By and  on January 7, 2002

PARIS -- The end of an epoch.

Yves Saint Laurent will today announce his retirement at a news conference in his fashion house at 5 Avenue Marceau, ending what has been the most influential, innovative and iconic fashion career of the last 50 years. In the last century, only Christian Dior, who Saint Laurent succeeded at Dior as a precocious 21 year old; Coco Chanel, who anointed him her spiritual successor, and Cristobal Balenciaga occupied the same plateau.

Saint Laurent's decision to retire was confirmed to WWD on Friday by his partner and business associate, Pierre Berge. Speculation that the 65-year-old designer planned to retire has been rampant in Paris over the last two months and was first reported in these columns on Dec. 11. The announcement will come two weeks before he shows his final couture collection at the Centre Georges Pompidou on Jan. 22. Called a "retrospective up to the present," the show will mark the 40th anniversary of the House of Saint Laurent, which the designer founded in a small two-room apartment at 66 Rue de la Boetie with Berge, who is 71.

The decision was not an easy one.

"Yves is very sad about it," Berge said Friday. "But he feels the times have changed so much and that the couture is no longer viable in the times we live in. People don't appreciate it."

The last few years have been difficult ones for both Berge and Saint Laurent as they have loudly made known their displeasure about the couture house being funded by Francois Pinault's Artemis Group. Saint Laurent and Berge reaped about $70 million after Pinault sold YSL Beaute to Gucci in 1999, and they signed a contract that stipulated Artemis fund YSL couture until 2006. But fashion insiders claim Pinault has been eager to cut his ties with Saint Laurent and Berge, since the couture loses an estimated $12 million a year on sales of only half that.

Equally galling to Saint Laurent and Berge is that they have had to watch as Gucci and Tom Ford have moved aggressively to reinvent the YSL ready-to-wear and fragrance businesses. The duo kept Ford and Domenico De Sole, Gucci's chief executive officer, in the dark about Saint Laurent's impending decision over the last few weeks. Ford, whose most recent YSL collections have won raves, has drawn heavily on the designer's archives for his inspiration. Now, the question is whether Ford will want to continue the house's couture tradition.

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