The first comprehensive display in Britain of Yves Saint Laurent’s work and life highlights the essentials of his vision and the influence it has had on the modern women’s wardrobe, from the trouser suit to the ‘‘smoking’’ to the jumpsuit. K magazine donned a ready-to-wear trench coat to take a look….
A mini biopic opens the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Bowes Museum, near the northern English city of Newcastle. It features photographic stills of a boy working on a collection of paper dolls for his mother. “At fourteen and fifteen, I remember playing at being a great designer,” comes the audio clip over the top, the voice of the man more than half a century later.
He didn’t have to play for long. At 18, after French Vogue’s editor showed Saint Laurent’s precocious sketches to Christian Dior, France’s senior fashion statesmen appointed him his personal assistant. Three years later, after a sudden heart-attack claimed Dior, Saint Laurent found himself at the helm of the fashion house.
The rest is history; a history lovingly – and manageably – collected over three rooms at the remarkable Bowes Museum, a huge, elegant and incongruous French chateau situated at the edge of the quiet market town of Barnard Castle in County Durham.
There’s a sprinkling of the Bowes’ own collection in the Style Is Eternal show, notably in the first room where the ruffs, cassocks and collars from high religion are juxtaposed with those from the high-fashion world that Saint Laurent entered in the 1950s – both defined by luxury textiles and constraining liturgy. But most of the effort by curator Joanna Hashagen was working out which fifty garments to select from the 5,000 conserved by the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, formed and still run by the designer’s business and life partner.
The Fondation’s collection is in part the product of Pierre Bergé’s meticulous devotion. He has also preserved 15,000 accessories, drawings and paper patterns (when the Fondation’s team visits from Paris to check on the installation, they are disrupted by constant phone calls from the Paris auction house where they are bidding on the latest Saint Laurent garment that has come to market.) But it owes equally to the designer’s own obsession with categorisation and preservation. Well before he died, explains Hashagen, he went through his drawings and wrote ‘‘Musée’’ on those he felt should be saved.
After 21, the career of arguably fashion’s most influential designer continued with all the genteel ease of a runaway steam train. By 25, he had been sacked by House of Dior after his youthful Beatnik-inspired collection proved too racy for Dior’s traditional audience and, partnering with Bergé, he started his own, eponymous house. Immediately, it became the vehicle for Saint Laurent’s alchemical democratisation of fashion.
Critics quibble about whether his Rive Gauche boutique, which opened on Paris’ left bank in 1966, was fashion’s initial step into the mainstream, but there’s no debating it was the first ready-to-wear store to bear a couturier’s name. His first range as an independent designer effectively appealed to the daughters of those who bought Dior, a demographic hitherto ignored by the maisons. To Saint Laurent, these were his obvious customers – they were his age after all, and the most attuned to tthe creative and social upheaval of the early sixties. They were also the keenest to see it expressed in clothes.
Much of the legacy of this period was female empowerment, and Saint Laurent’s contribution was immense. The pea jacket and trench-coat in 1962; the first tuxedo in 1966; the safari jacket and the first trouser-suit in 1967; the jumpsuit in 1968. By co-opting the male dress code and the culture of the uniform, he re-invented what it was acceptable for women to wear, emboldening them with new ways to be elegant. Through it all, his touch remained light and playful: the mannequin modelling his first trouser suit brings to mind the child spud-gun wielding gangsters from the film Bugsy Malone.
Equally disruptive – and as iconoclastic for the time – was his inveterate artistic fusion. “He abolished all notions of artistic hierarchy,” says Hashagen. An obsessive follower and consumer of art, Saint Laurent stole, magpie-like, from the great pieces of his day, transposing them into designs – as unconstrained as the 14-year-old cutting out magazine pictures to place over his paper dolls.
The 1965 Mondrian collection remains the most striking, and the exhibition contains its signature piece, arguably the most recognisable dress in history. But there were many more, from the 1966 pop-art dresses through the 1970s; the Picasso and Diaghilev collections; to the autumn 1980 collection paying homage to Matisse – of which two expansive skirts inspired by the artist’s cut-outs are included.
Carefully curated video lifts the lid on the man’s creative process. From grainy 1970s to the rich Technicolor eighties and the early new millennium, we see him in studio, inspecting his work. “What a beautiful skirt,” he says in one clip, “but you see, it works if it is just tucked in here,” his distinctive arms flopping like a puppet.
“At its most basic, this was a question of who wore the trousers,” jokes Suzy Menkes, Vogue International editor in the exhibition book, narrating how Nan Kempneer, one of Saint Laurent’s favourite couture clients, launched her personal gender war. In 1968, she took off the bottom half of her trouser-suit as she walked into La Cote Basque Manhattan’s famous restaurant, which forbid women to wear pants.
But, while Saint Laurent may have empowered women, he recoiled from any association with the burgeoning feminist movement. His obsession with women and their clothes was a personal, rather than a political one, anchored at every turn by a physical obsession with femininity. “The most important thing is the female body,” he said. He needed women around him as a sounding board, says Hashagen, but they were most vivid to him as a physical presence. “I need a model in front of me; her attitude, her elegance,” the exhibition quotes him.
There’s an enjoyable confessional quality to the show. Coy radio interviewers ask for his favourite artist, composer and writer (respectively Picasso, Bach and Proust) or his greatest flaw (“shyness”). Elsewhere, videos provide some unexpected cameos: the 1958 ‘‘Dior Comes To Blenheim’’ follows the show for Princess Margaret in her Oxfordshire estate. The guests swap the steely glare of today’s front rows with the rosy ease of another age. Is it because they are Margaret’s friends or were fashion’s opinion-shapers more easy-going back then?
Not left behind
Beyond the video glimpses and a chronology of his life at the start of the exhibition, there’s little here on the man behind the work, and the theatrical Gallic pronouncements sometimes fall a little flat. “The most beautiful things that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves,” – Saint Laurent’s quote is printed on the final screen, sounding more like the efforts of a 21-year old to lure a lover to the bedroom than a pronouncement of one of the century’s great creative minds.
With clothes like this, however, you can forgive him the odd corny line. In fact, most of his declarations hit the mark and have born the test of time, proving his own maxim that “Fashion fades; style is eternal.”
“Style Is Eternal,” the major Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, is on at the Bowes Museum until 25th October 2015. For further information about Kering, go to www.kering.com.