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.Its archives are among the richest in fashion history, with designs that have reached mythic proportions -- Le Smoking, the spectacular Ballet Russe style, the motorcycle jacket, Pop Art dresses, the peasant blouse, safari shirtjackets, the Broadway suit and couture renditions of Mondrian paintings. The list goes on and on. His color sense is considered unparalleled, as he stayed true to his own ideas whatever the prevailing fashions. While the runways were awash with short skirts in 1969, Saint Laurent's dropped to the ankle. He was among the first to take inspiration directly from the street, in his 1960 Beat collection inspired by jazz and the Left Bank intelligentsia. The style of the Forties, taboo after the dour war years, also inspired him in a 1971 collection that paved the way for all the retro looks of today. His collections inspired by Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes are often called sublime.

"Fashions fade," he has often said. "Style is eternal."

He also contributed many of fashion's most potent and instantly recognizable images. He scandalized many when he posed naked for Jeanloup Sieff for the YSL Pour Homme fragrance. The Helmut Newton photo of Jerry Hall for the Opium fragrance also was hugely controversial. It's tag line read: "Opium, for those who are addicted to Yves Saint Laurent."

But it has not always been smooth sailing for Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, born on Aug. 1, 1936 in Oran, Algeria, to French colonial parents. The designer, always fragile, has had numerous real and rumored breakdowns throughout his career, and he has battled drugs, alcohol and depression throughout his life. Speculation was constant about his health and whether he would continue with his collections.

An introspective youth, Saint Laurent spent long hours reading alone and showed an artistic sensibility, sketching and amusing his two younger sisters, Brigitte and Michele, by cutting paper figurines into the shape of dolls and making dresses out of swatches of fabric.

At 13, he was taken to the theater in Oran to see Moliere's "L'Ecole des Femmes," directed by the actor Louis Jouvet and with sets designed by Christian Berard. It was a formative moment for the young Saint Laurent and inspired him to continue his artistic pursuits."I realized immediately," he said as a young man, "that I had witnessed a work of genius, never equaled by all I have seen since."

He also was exposed to fashion in his mother Lucienne's copies of French Vogue and Paris-Match. Shortly after he turned 17, Saint Laurent entered an annual competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat. The judges, including Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, distinguished him with third prize for his black-and-white sketches of a coat, a dress and a suit.

He went to Paris, his first visit to the city, to receive the honors. Meantime, his mother, through family friends, arranged a meeting for her son with Michel de Brunhoff, the editor in chief of French Vogue. He immediately recognized Saint Laurent's budding talent and suggested that he enroll at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture fashion course in Paris. A year later, Saint Laurent submitted sketches to the Wool Secretariat competition for the second time. He won first prize and trundled over to present new sketches to de Brunhoff. The editor was flabbergasted. Saint Laurent's sketches closely resembled the A-line look his friend Christian Dior had designed for his spring 1955 couture collection. Dior was shown the sketches and he promptly hired the 19-year-old Saint Laurent as an assistant. Saint Laurent's first task was to decorate the boutique.

He worked under Dior's tutelage until the older designer's sudden death from heart failure in October 1957. The fate of the house hung in the balance. Marcel Boussac, the Dior backer, even briefly considered closing the business. But on Nov. 15, Dior director Jacques Rouet called a news conference to announce a new designer to succeed Dior. "All designs will be executed by Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent," said Rouet, "the preferred disciple of Christian+." The sentence remained unfinished as the media clamored; they were shocked that a young, unknown designer had been selected to perpetuate the Dior legacy.

"I was so nervous," Saint Laurent recalled in a 1998 interview with W, WWD's sister publication. "But it was also exhilarating. I was young, carefree and convinced I would succeed."

The Dior salons were jammed with people on the day of the young designer's first show on Jan. 30, 1958. Saint Laurent unveiled a short, swingy silhouette he called the Trapeze line. It was a youthful shape with narrow shoulders and a knee-length hemline. The crowd was charmed, with Saint Laurent attaining a level of acclaim that has remained with him ever since.Soon after his debut at Dior, Saint Laurent met the young man who would guide his career and build the YSL brand into a $1 billion business: Pierre Vital Georges Berge. He was born Nov. 14, 1930 in Ile d'Oleron, on the French Atlantic coast. As a youth he entertained notions of becoming a writer or a painter, and he has published several books, most recently a tome dedicated to the late French president Francois Mitterrand, a Berge intimate. When he met Saint Laurent, Berge was managing the career of the artist Bernard Buffet.

"I had an immediate affinity with Berge," Saint Laurent said. "From the beginning, he has been someone who understands me -- a companion. And he's always been very strong, which was something absent from my life then."

Berge proved to be the man best suited to Saint Laurent's needs. He helped him become the first couturier to recognize the potential for rtw, and, starting in 1966, the duo planted YSL Rive Gauche shops around the world and built on the power of the brand name by clinching licensing deals in the Seventies. They also marketed successful fragrances such as Opium and Paris.

Berge was able to manage a global business while understanding and nurturing the intricacies of an artistic nature like Saint Laurent. After the designer was conscripted into the French Army and was admitted to a military hospital, it was Berge who spirited him away. While Saint Laurent was in the army, Dior replaced him with Marc Bohan. After a six-month rehabilitation, he and Berge decided to launch their own fashion house. One of France's greatest graphic artists, Cassandre, designed the famous interlocking YSL logo. Even if Saint Laurent had won a 680,000-franc breach of contract court decision against Dior after his hospital discharge, he still lacked the capital to start an expensive couture business. Berge was determined to find a backer. He got Jesse Mack Robinson, or J. Mack, an American who was a self-made millionaire and high school dropout. J. Mack agreed to invest up to $700,000 in the YSL business over a three-year period. A town house, the Hotel Forain, on the Rue Spontini was commandeered for the first couture show. It was presented at 10:30 a.m. on Monday Jan. 29, 1962. Two hours and 104 outfits later, the show ended. The crowd broke into heated applause.The collection was a success and the private customers, including the Duchess of Windsor, Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline de Ribes and Countess Chandon de Briailles, started queuing. Throughout his career, he would dress other fashion icons, including Catherine Deneuve, Leslie Caron, Lauren Bacall, Paloma Picasso and his muses Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise.

When Saint Laurent unveiled his second collection, in August, Time magazine called it "the sensation of the [fashion] week" and spoke of the couturier's "elevation to the ranks of the fashion greats."

In August 1963, his picture appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Many considered Saint Laurent the savior of the couture, which was in the doldrums since many of its regular customers were literally dying off. New technology was making it simpler to copy couture clothes, and many couturiers seemed out of touch with the times. Saint Laurent understood the modern woman's psyche; his clothes were for real women who did real things. He was pushing fashion toward the tumultuous world of social changes he saw around him.

"I know now that you can't take your clothes out of life, away from reality and have them mean anything," he said in an interview with Newsweek at the time. "A designer must get out and look at life around him. As soon as I went twisting at Regine's, I understood the problem older women have in a place like that."

In the summer of 1965, J. Mark Robinson sold his interest in Saint Laurent for a net price of less than $1 million to Lanvin-Charles of the Ritz, whose president was Richard A. Salomon. Berge said the house would now become "one of the biggest and most important in Paris ... rivaling the $30 million Dior in size."

That same year his "Mondrian" dresses received a rapturous reception and Saint Laurent designed the wardrobe for Catherine Deneuve in Spanish director Luis Bunuel's film, "Belle de Jour." During that period, it seemed as if every Saint Laurent collection were making fashion history. In January 1966, he showed his first Smoking in the spring couture collection. In the late Sixties, Saint Laurent and Berge purchased a house in Marrakech, where the designer was influenced by the hippie deluxe styles of people like Paul and Talitha Getty.Meanwhile, Berge was moving to build YSL into a global business. The first Rive Gauche store opened in September 1966 at 21 Rue de Tournon, on the Left Bank. "It's just as I want...wild colors and very modern," explained Saint Laurent. "Black glass for the entrance, a steel pillar and dark orange carpeting, and one huge window."

The first of what would become a network of more than 160 stores, it remained open until midnight and sold dresses for $60.

The shows, the stores and his own style meant Saint Laurent attained cult status. He was mobbed when, with his new best friend Betty Catroux, he attended the inauguration of the Rive Gauche boutique on New York's Madison Avenue. At about that time, he and Berge befriended Andy Warhol. There were wild nights at clubs in New York and Paris with the Gettys, Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise, Fernando Sanchez and others.

But the partying took its toll and Saint Laurent spiralled more and more into depression, alcohol and drugs during the Seventies. He put on weight. At the end of his show in 1976, he held onto models for support as he stumbled down the runway. It had become hard to conceal Saint Laurent's precarious state and he was admitted to the American Hospital in Neuilly to be treated for depression.

"He was born with a nervous breakdown," Berge said.

Outward signs of Saint Laurent's fragility became even more apparent through the Eighties, even as his business flourished more and more. In January 1980, Berge announced that the company would pay $7 million to regain total control of its rtw business by acquiring Mendes Co., which made and distributed the clothes. Berge and Saint Laurent bought the fashion house from Squibb in 1972, which had purchased it with the fragrance business from Charles of the Ritz in 1969. The duo bought back the fragrance business from Squibb in 1986 for $630 million, raising the money by selling 25 percent of YSL to Italian industrialist Carlo de Benedetti. They bought back that stake in 1990; a year earlier YSL had become the first couture house to be quoted on the Paris Bourse when it floated 10.9 percent of its capital.In 1983, the designer was crowned with a retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Organized by Diana Vreeland, the late Vogue editor in chief, it was the first exhibit dedicated to a living artist or designer. By 1985, the YSL name was generating global sales of more than $1 billion a year, with the YSL company alone generating net profits of about $8.5 million on sales of about $40 million.

Meanwhile, rumors of Saint Laurent's ill health persisted. Saint Laurent had become a virtual recluse and said all he dreamed of doing was staying at home "in my bed with a great book; I feel as if nothing else matters."

"Everyone knows that [Saint Laurent] has psychological problems," said Berge, "that he takes too many tranquilizers, which make him seem a little confused, but I declare on my honor that he doesn't have cancer, that he doesn't have AIDS -- he hasn't even tested positive.

"What can I do?" he continued. "Yves Saint Laurent's illness didn't begin yesterday. People have been talking about it for 15 years."

Although the groundbreaking nature of his collections had waned, the designer seemed to have broken his cycle of suffering by the beginning of the Nineties. He had lost 40 pounds and looked terrific when he strode onto the runway to take a bow after his triumphant January haute couture show in the lavish, 19th-century salons at the Hotel Intercontinental in Paris. But eight weeks later, he again checked into the American Hospital after collapsing from nervous exhaustion and missed his own Rive Gauche show that March.

By the late Nineties, the designer had divorced himself from the company's rtw business completely. In 1998, Alber Elbaz was named to succeed Saint Laurent as designer of the Rive Gauche rtw collections, and for the first time in years, Saint Laurent was not responsible for four collections a year.

The rtw business generated constant intrigue over the next year as Elbaz failed to put his own stamp on the collection, and the reaction to them was lukewarm at best. Meanwhile, Berge was working hard to maintain YSL's growth in the face of intense competition from houses such as Giorgio Armani, Versace, Prada, Polo Ralph Lauren and Gucci.Recognizing the need for substantial backing, Berge and Saint Laurent sold their company to Sanofi, the French pharmaceuticals concern, in 1993 for $650 million in shares. Sanofi was primarily interested in YSL's beauty division and the deal allowed Berge and Saint Laurent to retain control of the fashion house until 2001; they were also to receive annual salaries of $2 million. But it also raised eyebrows in the French press, which speculated that Berge had used his friendship with President Francois Mitterrand to help push through the deal.

But six years, later Sanofi decided to focus on its core pharmaceuticals business and started looking for a buyer for YSL and its beauty business. Pinault purchased the company for $1 billion and promptly sold it to Gucci so that the Italian fashion house could start building a stable of luxury brands to rival LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Pinault's Pinault-Printemps-Redoute retail conglomerate also acquired a 40 percent stake in Gucci to fend off a hostile takeover attempt by LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault, Pinault's fierce business rival.

The result was that Saint Laurent and Berge were left with the couture house, while Gucci generated headlines with the relaunch of YSL rtw. Under the deal, Berge and Saint Laurent receive payments of about $6.6 million a year until 2006. Their contract stipulates that if they retire before that date, the payments would be cut in half for a total of $11.5 million rather than $23.1 million. It could not be learned if there is room for negotiation in the contract for a greater amount.

As the antagonism between Saint Laurent and Berge on one side and the PPR/Gucci triumverate of Pinault, Ford and De Sole has increased, Saint Laurent in his couture shows seemed to be content to illustrate his skill and exquisite sense of proportion, rather than break new fashion ground. The shows have become more of a social happening, with the ranks of Saint Laurent devotees, from Deneuve to socialites such as Nan Kempner, dotting the front row.

His show in two weeks will be an emotional one, representing the conclusion of a career that has been longer and more successful than that of any other couturier apart from Chanel. While Saint Laurent's star may have been eclipsed by other, younger designers in recent years, there is no disputing that he is one of fashion's greatest creators. Saint Laurent has repeatedly been referred to as a king of the fashion world, and some have called his creativity divine. But the designer himself has always downplayed such comparisons with his usual impish wit."I don't want to compare myself to God," he said in 1986, "I'm already a Saint."

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