*”Les modes passent, le style demeure.“
The proof of these words from the legendary Yves Saint Laurent were put on exhibition in a retrospective of his 40-year career in haute couture as the creator of the “Rive Gauche” collection, on show in Paris until August 29, 2010. As you walk through the Petit Palais museum turned into a series of gigantic dressing rooms, you could pick out any dress or gown and wear it to tonight’s evening party or red-carpet event without looking dowdy or dated. Such is the meaning of timeless design.
“Many young women think of Yves Saint Laurent as a brand, but they know nothing about him,” says Farid Chenoune, one of the curators of the first major retrospective in 27 years devoted to the fashion genius who died in 2008.
On show were over 300 pieces which included dresses, evening gowns, trouser suits, tuxedos, as well as themed outfits dedicated to Russia, China, India, and Africa.
It can be justly said that YSL loved women, adored them. Starting out as creative director for the house of Dior in the late 1950s, YSL moved away from Dior’s signature cinched waist look to the “trapeze” dress, which did away with the underpinnings of corsetry and thereby freeing women’s bodies.
He went much further in 1960, borrowing from the beatnik youth culture for his Left Bank collection. It was the first time a biker’s blouson (jacket) had ever been seen on a catwalk, albeit in crocodile.
But YSL’s major revolution was the introduction of trouser suits which today’s women take for granted. One exhibit is a pants suit ordered from Saint Laurent in 1968 by the American socialite Nan Kempner. When the doorman at a New York restaurant wouldn’t let her in because the dress code barred women wearing trousers, she calmly took off the pants and went in just wearing the jacket as a mini dress.
By the time YSL opened his own house in 1962, he had already devised a blueprint for a modern woman’s wardrobe built around the trouser suit, the safari jacket, and the reefer jacket. The show devotes an entire room to these three essentials, showing how they evolved over the years.
“His concept was that women look more feminine in a male outfit. At the same time it gives them more power and a new sensuality,” said Chenoune. Saint Laurent was always concerned with designing functional clothes for working women, as in a photo of the actress Charlotte Rampling in a Prince of Wales check trouser suit with her hands thrust in her pockets. “It’s liberating. Pockets are a man’s handbag.”
Saint Laurent’s long-time muse, the actress Catherine Deneuve, has her own wardrobe on show, with a rail of dresses and rack of shoes, including her costumes from “Belle de Jour,” in which she played a bored married bourgeoise who takes on part-time work in a brothel. During his career, his muses included Betty Cattroux, Loulou de la Falaise, and the American Jerry Hall.
A room full of grand red carpet evening gowns and ball-dresses has an appropriately decadent backdrop from the ball scene in Visconti’s classic film “The Leopard”. Here you can see that Saint Laurent made dresses that were not only beautiful, but comfortable to wear, and he used the bias cut and draping techniques from Madeleine Vionnet throughout his designs.
There is a whole wall covered with variations of Saint Laurent’s signature tuxedo dresses and suits for women. “At some point, everything he did was also used in a tuxedo dress,” Chenoune says. Unfortunately, these dark suits were presented against a dark backdrop which didn’t give them the highlight and justice they deserved.
YSL also drew inspiration from painters including Mondrian, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. One dress was a hand-embroidered replica of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” which was like looking at the painting itself come to life.
Yves Saint Laurent more than loved women’s bodies, he respected their feet. All the shoes that accessorized the exhibits were exclusively by YSL. Unlike the torturous, ridiculous and vulgar Jimmy Choos and their emulators of today, YSL’s shoes — pumps, slingbacks, wedges, boots, and sandals with pointed, rounded, or square toes — served not only as props to his outfits, but had sensible heels and generous width to allow the women who wear them to walk, dance, or simply kick up their feet with joie de vivre.
Just for fun, after our visit to the exhibition, we took a little detour to Avenue Montaigne to look at the Chanel flagship boutique, where YSL’s archrival Karl Lagerfeld is the head designer. The clothes were indeed pretty, but easily forgettable like a clichéd spring bloom. The only impressive features that stood out were the labels “Chanel” and the price tags. Hence, YSL’s words “fashion goes out, but style remains” certainly ring true.
Rumor has it that there will be another retrospective in the works for YSL’s ready to wear collection “Rive Gauche” next year. In the meantime, if you can’t make it to this one, you can order the beautiful book called “YSL“ to view and display on your coffee table.
Yves Saint Laurent Restrospective
March 11 – August 29, 2010
Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Avenue Winston Churchill
+33 1 53 43 40 00