Birthplace: Oran, Algeria
Awards: Third Prize, International Wool Secretariat, 1953 First Prize, International Wool Secretariat, 1954
International Fashion Award, Council of Fashion Designers of America,
Yves Saint Laurent: 25 Years of Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, 1985
Yves Saint Laurent began designing in the 1950s, an era when women were expected to conform to a traditional feminine ideal. As he continued to design, women's roles began to change as women fought for civil, reproductive, and workplace rights. His designs helped define the new image of the assertive, independent 1970s woman.
In 1936 Oran, Algeria, was an exotic country populated by French and Arabs. Yves Saint Laurent was born to a French bourgeois family who resided in this North African city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. His upbringing in Oran and his frequent childhood visits to Paris had a lifelong impact on his interests, inspirations, and designs. Fascinated by art and the theater, young Saint Laurent entertained himself by drawing theater costumes and set designs.
Saint Laurent's design talent was formally recognized in 1953 when he
Yves Saint Laurent: Yves Saint Laurent introduced the androgynous trouser suit ensemble for women in 1966. The trouser suit became the symbol for equality for the new assertive, independent woman of the 1970s.
won third prize in the International Wool Secretariat competition. A year later, the seventeen-year-old Saint Laurent won first prize in three out of four categories in the competition. Shortly after receiving the prize, he met with the editor of Paris Vogue, Michel de Brunhoff, who encouraged him to attend the Ecole Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. While attending the school he created a portfolio which further impressed de Brunhoff, prompting the editor to introduce him to Christian Dior.
Like de Brunhoff, Dior immediately recognized Saint Laurent's potential and hired the young man as his first and only design assistant. Dior incorporated many of Saint Laurent's design ideas into his collections, including a long, narrow evening dress with an asymmetric swag of material. This dress was immortalized in a Richard Avedon photograph of Suzy Parker, who posed between two elephants while wearing the striking dress. When Dior succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1957, Saint Laurent was named the chief designer of Dior's couture house.
Following Dior's tradition of dictating a new silhouette each season, Saint Laurent's first collection was the well-received "Trapeze" line, which introduced a trapezoidal silhouette. The House of Dior built its reputation by catering to wealthy, middle-aged woman. In 1960 Saint Laurent, who was attracted by the emerging youth movement, began designing couture interpretations of street clothes instead of designing for Dior's loyal clientele.
His spring/summer 1960 collection, the "Beat Look," featured an outrageous black crocodile skin jacket with mink trim and a black mink "crash helmet." Dior's customers, who were accustomed to traditional feminine designs, were appalled by this new collection. Shortly thereafter, Saint Laurent began his compulsory military service, which resulted in his first nervous breakdown in a long history of depression. Upon his return from service, he found that Marc Bohan had replaced him as head designer at Dior.
The following year, Saint Laurent won a legal suit against the House of Dior for unfair dismissal. During that same year, Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge became business partners and secured funding from an American businessman, J. Mack Robinson, to open Saint Laurent's own house. Cas-sandre designed his intertwined YSL logo in 1961. His first couture collection, unveiled in 1962, received mixed reviews from critics.
Despite this uncertain start, the 1960s proved to be Saint Laurent's decade of successful innovation. Using the geometric paintings of Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian as inspiration, he created the critically acclaimed "Modrian" dresses in 1965. Acclaim turned to controversy in 1966 when he debuted his "Pop Art" collection inspired by the work of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, and Roy Lichtenstein. Since then, museums and fashion historians have recognized these dresses as masterful reflections of modern art's permeation into all aspects of 1960s society.
During the 1960s, Western society renewed its fascination and appreciation of ethnicity, especially the exotic and diverse cultures of Africa. Saint Laurent helped fuel this interest of ethnicity with his 1967 collection inspired by African art. His slinky dresses in brown African-print fabrics embellished by strands of wood and glass beads complemented the rail-thin figure of popular model Twiggy. The following year he introduced his safari jacket, a signature style he reinvented numerous times. His 1982 version featured a longer peplum and heavier gabardine.
The trouser suit proved to be Saint Laurent's most influential and lasting statement of the 1960s. Although women had worn trousers since the 1920s, it was not until Saint Laurent introduced the trouser suit in 1966 that they became acceptable for women to wear on the street or in the office. During the mid-1960s feminism emanated from academic circles to emerge as a popular movement. Women were establishing careers, fighting for contraception, and seeking to improve their legal rights, and the trouser suit symbolized their goal of equality.
Widespread acceptance of the trouser suit was not immediate. Women who wore the new fashion trend were sometimes banned from restaurants. Despite early opposition to the trouser suit, however, it became an integral part of a woman's wardrobe during the 1970s, and Saint Laurent crafted hundreds of different variations including the famous smokings, his women's tuxedos.
Another of Saint Laurent's notable designs, the transparent look, originated during the dynamic 1960s. He debuted this see-through look in 1966 with a sheer organza dress which revealed the breasts. Continuing this theme through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he translated the look into blouses for pinstripe suits, sequined shifts, and lace tank tops. The transparent look shocked people in the 1960s but became acceptably sensuous in the more sexually liberated 1970s.
In keeping with Saint Laurent's attraction to the youth movement, he opened the first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris in 1966. Aimed at younger women, the boutique stocked a full range of ready-to-wear clothes and accessories at lower prices than the couture line. The store was an immediate financial success. In 1969 he opened a Rive Gauche store in London and introduced a Rive Gauche men's line. Eventually, Rive Gauche expanded to 160 branches worldwide.
In addition to fashion design, Saint Laurent pursued theater design during the 1960s. He designed sets and costumes for numerous plays and ballets. When he designed Catherine Deneuve's wardrobe for Belle de Jour in 1965, he initiated a lifelong friendship with the actress.
The 1970s marked a transition for Yves Saint Laurent, the company. Charles of the Ritz, a subsidiary of Squibb, had purchased J. Mack Robinson's interest in the company in 1965. In 1972 Saint Laurent and Pierre
Berge purchased the fashion house from Squibb for $1.1 million. For the remainder of the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Saint Laurent and Berge retained almost absolute control over the business.
Realizing the importance of his growing ready-to-wear business, Saint Laurent announced in 1971 that he would stop showing haute couture to concentrate on pret-a-porter. That same year he introduced Rive Gauche perfume. His hiatus from haute couture was relatively brief, as he quickly discovered that the haute couture collections fueled the demand for ready-to-wear clothing. For much of the decade, Saint Laurent designed collections that emphasized classic styles and reinvented versions of his standard pieces: the smoking, the trouser suit, the tunic, and the safari jacket.
Eau Libre, Saint Laurent's genderless scent, was introduced in the midst of the lean, simple styles and the sexual ambiguity of the mid-1970s. Intended to appeal to both sexes, the cool, crisp scent seemed appropriately timed during this period of heightened gay rights and popular androgynous glam rock stars. Its advertising featured an image of one black and one white hand clutching a bottle of Eau Libre. The image strongly resembles the popular and successful Benetton ads of the 1980s, but the imagery was too provocative for the 1970s; some publications refused to carry the advertisement. Eventually Eau Libre's poor sales forced it off the market. Judging by the popularity of cK One during the 1990s, Eau Libre was ahead of its time.
The luxurious "Ballet Russes" collection of 1976 was a dramatic departure from Saint Laurent's other designs of the 1970s. The extravagance of this collection was in tune with the decadence of the emerging disco scene. Sweeping skirts, heavily embroidered fabrics, and fur trim epitomized this highly praised collection. Shortly thereafter, ethnic fashions at every price point proliferated on the fashion scene.
Saint Laurent himself capitalized on the success of the Ballet Russes collection by launching the perfume Opium in 1977, which immediately achieved high sales. His 1977 Chinese collection had qualities that were similar to the Ballet Russes collection, but it did not achieve equal acclaim. In 1978 he introduced a cosmetics line, and the dramatic No. 19 purple lipstick became the line's most popular product.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Saint Laurent's stylish suits became a central theme in his collections. Also, he introduced the exquisitely embroidered "Sunflowers" and "Irises" jackets in 1988. During these two decades, Saint Laurent spent less and less time designing. Embroiled in financing issues, the company went public in 1989.
Elf-Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company, purchased YSL in 1993. Upon introducing YSL's new fragrance, Champagne, the company embarked upon a two-year legal battle with the champagne industry, resulting in YSL's loss of the use of the name in 1995. In 1994 Saint Laurent became the first designer to present his haute couture collection on the Internet, and he designed all of the stadium and formal dress worn by officials and organizing committee members of the 1998 World Cup of Soccer.
Capitalizing on his early successes, Saint Laurent licensed his name to lines of men's ties and women's stockings in the early 1960s. During the 1970s, Saint Laurent and Berge signed over 190 licensing deals to produce 130 products, including sunglasses, scarves, belts, shirts, handbags, and even cigarettes. Although the company had exploited the full financial potential of its name, it failed to maintain rigorous control over the licensees. The reputation of the company eroded during the 1980s as lax licensees inundated the market with poor-quality products bearing the Yves Saint Laurent name.
The licenses that had made Saint Laurent a household name were destroying the exclusivity of the name. Berge countered the decay of the brand image in 1992 by becoming more involved in the designing and marketing of licensed products and imposing stricter control over licensees. In the 1990s, the licensing business experienced a boom owing to the sudden popularity of YSL men's sportswear among British soccer fans.
Saint Laurent's influences on fashion are numerous. He was one of the first designers to employ the trickle-up theory of fashion by creating couture versions of street clothes. His interest in African and Eastern ethnic motifs in fashion was immediately copied by other designers. Finally, his trouser suit became the uniform of the new assertive, liberated woman of the 1970s and 1980s. See also: Christian Dior.
Connikie, Yvonne. Fashions of the Decade: The 1960s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart,
Tabori and Chang, 1985. Rawsthorn, Alice. Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
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