Yves Saint Laurent: A Reluctant Icon

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Yves Saint Laurent was best known as an influential European fashion designer who impacted fashion in the 1960s to the present day.

Submitted: May 26, 2014

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Submitted: May 26, 2014



Yves Saint Laurent: 
A Reluctant Icon

Yves Saint Laurent was best known as an influential European fashion designer who impacted fashion in the 1960s to the present day.

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, known as Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), was a French fashion designer, and is regarded as one of the greatest names in fashion history. He was born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria to comfortably well off pareents. His father Charles was a Lawyer and owned a chain of cinemas, his mother loved to entertain and doted on her son. Despite an idylic homelife, YSL was  a nervous child, sensitive and neurotic, this instability was fuelled by cruel teasing by his classmates at school. YSL himself maintains that this was because of his homosexuality, his classmates could see ''I was not similar...they hit me or locked me in the toilets...during the break, I would arrange to stay alone in the classroom'' (Frankel, 2001:207). 

YSL found solace in fashion and liked to create intricate paper dolls and by his early teen years he was designing dresses for his mother and sisters.  In 1954, as a teen aged 17, he won a prize in a competion for designing a black cocktail dress, then the editor of French Vogue magazine introduced him to the designer Christian Dior, for whom YSL promptly left for Paris and went to work at the height of hs fame. Christian Dior had complete confidence in YSL, leaving a lot of the designing to him. However, in 1957, Dior died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving YSL, aged just 21 presiding over France's most high profile fashion house where he launched a spring collection for the fashion house and gained critical acclaim for his dresses as the head of the House of Dior. He was then and indeed still remains the youngest ever courturier.

In 1960 YSL was called back to his home country of Algeria to fight for its independence. Howeer, he managed to secure an exemption based on health grounds, where he suffered a nervous breakdown, Pierre Berge, his long term lover, visited him in hospital every day. This became the most romantic, personal an creative partnership in fashion history. In 1961, YSL and Berge, now living together, sued Dior for breach of contract when the fashion house failed to reinstate the designer after his illness. With proceeds from a successful win, in 1962, YSL set up his own fashion house which was run by a skeleton staff poached from Dior. With Berge by his side supporting him both emotionally and professionally all the way. The Rive Gauche boutiques for women were established in 1966 and YSL launched his own label, men's wear followed in the 1970s. He was the first designer to use ethnic minorities as models on the runway and was also known during this period as one of 'Paris' jet-set' due to always being seen in French and US night clubs. He was a heavy drinker and frequent user of cocaine during the 1960s and 1970s. 

YSL went on to become one of the worlds most famous fashion designers - his Parisian style far reaching his own country. Over the next two decades, Saint Laurent's designs sat atop the fashion world. Models and actresses gushed over his creations. He outfitted women in blazers and smoking jackets, and introduced attire like the pea coat to the runway. His signature pieces also included the sheer blouse and the jumpsuit.YSL is perhaps most famous for "Le Smoking" tuxedo jacket, see-through blouses, peasant blouses, bolero jackets, pantsuits and smocks. By feminising the basic shapes of the male wardrobe, YSL set new standards for world fashion. He not only adapted the male tuxedo for women, but also safari jackets, pea jackets and flying suits.

YSL put designer, ready to wear clothing on the  map in response to a pioneering youth culture and a democratic spirit. Beforehand, YSL fashion was all about haute courture - hand stitched, high priced outfits - designed by the great courturiours and available to only the privaleged few.

By the 1980s, Yves Saint Laurent was a true icon. He became the first designer to have a retrospective on his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Under the direction of Berge, who continued to manage YSLs firm even though the two had broken up in 1986, the fashion house flourished as a money making venture, but YSL struggled. He became reclusive, and fought addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Some in the fashion world complained that the designer's work had grown stale.
In the early 1990s, YSL found firmer footing. His designs were rediscovered by a fashion elite that had grown tired of the grunge movement that dominated the runways. YSL too, seemed to have conquered his demons. By the end of the decade, he had slowed down his work pace with both he and Berge selling the company they had started. In 1993, the Saint Laurent fashion house was sold to the pharmaceuticals company, Sanofi, for approximately $600,000,000 netting the two men a fortune. After a brief stint with Alber Elbaz as designer, in 1999 Tom Ford arrived to take control at the house. The brand entered the stratosphere where it remains today, covering perfume and menswear as well as womenswear.

In January 2002, YSL participated in his final show and then retired for good in Marrakech. The Designer died in Paris on June 1, 2008 from brain cancer. Despite all of YSL's achievements,he was a true icon and still remains an enigma garnering a sense of protectiveness. He has enduring resonance, yet was painfully shy, prefering to live a rather reclusive life, rarely, putting himself in the spotlight. YSL is recognised for making a huge contribution to fashion, it's endurance and influence still being evident in contemporary fashions today. Yves Saint Laurent's legacy as a king of fashion designers, who created a masterpiece of a brand, just keeps growing.



Frankel, S. (2001) Visionaries. London: V&A Publications
http://www.thebiographychannel.co.uk/biographies/yves-saint-laurent.html Accessed May 2014
http://www.biography.com/people/yves-saint-laurent-9469669#awesm=~oDnKeY5fF3fYd1 Accessed May 
www.vogue.co.uk/spy/biographies/yves-saint-laurent-biography Accessed May 2014
http://www.biography.com/people/yves-saint-laurent-9469669#awesm=~oEe8jdYyMYresk Accessed May 2014

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