorgeous shell -- a shell plenty of us would gladly settle for, but a shell nonetheless. Saint Laurent's friends and longtime clients don't seem particularly sad (at least publicly) about his retirement. It's simply time. Kempner told the Times, "I think he'll have the happiest life. ... Yves is someone who takes the beauty right out of the air."

That's a generous statement, but not an effusive one, if you look at the thousands of pictures of Yves Saint Laurent designs available in books and magazines everywhere. There's beauty in all of them, even if it's simply in the shape of a shoulder or the curve of a hem.

All women, even those who genuinely don't care about fashion (all 39 of them), have been touched by Saint Laurent. Even if a Rive Gauche blouse -- forget a couture one -- has never skimmed your shoulders, he has played a significant role in the way you dress today. He put humor and sex into good taste, but never the other way around: It wasn't his aim to make the great pleasures of life boring or dried out, but to bring them to the arena he loved best. Yves Saint Laurent saw what made women tick, and then thought up ways to help us dress for it. He's one man worth dropping your pants for.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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