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Yves Saint Laurent

The fashion giant who revolutionized the way women dress

The fashion giant who revolutionized the way women dressYves Saint Laurent1936–2008

Yves Saint Laurent, who has died at 71, was among the 20th century’s most inno­vative and forward-looking fashion designers. He made pantsuits part of the standard female wardrobe and dressed women in such male togs as peacoats and safari jackets. He introduced the female tuxedo, but also popularized “bohemian chic.” Saint Laurent’s influences were as disparate as African tribal wear and the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian; such stylish women as Lauren Bacall and Catherine Deneuve swore by him. “Fashions fade,” he liked to say. “Style is eternal.” 

Saint Laurent’s childhood in Oran, Algeria, was difficult, said the London Daily Telegraph. “At school he was beaten up by the other boys for his obvious homosexual leanings. He found solace in a land populated by elaborate cutout paper dolls.” By 13, he was designing dresses for his mother and sister; at 17, he placed first in the International Wool Secretariat competition with a cocktail dress that featured one bared shoulder. Christian Dior hired him in 1954 in Paris, anointing him “my dauphin” and “my right arm.”

When his mentor died suddenly in 1957, said The New York Times, the House of Dior put Saint Laurent in charge. “At 21, he found himself at the head of a $20-million-a-year fashion empire.” His first collection, in January 1958, featured his revolutionary “Trapeze” dress—“a youthful silhouette that started with narrow shoulders and a raised waistline, then flared out gently to a wide hemline.” The show was a huge success, with Le Figaro proclaiming, “Saint Laurent has saved France.” Four years later he founded his own couture house and, in 1966, introduced his famous, ready-to-wear Rive Gauche collection.

“Designers copied Saint Laurent’s best ideas as fast as he produced them,” said the Los Angeles Times. During his heyday in the freewheeling 1960s and ’70s, he championed “transparent blouses, provocative short skirts, and satin tuxedoes”; his Ballets Russes line captured the prevailing “haute hippie” spirit with “gold brocades, fur trims, and silk embroideries.” Saint Laurent lived an equally flamboyant life, hobnobbing with Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev and appearing nude in an ad for his first men’s fragrance, Kouros, in 1971. But what he called his “aesthetic phantoms” threatened to overwhelm him. He suffered a major breakdown in 1976, amid rumors that “he was taking tranquilizers with quarts of alcohol.”

Though Saint Laurent had some triumphs after that, notably his 1977 perfume Opium, he became increasingly fragile and reclusive, said Women’s Wear Daily. At a 1979 unveiling, “he ordered all the music stopped in the middle of the show, walked out, and went home.” Nonetheless he received many honors, including a 1983 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art’s Costume Institute, the first time a living designer had been so recognized. In 1999, Saint Laurent sold his brand to Gucci for almost $1 billion and, in a “tearful press conference” in 2002, announced his retirement. “I always served women and I did it without compromise until the end,” he said, “with respect and love.” 

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