Illustration by Ben Beechener, photographs by Sophie Benbelaid
The 29th of January 2022 marked 60 years to the day since a talented and ambitious twenty-six year old designer launched his first fashion line under his own name to great critical and public acclaim. Naturally, the date also marked the opening day of the exhibition to commemorate the work and legacy which he left behind.
Even while waiting to enter, the façade of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in the 16th arrondissement of Paris sets the tone for the exhibition that awaits within. The uppermost part is an elegant dark green, with the fashion house’s logo emblazoned in gold, and it perfectly reflects the image and the reputation of YSL: sleek, stylish, effortless, and striking. The all-female staff are clad in matching, tailored charcoal grey pantsuits, a subtle homage perhaps to Saint Laurent’s own innovative leaps in his designs of pantsuits for women. The marble steps are no less awe-inspiring, the crystal chandeliers and mirrored entry room also, but upon entering the first room of the exhibition all the superficial grandeur fades and the real magic commences.
You walk into a small hallway that leads nowhere, and it’s covered floor to ceiling with original YSL sketches from the 40 years that Saint Laurent was active. Amongst the crowd of hundreds of beautiful pencil sketches, statement pieces stand out: the pea jacket, the trench coat, Le smoking. Each mannequin is as individual and memorable as the designs she’s wearing – each in a different angle that simultaneously conveys the vivacity and the movement of her clothing as well as glorifying the geometry and power of the female form. Even from a distance, certain staples of Saint Laurent’s reappear: a strong, bold line at the shoulder of each jacket, the accentuation of the waist, the framing of the torso and the bust.
Out from the sea of grey pencil leap out a few sketches penned in colour with material samples to match. They mark Yves Saint Laurent’s collections from the 1970s where he drew inspiration from different colours, textures, and patterns from around the world. Some come from his reality: his childhood in Oran, and later his fortnight-long sojourns in his villa in Marrakech where he went to design his upcoming collections – both are present within his designs. You can almost hear the lively commotion of the bazaars and smell the couscous tagines in the saffron yellows and deep green of one of his designs.
I must confess that I was overjoyed to recognise influences from Berber and Maghrebi national dress in the shaping of a jacket’s collar and the embroidery on the cuffs. One particular design had the colours and intricacies of a dress I have at home compacted into an elegant shoulder-padded jacket and pencil skirt.
But Saint Laurent’s colourful sketches borrow from travels in his imagination too: from Russia with the billowing red and green skirts of his Opéra-Ballets-Russes collection, to the far east with the stiff fabric of a jacket that remains, nonetheless, recognisably YSL… Beyond to the worlds of literature and art. Despite not catching sight of the sketch of the infamous Mondrian dress (a design that combines the fashion of the 1960s with its straight, knee-length cut and one of Mondrian’s most famous canvases with squares of primary colours defined by thick black lines), you can see the exquisitely hand-sequined and embroidered Sunflower Jacket in the final hall: an incarnation of Van Gogh’s celebrated painting in clothing form.
The following room focuses on the designer’s dedication to shoes and hats, where fifty hat moulds, some made of fabric and others crafted from wood, sit on white podiums of different heights. The framed sketches of the shoes include some with heels as ionic columns and some with a zip that traces a curve down the upper arch of the foot. Such designs are unmistakably innovative, but they never lack style or elegance. Each sketched shoe is incontestably fashionable, yet none of them forget their function to enhance the curvature of the arch, to appreciate the line of the leg and seamlessly add a touch of flair to the foot. Yves Saint Laurent valued the role of the shoe and the hat equally given that together they frame not only the main design in the middle, but also the body of the model wearing them.
Saint Laurent’s very own perfectly preserved office and atelier were however probably the highlight of the exhibition. Shelves of art books indicate the profound knowledge and respectful inspiration he drew from the different periods, the display of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time a tasteful dedication to the work that he cherished the most and that, in turn, influenced some of his dreamier and more nostalgic collections. A Pop Art poster specially made by Andy Warhol of Saint Laurent’s dog, Moujik, as muse evinced a poorly suppressed giggle. Although in all seriousness, this French bulldog is no less chic or poised than the designs his owner created. The atelier was complemented by two videos playing on a mirrored wall, and I watched in awe at this old footage as Yves Saint Laurent deftly and assuredly put pencil to paper and brought his sketches to life.
Never have I seen anyone draw with such ease, knowledge, and embracing of the unknown. First the profile of a woman emerges from the blank page, then the shoulders, and suddenly the finished product: the artist said he never planned his designs in advance. The vivacity of his work continues as you walk out of the museum two storeys below, escorted by hundreds of polaroids of models in his atelier, wearing his clothes and striking various poses. If there’s one thing that this exhibition really brought to light for me, it’s the extent of Yves Saint Laurent’s genius. Talent is a given, but he had this uncapturable spark that he harnessed to observe the world and women in just the right way.
Saint Laurent’s clothes are the perfect example of a collision of two worlds: his imagination (including inspiration from artworks, literature, foreign cultures), and reality for a modern-day woman in the late 20th century. Saint Laurent once declared that Chanel freed women, but he empowered them. I don’t believe he was only talking about his designs. The silhouette of his jackets, for example, took the traditionally masculine cut of the suit and harnessed the feminine by emphasising the shoulders and accentuating the waist. He drew out the essence of the female figure and unleashed the power of the feminine.
Yes, in the opening of his rive gauche boutique that was later franchised and taken global, he brought YSL style and elegance to the masses so that it was available to all, so that every woman could unleash her own power at a more affordable price. Yes, as a couturier that celebrated all cultures and gave them a platform, hiring models of Asian and African origin for his catwalks was not only pioneering but empowering for even more women and promoting of both racial and gender equality.
Each of his designs is creative, but remains functional. That’s where I think the real female empowerment lies. He himself once said: ‘Fashions come and go, but style is eternal. Fashion is superficial, whereas style is not.’ This exhibition proved that not only did Saint Laurent, the designer, always find the perfect balance of both style and fashion, but that the curators of this museum are no less formidable in their achievement of this stylish commemoration.