Founded in 1961, YSL is one of the world’s most prominent fashion houses. It’s always been known for its modern and iconic pieces, such as tuxedo suits for women, the safari jacket and the jumpsuit. Today Saint Laurent Paris markets a wide range of women’s and men’s ready-to-wear products, leather goods, shoes, and jewellery. They also market prestige cosmetics and fragrances through YSL Beauté.
Yves Henri Donat Matthieu-Saint Laurent was Born in Oran, Algeria on August 1, 1936 to Charles and Lucienne Mathieu-Saint-Laurent. He grew up in a villa by the Mediterranean with his two sisters: Michèle and Brigitte. Although his family was well-off (his father was a lawyer and insurance broker who owned a chain of cinemas) Yves was not popular in school. He was bullied constantly for being gay, hence he was a nervous child and was sick nearly every day.
But young Saint Laurent found an escape in the world of fashion and occupied himself by creating intricate paper dolls and sketching dresses. By the time he was a teenager, he was designing outfits for his mother and sisters which the local seamstress would make up according to his patterns.
When he was 17 he accompanied his mother on a trip to Paris. There he met Michael de Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue, who was impressed with the young man’s sketches.
A year after meeting De Brunhoff, Saint Laurent moved to Paris and enrolled in the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture (the governing body for the French fashion industry) where his designs quickly became noticed. He entered a design contest for young fashion designers organized by the International Wool Secretariat. Saint Laurent won first place. Later that same year, he entered the competition a second time and won again, beating out a young German student named Karl Lagerfeld. Shortly after his second win, he brought a number of his sketches to show de Brunhoff who noticed a striking similarity to Christian Dior’s style. As a result, de Brunhoff sent him to interview with Dior, who was so impressed that he hired him on the spot.
“Fashion dies, but style remains.”
–Yves Saint Laurent
Initially, Saint Laurent was awed by Dior, and found himself so shy he could barely speak in his presence. But under Dior’s mentorship, Saint Laurent was able to refine his style and he learned a great deal from him over the next few years. Dior recognized his talent immediately, but initially put Saint Laurent to work decorating the studio, designing accessories and other mundane tasks. Saint Laurent persevered however, and eventually was allowed to submit a few sketches for the couture collections. Each year more of his sketches were accepted and in 1957 when Christian Dior was 52 years old, he let it be known that Saint Laurent was the one he would choose to succeed him. When Dior died later that same year of a massive heart attack, 21 year old Yves Saint Laurent found himself the head designer at the House of Dior.
Saint Laurent’s first collection in spring of 1958 was called “Trapèze” and was a softer version of Dior’s famous New Look, with narrow shoulders and flared-out hems. It featured the now famous Trapeze Dress and was an instant hit with the international press. The collection was widely recognized as saving the House of Dior from financial ruin — so much so that Le Figaro proclaimed that Saint Laurent had “saved France”. But Saint Laurent wasn’t as lucky with his 1959 collection. It consisted of beatnik fashions inspired by Marlon Brando’s role as “The Wild One”. Saint Laurent accurately portrayed 1960s street fashion, showing knitted sleeves on mink coats, hobble skirts, thigh-high boots and motorcycle jackets in alligator. Although the collection was groundbreaking and far ahead of its time, the press couldn’t imagine anyone over 25 years old wearing it. And the Dior executives loathed it.
As if that defeat wasn’t enough, Saint Laurent found himself forced to return to his native Algeria for mandatory military service. In previous years he’d managed to be exempt due to health reasons, but some speculate that his employers at Dior wanted to be rid of him, so they had him conscripted. Unfortunately for Saint Laurent, military life was even worse than his school years. He was constantly tormented by his peers and lasted only 20 days before being hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
Luckily for Saint Laurent, he was rescued by Pierre Bergé, a young art dealer who had fallen in love with him in Paris. Bergé nursed Saint Laurent back to health, but when he returned to Paris, the House of Dior would not take him back. His job was no longer available. This was a huge blow to the fragile designer, but Bergé urged him to sue his former employer for breach of contract and with the £48,000 settlement money, helped him establish his own fashion house. Bergé was not only his lover but his business manager — a relationship that continued throughout Saint Laurent’s life.
With the rise of pop culture and the public wanting original, fresh designs, Saint Laurent’s fashion house thrived. He became a member of the Paris Jet Set. He was younger than the other couturiers and loved to go out at night. In the words of model Marie Helvin, “He was the only designer who went to nightclubs. We used to go to the Club Sept. It was full of the coolest people in Paris. Andy Warhol was always there with Paloma Picasso. We would have dinner there and dance until dawn.”
“Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.”
― Yves Saint-Laurent
This connection to pop culture certainly influenced his work with such renowned designs as the Pop Art dresses in 1966. In addition to pop culture, he was fascinated with art and artists, showing the Mondrian Dresses in 1965 and his Picasso and Diaghilev collections in the 1970s. He also used cultural references for some of his collections, particularly African and Russian culture.
Over the next two decades, Saint Laurent’s designs conquered the fashion world. He was credited with inventing the “modern women’s wardrobe”. He dressed women in blazers and smoking jackets, and introduced classics like the pea coat to the runway. Other signature pieces also included sheer blouses and jumpsuits. He used male styles but infused them with femininity to give women power and self assurance. Saint Laurent wanted to dress all women, not just the rich who could afford Haute Couture. His Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutique in Paris opened in 1966 — the first ready-to-wear boutique to bear a couturier’s name. Catherine Deneuve was one of his first customers. Other famous customers included Bianca Jagger who wore one of his tuxedos in white to marry Mick Jagger. She wore the jacket open to the waist with nothing underneath. Other famous customers included Ursula Andress, Paloma Picasso Liza Minnelli, and Jerry Hall.
“The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.”
― Yves Saint-Laurent
In an era when the world of fashion was traditionally very proper, Saint Laurent was a genuine Bad Boy. He “freed the nipple” 60 years before social media coined that phrase. His sheer blouses in the 1960s were both scandalous and the height of fashion. He partied at Studio 54 and Regine’s in New York. He even posed nude to advertise his first YSL for Men fragrance.
Saint Laurent also knew how to use his powers for the greater good. Perhaps being bullied as a child made him more aware of injustice and racism. He was one of the first designers to use non-white models and promote diversity in fashion. Iman was his model in the print campaign for the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line and Naomi Campbell credits Saint Laurent for giving her her first Vogue cover.
By the 1980s Saint Laurent was an icon. He became the first designer to have a show of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Unfortunately fame and fortune took their toll on the emotionally fragile Saint Laurent. Even with the help of his partner, he found that preparing two couture and two ready-to-wear collections each year was overwhelming. He suffered anxiety, depression and became more and more reclusive. The press complained that his work had grown stale.
But in the 1990s his work enjoyed a resurgence. His designs were rediscovered by modern fashion aficionados who had grown tired of the “grunge” movement and were once again ready to embrace glamour. Saint Laurent seemed to have conquered his demons and with the help of Bergé, he sold the company they had founded together. The sale netted both of them a fortune — £40 million each
In January 2002, Saint Laurent participated in his final show. Two thousand guests, some of whom paid £2,000 on the black market for a ticket, enjoyed a show with more than 350 classic pieces from the YSL label, as well as 40 new gowns. After the show, Saint Laurent retired for good to his beloved house in Marrakech, Morocco. Five years later, he was appointed Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur by French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Yves Saint Laurent died on 1 June 2008, of brain cancer at his home in Paris. Just a few days prior to his death, he and Pierre Bergé were married in a same-sex civil union. Even though they had a tumultuous business and personal relationship throughout their lives, their great affection and respect for one another endured.
His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco, in the Majorelle Garden, a residence and botanical garden that he owned with Bergé since 1980 and often visited to find inspiration and refuge. At the funeral service, Bergé was heard to say “But I also know that I will never forget what I owe you and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms”.