Yves Saint Laurent (1936 – 2008) was a French fashion designer, and is regarded as one of the greatest names in fashion history. When he was 17, Saint Laurent who was born in Algeria, moved to Paris and enrolled at the Chamber Syndicale de la Haute Couture, where his designs quickly gained notice. He met designer Christian Dior, a giant in the fashion world, who hired him on the spot and under his tutelage, Saint Laurent's style continued to mature and become popular.
At first Saint Laurent was only decorating the studio at the House of Dior but eventually he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection; with more and more of them being accepted by Dior. In 1957, Saint Laurent was told that Dior had chosen him as his successor. He was confused as Dior was only 52 years old at the time but in October of that year Dior died of a massive heart attack. In 1957, Saint Laurent found himself at age 21 the head designer of the House of Dior and with his spring 1958 collection almost certainly saved the enterprise from financial ruin. His softer version of Dior's Look and straight lines catapulted him to international stardom with what would later be known as the "trapeze dress."
In 1960, Saint Laurent was conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Saint Laurent was in the military for 20 days before the stress of hazing by fellow soldiers led to him being admitted to a military hospital, where he received news that he had been fired from Dior. He was given large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy which he later blamed for his mental problems and his drug addictions. After his release from the hospital, Saint Laurent sued Dior for breach of contract and won. After a period of convalescence, he and his partner, industrialist Pierre Bergé, started their own fashion house Yves Saint Laurent YSL with funds from American millionaire J. Mack Robinson in 1961. The couple split romantically in 1976 but remained business partners.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the firm popularised fashion trends such as the beatnik look, safari jackets for men and women, tight trousers, tall, thigh-high boots and arguably the most famous classic tuxedo suit for women in 1966, Le Smoking. The 1965 Mondrian collection was particularly renowned. In 1967, the Pret-a-Porter House YSL Gauche was opened which started the shift from Haute Couture to Ready-to-wear, which Yves Saint Laurent is often credited with. He was also known for his use of non-European cultural references, and non-white models.
For many years Catherine Deneuve was Yves Saint Laurents muse. They met when Catherine was 22 and decided to buy a dress by Saint Laurent for her visit to the Queen of England. A year later the French Couturier created the whole collection of dresses to the movie “Belle de jour”, specifically for Deneuve. Although at the time mini skirts were in fashion, Saint Laurent convinced Deneuve not to wear too short skirts in the movie so it is understandable to the viewer in any era. “Belle de jour” has become a symbol of a successful union of designer and actress in film.
In 1999, Tom Ford arrived to take control at the house and the brand entered the stratosphere where it remains today, covering perfume and menswear as well as womenswear. At his last show, in 2002, a tearful Yves Saint Laurent took his final bow while his long-time muse, Catherine Deneuve, sang Ma Plus Belle Histoire d'Amour. Yves Saint Laurent died after a long period of ill health at the age of 71 at his home in Paris in June 2008. After his death, creative director Hedi Slimane revived the brand under the name Saint Laurent Paris in 2015 in the first collection after the founder's death. Today, Saint Laurent Paris markets a broad range of women's and men's ready-to-wear products, leather goods, shoes, and jewellery.
Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé were the ultimate collectors. With Impressionists on their walls and 1,600 vanishingly rare books (estimated value A$ 50 million) they had the most priceless and exquisite art collection and library in private hands. After Saint Laurent’s death in 2008, 733 pieces of art were sold at auction house "Christie's", including works by Gaugin, Picasso, Klimt, Degas and Cezanne, fetching a total of more than A$ 522m.
To find out more about the person Yves Saint Laurent we recommend the book "Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography" by Alice Rawsthorn as well as Florence Müller's newest fashion book "Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style" with a foreword written by Pierre Bergé. The latter goes behind-the-scenes of the designer's atelier, including original runway sketches, photos of Saint Laurent at work, vintage runway images and new photography of iconic YSL pieces. An exhibition dedicated to Saint Laurent's works will take place at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from 6 May - 27 August 2017.