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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Fashion Icon And Hero (Yves saint Laurent) Passes Away

"I found my style through women."

"I don't know if fashion is an art~but I know that fashion needs an artist. He was a libertarian, an anarchic, and he threw bombs at the legs of society. That's how he has empowered women."
~Pierre Bergé

The king of fashion is moving on. Like any garden in winter, the kingdom looks suddenly bare.
~William Norwich, on Yves's 2002 retirement

Heavy heart today. I literally have just heard about Monsieur Saint Laurent's passing through a friend's blog ten minutes ago. A legend through and through, whose style was incomparable and inimitable. His revolutionary and evergreen designs, which changed the way women dress the world over, will remain as timeless and seasonless for as long as there are women to clothe. I had a premonition of his death about a week ago. He seemed to speak to me. At the moment, I feel that a part of me had died as well. That is how his clothes, his iconic name, have meant to me. I think I can pin-point moments in all of my twenty-six years through each and every style of his unforgettable designs. Today, heaven's French chandelier of legendary artists and creators has finally been completed, aglow and divinely lit with a thousand lights~Racine, Molière,Voltaire, Flaubert, Proust, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, the divine Sarah, Mlle. Chanel, and now Yves.... More than any couturier, he believed, like his idol Proust, that suffering was the imperishable fruit of art.
Tributes all over the world have flowed through news sites and the morning shows earlier today like the most exquisite chiffon of Yves's creation....

Yves Saint Laurent, the Genius
By Lisa Armstrong of the Financial Times

When Anthony Burgess, interviewing Yves Saint Laurent for The New York Times in 1977, asked the designer how he saw women, his response was “as dolls”. Or that's what Burgess thought he'd heard. What Saint Laurent actually said, in his halting franglais, was “as idols”. Two small letters, one giant leap for womankind.
Of course the designer had said idols. This was the man who'd given women shoulder pads, safari suits, trouser-suits (Marlene Dietrich wore them in the Thirties, but cobbled together from men's tailoring; Saint Laurent recalibrated them for women and made them S.E.X.Y.), beatnik polonecks and more trousers (this in 1960 when most of them were still trussed up in full skirts and the fag-end of Dior's by then not-so-New Look), exaggerated cone bras (years before Jean Paul Gaultier pulled the same trick with Madonna), dresses that looked as though they had been ripped from the canvasses of Mondrian and Picasso, thereby demonstrating how a humble mini-shift could literally be a work of art - and transparent clothes.
All this sprang from his mind at the point when women were beginning to stride into the workplace into serious jobs, ditch the constricting girdles of their mothers and explore the free love that came with the Pill. When they wanted to tune in and drop out for a while, he gave them hippy de luxe. In fashion, timing is second only to talent.
Of course, from today's jaded perspective, surrounded by the flotsam of a thousand scantily dressed Z-list starlets, a see-through dress might not look like progress, but at the time - and what a time, it was 1968 - it was revolutionary, liberating, shocking. Look no bra! Look, lots of black women on the catwalk! (More than today probably.) Look, luxurious, functional clothes that, when required, seem the definition of bourgeois and prim but have a delicious, subversive kick (see the timeless wardrobe he conjured up for Catherine Deneuve's high-class hooker in Belle de Jour). Incidentally, Deneuve wanted him to shorten the hems in keeping with the current lengths, but he insisted, in a flash of self-presumption, on keeping them just above the knee, so that they would be timeless. Good call - and what self-belief.
In fact, for a man who manifested every outward sign of being chronically insecure (his lover, business partner and Svengali-esque mentor, Pierre Bergé, famously said that Saint Laurent had been born with a nervous breakdown), he had an unerring sense of his own genius. Not content with turning the elements and subtext of female fashion on their head, he spearheaded a revolution in the way women had access to fashion.
Broadly speaking, before Saint Laurent set up his own house in 1962 (having being chief designer at Dior from the precocious age of 21), high fashion was available only to a tiny minority of wealthy women who had the time and means to fly to Paris for individual fittings of bespoke clothes that could take weeks to make. Saint Laurent boldly turned his back on this moribund system, pronouncing haute couture dead, and staked his reputation on the emerging trend for ready-to-wear fashion - still high-end, but far more democratic and more widely available than couture had ever been.
There are other riddles. For someone pathologically shy, he had a homing instinct for scandal - posing naked in his own advertising campaigns and naming a perfume Opium in the 1970s, despite having cultivated an array of calamitous addictions from which others might have preferred to divert attention. For a heady time in the Seventies, when Paris seemed to be the cultural centre of the world, he was at the centre of Paris, hanging out with artists (Warhol), dancers (Nureyev) actresses (Deneuve), socialites and writers (Thadée Klossowski). No wonder Bianca Jagger chose a white YSL tuxedo jacket when she married Mick in St Tropez in 1971, thereby anointing YSL as the high priest of all that was groovy, modern, glamorous and yet classily, classically timeless. Clever girl. The marriage may not have lasted, but the pictures look terrific - still.
While we're on the subject of contradictions, let's not forget that this notoriously fragile figure notched up three score years and eleven, although he stumbled from a beautiful youth straight to old age, missing out middle age.
Perhaps longevity was the cruellest paradox: trapped in a gilded world of ever diminishing returns, he spent more than 20 years cannibalising his own work, producing collections that became pale ghosts of their previous glory. Like politicians, many designers' careers end in failure and although the standing ovations continued, they stemmed from respect for his past achievements - and relief that he was still alive.
Knowing when to retire wasn't Saint Laurent's forte. But his legacy more than makes amends.

YSL's Legacy and Hillary Clinton
By Lynn Yaeger of Village Voice

Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71, was famous for many innovations: putting women in pea jackets, printing Mondrian’s color blocks on 1960’s mod shifts, convincing women that they should tart themselves up in the lavish patterns of the Russian peasantry. But unquestionably the biggest contribution he made, in fact his entirely legacy, rests on one five letter word: pants.
It was St Laurent who, early and often, argued that the women of the late 20th century needed a new silhouette for her new life outside the home—not the fruity little suits of the 1950s with their attendant hats and gloves and their reliance on a network of excruciating girdles and bullet bras, but the casual elegance of trousers that could take the long strides into the boardroom. He even offered an evening version, “le smoking,” a female take on the tuxedo not seen since it was embraced by Sapphic flappers in the 1920s.
If the image of Hilary Clinton, running from Puerto Rico to South Dakota in her endless stream of slacks and longish jackets has become so familiar that it is barely noticeable, she can thank Monsieur Saint Laurent. Whatever you think of the candidate, and her campaign, she has driven the final nail in the sartorial coffin of feminine dress and for that all of us can be extremely grateful.

Yves Saint Laurent, the designer who redefined women's wear
By Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune

"The greatest couturier in the world," claimed Le Figaro in a banner headline, citing Saint Laurent's contrasting characteristics of "rebellion and tradition, liberty and rigor" and, above all, "creativity."
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had added an extra order of merit to Saint Laurent's Legion d'Honneur in December 2007, endorsed the idea that the designer was a national treasure. (Even if that same designer had once been vilified for embracing a fashion vision of the Vietnam War, for showing breasts through transparent clothing and for introducing a perfume called Opium.)
"He was the first to elevate haute couture to the rank of art - and that gave him global influence," Sarkozy said.
From the YSL stable came clothes that we now accept as women's wear classics: the pantsuit, the peacoat, the blazer, the safari jacket and the tuxedo - as well as evening clothes that were as soft and gentle as the tailoring was sharp and linear.
But the real importance of Saint Laurent - and the reason why his death has sent a frisson through even those who knew only the respectable and respectful later years - is that the designer not only broke the mold. He also remade it.
The shape and texture of high fashion today owes as much to Saint Laurent as do those women who were given the unisex freedom of a pantsuit - from Bianca Jagger in her wedding attire, through Catherine Deneuve in her "le smoking" tuxedo to Hillary Clinton in a female politician's uniform.
It was indeed YSL who equated fashion with art, not just by coloring in the 1960s with Piet Mondrian's graphic squares or embroidering Van Gogh paintings on a jacket, but by himself collecting fine art, with Bergé, and by having the first museum show of a living fashion creator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983. Every designer who now stages a retrospective display can trace the concept back to YSL.
In almost any respect the Saint Laurent trajectory from half a century ago was the template for new generations of designers. He was ridiculously young - at 21 - to be entrusted with the house of Christian Dior, after its founder died in 1957. Yet he invented what is now the norm: youth and cool. YSL celebrated that both on the runway with an alligator biker jacket, inspired by Marlon Brando, and in his young life with a louche group of friends. Among the other 20th-century icons, Coco Chanel had been at pains to hide her humble origins and rackety early years, and Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior reveled in their role as stately couturiers.
The Bergé/Saint Laurent partnership, openly, but never vulgarly, homosexual, became the pattern for other houses, even if Bergé would say waspishly to any young designer sighing for a mentor: "First, you need to be Yves Saint Laurent."
When they opened the Rive Gauche boutique, named for the then-anarchic Left Bank of Paris, Bergé and YSL started another fashion revolution. It was the birth of luxury ready-to-wear as a democratization of haute couture. And every plate glass designer "flagship" across the globe today is rooted in that original 1966 concept.
Other early steps were noble and visionary: the first black model on the runway; the elevation of folklore as an inspiration with the Ballets Russes collection; and of ethnic craftsmanship such as African beading transformed with couture skills.
Saint Laurent's imaginative shows could also be said to have triggered the runway madness that has led to parades of unwearable show-stoppers. Yet he always favored what he called "the silence of clothing" and bowed out in 2002 with these words: "I have nothing in common with this new world of fashion, which has been reduced to mere window-dressing. Elegance and beauty have been banished." As Sarkozy himself put it: "Yves Saint Laurent infused his label with his creative genius, elegant and refined personality ... because he was convinced that beauty was a necessary luxury for all men and women."

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