The occasion calls for couture tears, but I’m a splotchy-faced snot bubble of contorted emotion. Yves Saint Laurent, French fashion prodigy and one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, has passed away. He died of brain cancer at the age of seventy-one. Mr. Saint Laurent does not need my ugly uncontrolled emotion—he’ll be seen off in an elegant sea of chic sniffling silhouettes no doubt—but still I cry. Here’s why I cry:
1. He never finished that dress for me.—He never even started.
2. He had balls.—I know this because he posed nude—wearing only his thick black rimmed glasses—for the advertising campaign for the first YSL men’s fragrance, Pour Homme. This campaign caused great controversy, but YSL questioned why it was more acceptable for a woman to pose nude for an advertisement than a man.
3. He took his balls out of his handbag.—In 1994, Saint Laurent sued U.S. designer Ralph Lauren for copying a tuxedo dress from his 1992–1993 couture collection. A French court found Ralph Lauren guilty of imitating the dress and fined the U.S. designer 2.2 million francs.
4. His father was an insurance man.—My friend’s husband is an insurance man. YSL arrived (with his sketches) in Paris at the age of seventeen—I arrived (looking sketchy) in Paris at the age of seventeen. Sigh, we had so much in common.
5. I get respect in pants.—In the 1960s and 1970s, when women were joining the workforce in millions for the first time, Saint Laurent designed more gender-neutral looks based on pants and jackets. YSL challenged what women were “expected” to wear (blouses and skirts), and dressed women to challenge other socially accepted norms.
6. He was Dior’s head designer at twenty-one.—When Dior died of a stroke in 1957, the then-unknown twenty-one-year-old Saint Laurent was appointed head designer. His first collection for Dior, known as the Trapeze collection, won rave reviews. I cry for that brave young man’s success (and because I feel like a slacker).
7. We had similar taste.—The first dress Saint Laurent designed for Dior was a black silk velvet column tied with a white satin bow called “Soiree de Paris.” The first dress I designed for myself was a black sequin and net contraption called “Soiree de Prom.” I cry for the photographic evidence still circulating in my family.
8. He said,—“I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.” I wish I’d said that.
9. He also said,—“To be beautiful, all a woman needs is a black pullover and a black skirt and to be arm in arm with a man she loves.” Bless his soul.
10. He made us look and smell good.—Saint Laurent gave us the tuxedo jacket, the pants suit, the safari jacket, and the pea coat. He gave us peasant blouses, see-through blouses, bolero jackets, trapeze dresses, and smocks. He gave us Opium and Champagne. He influenced a generation of designers and made me wish I were French.
11. He had his ups and downs.—Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s business partner and friend, often said that Saint Laurent was “born with a nervous breakdown.” The designer battled depression, ill health, and drugs on and off throughout his life. I’m just sad that his life was not always as colorful, as sexy, and as beautiful as his art.
12. He saved France.—The house of Dior was responsible for almost 50 percent of French fashion exports in the late 1950s, so Saint Laurent’s success at Dior was deemed crucial for the French economy. After his first collection, headlines proclaimed that Saint Laurent had “saved” France.
13. He inspired confidence.—New York socialite Nan Kempner created a scandal when she tried to wear her Le Smoking tuxedo—perhaps Saint Laurent’s most famous, and at the time, most provocative design—to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant in 1968. When the maitre d’ told Kempner that she couldn’t dine in a pair of trousers, she promptly dropped the pants and dined in the jacket, which looked like a very short dress. There are many more stories like this.
14. He shook things up.—Not only did YSL challenge social norms by creating gender-neutral clothing for women and modeling nude himself, he was also the first major designer to use models from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds.
15. He is survived by his mother.—She may be the best dressed mother in the world, but while the world mourns the loss of a legendary fashion icon, she mourns her little boy. C’mon, that’s sad.
Yves Saint Laurent may have passed on to the runway in the sky, but his timeless classic looks—especially those created in the 60s—will continue to inspire and be reflected on for a long time to come. I hope up-and-coming designers today will not only be inspired by his designs, but by his actions and by his words. I’d particularly like to call their attention to the words of Yves Saint Laurent upon his retirement from the fashion world at age sixty-five: “Fashion isn’t just to decorate women, but to reassure them, give them confidence.”
Photo source: DGegant on flickr (cc)