Yves St Laurent has died at the age of 71, and fashion has lost the most important designer of the 20th century.
Of course, even saying that isn’t the truth – fashion design, other than Worth, didn’t really begin until the 20th century, so it would be fairer to say that fashion has lost its most important designer EVER.
Most of us are so used to wearing clothes that were pioneered by St Laurent that we don’t even notice it. But every time you wear jeans as respectable attire, every time you wear a safari jacket, every time you reach automatically for the black suit or dress, every time you put on a trousersuit or wear trousers in the daytime, you have St Laurent to thank for it. Add the trenchcoat, the peacoat and the ‘smoking’ black trousersuit for evening, and that’s a pretty good legacy to leave as a designer.
St Laurent was also the first designer to make ready to wear respectable – before him, rich women had couture and the rest of us had dressmakers. But St Laurent democratised fashion, opening his Rive Gauche label in 1966 and introducing the word ’boutique’ to the high street – for the first time permitting ordinary women to wear a designer line. He also began designing for men in 1976, giving stylish men a true alternative to the Savile Row tailor. So many other designers followed in his footsteps that we tend to forget how revolutionary all this was at the time.
On the catwalk, St Laurent often caused outrage. The first black models ever seen on a runway worked for St Laurent: he was always intrigued by African and ethnic fashion and beauty and this remained a recurring theme in his collections. His street-influenced beatnik fashions of 1960 cost him his job at Dior and his 1940s-influenced collection of 1971 was considered filthy and degrading by the national press, who said the women looked like hookers. His introduction of bare breasts, or breasts scarcely covered by chiffon, scandalised the bourgeousie in the 1980s, while his perfume Opium was castigated for ‘glamorising drug use’.
St Laurent was a shy and retiring man whose psyche never gave him an easy time. Recognised as a great talent very young – by Christian Dior – he was head of a fashion house at 21 and had a nervous breakdown shortly after, following conscription into the army where he was mercilessly bullied for his homosexuality. On leaving the army he founded his own fashion house but he struggled with his shyness and his prodigious talent all his life, as well as alcohol and drug problems. He retired at the age of 66 in 2002 and I had the great pleasure of watching, on French television, that entire evening, which was devoted to a St Laurent retrospective, but it was perfectly clear even then that he was very ill and when he died he had been unwell for some time.
When I think of St Laurent, I think firstly of ‘le smoking’, and then of the famous Mondrian dresses of the 1960s, but his most beautiful collection, by his own admission, was the Russian collection of autumn/winter 1976. Never have such exquisite clothes been seen on a runway, and I doubt that they ever will be again.
The above image is taken from Yves Saint Laurent and Fashion Photography, which is available from [ASIN: US:3823899619]