DENVER—Baseball fans may be heading to Arizona to catch a few preseason games. Wine enthusiasts might be looking to visit California. Families could be on their way to Disney World. But those with a passion for fashion? They’re booking flights to Denver this spring break.
The Mile-High City is the one and only stop in North America for the highly anticipated Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, an exhibition to be presented at the Denver Art Museum March 25 to July 8, in collaboration with the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent.
Canvassing more than 40 years of work from the celebrated designer, who died at age 71 in 2008, the show features garments, photos, drawings and films painting a picture of fashion as art.
MORE was at a preview of the exhibition, attended by Laurent’s business partner and companion Pierre Bergé and curator Florence Müller, to see works spanning the period from 1958, when Laurent was the very young head of the House of Dior, to 2002, the year of his final runway collection, represented here by stunning evening gowns.
The show includes a peek at the artist’s studio, a section chronicling Laurent’s breaking of gender traditions by putting women in trousers and pantsuits, incredible pieces designed for some of the world’s most stylish women (think Grace Kelly, Nan Kempner, Paloma Picasso, Lauren Bacall and Diana Vreeland), as well as a look at his long friendship with actress Catherine Deneuve.
The retrospective examines Laurent’s love of art, presenting his dresses inspired by the likes of Piet Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. There are tiers of ball gowns from throughout his career, each creation more beautiful than the last. But the real showstopper is the display of 40 iconic YSL tuxedos for women.
“Two questions I’ve been asked quite a bit in the last month: Why Denver? And: Is fashion art?” Denver Art Museum Director Christopher Heinrich says. “We built this building, the Hamilton Building by Daniel Libeskind [a 2006 addition], to host shows like this, to host world-class shows of world-class art. And certainly the retrospective Yves Saint Laurent is one of these.”
Bergé offers a simpler answer to the first question.
“Why not Denver? Denver is not a city in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “People from Denver like art, love art. In your country, art is not reserved for a happy few in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.”
As to the question of whether fashion is in fact art, Heinrich says, “Art is what a great artist does, so obviously this is art and that’s why we celebrate it.”
Bergé’s take is slightly different.
“I think fashion is not an art, but I’m convinced fashion needs an artist to exist, and Laurent was an artist,” he says. “Remember, all of the outfits were created by a man who was a great artist, who was inspired by many, many artists.”
Müller says that 200 silhouettes were chosen for the retrospective from 5,000 complete outfits in the YSL archives, and that putting together the exhibition was “an adventure.”
“It’s the most important retrospective ever done on Yves Saint Laurent,” she says. “[These are] original outfits that were shown on the podium through 40 years of fashion.”
During a guided tour of the show, Müller paused to point out a particularly famous YSL cocktail dress from 1965, a tribute to Mondrian.
“It’s a big moment in the story of fashion, because it’s the first time you have such a [successful] encounter [between] the world of art and the world of fashion,” she says, adding that Laurent took the idea of a painting and translated it to a dress using a patchwork-like technique. “It’s very difficult to make something with the idea of being flat, with the shape of the body under it. It looks simple, but it is not.”
She says the dress, along with a 1966 wool jersey number with a face pattern inspired by American artist Tom Wesselmann, belong to the Pop Art movement.
“Warhol took things from the supermarket and put them in museums, and Yves Saint Laurent did the same thing, from art to fashion,” Müller says.
Heinrich says he likes the idea of looking at a designer the way one might look at an artist.
“Like a true artist, [Laurent] always had his handwriting, he always had his signature, his particular style,” says the museum director. “But like a true artist, he got inspiration from everywhere. He did these mental journeys to Russia, to China, to Africa and to all over the world and got inspired by tribal art, by the dresses, by certain costumes of these countries, and never actually was a big traveler. So these were really things that happened in his head, part of his imagination, and that were so interesting because they are reflected in the style and each and every model is 100 percent him.”
And especially in the contemporary setting of the Denver Art Museum, the YSL styles appear very modern and very wearable, Heinrich adds, saying every piece in the exhibit could be worn today “and nobody would see that it’s 40 years old.”
“Yves Saint Laurent shaped, absolutely, what you ladies are wearing today,” he says. “A great designer is reacting to his time and shaping his time, both.”