PARIS — In updating her 1993 biography on fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent, Laurence Benaim, the French journalist and author, found a man increasingly at odds with and alienated from fashion — and with his putative successor Tom Ford.
In the two new chapters of her revised edition, covering the years from 1993 to 2002, Benaim charts the decline of an empire.
This story first appeared in the May 31, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Fashion practices had changed,” said Benaim. “It was the explosion of the luxury groups. Saint Laurent found himself up against them. He found himself alone in a world that had become more and more global, smooth and functional, and ruled by financial interests. It was in stark opposition to his enchanted and sublime kingdom.”
The 40-year-old author’s book hits French bookstores next week. Publisher Grasset intends to translate the book into English, although a deal to distribute it in the U.S. has yet to be signed.
In the book, Benaim describes Saint Laurent’s last decade of creation as a “tragic-comedy,” but stops short of painting him as a victim. Instead, she asserts that he was instrumental in creating the world that would ultimately be his own undoing.
Saint Laurent was the first designer to list his brand on the stock market, the first couturier to popularize ready-to-wear with his chain of Rive Gauche boutiques, and one of the first designers to proliferate his brand with licensing deals.
“In 1993, Saint Laurent still believed he was part of fashion,” said Benaim, dressed in a Saint Laurent Mondrian sweater. “Then he retreated into himself. His designs became more mystical. The story would be easier if one could say Saint Laurent became passe. But it’s not the case. He remained modern.”
The final chapter of Benaim’s book, aptly titled “The End of a Dream,” is focused on the three-year period after Gucci Group bought YSL Rive Gauche and installed Tom Ford as creative director. It charts the animosity that grew between Saint Laurent and Ford. Benaim recounts that the two men had a convivial first meeting. Soon after Ford took over at YSL, he dined with Saint Laurent at Le Grand Vefour, in Paris. Benaim said Saint Laurent expressed his pleasure that Ford intended to reinvigorate his house.
“But Saint Laurent couldn’t stomach what Ford went on to do,” she claimed. “It started with his first YSL show and his saying he wanted to purify and clean the house; then there were the Betty Catroux look-alike models in Ford’s first collection; and then the men’s collection with models wearing glasses to look like Saint Laurent; and then the advertising campaigns [for rtw and Opium perfume].”
Saint Laurent fired off three irate letters to Ford expressing his discontent. In an interview in London this February, Ford refused to show the letters to Benaim. “For a man who claims to throws everything away, he kept those letters,” said Benaim.
Benaim described how Saint Laurent lashed out by opening a so-called couture boutique next door to the YSL Rive Gauche rtw store on Paris’s Rue Faubourg Saint Honore. Gucci Group then fired its own salvo, closing the Yves Saint Laurent beauty institute next door and throwing away all of the old Saint Laurent beauty products.
“It was their swipe at Saint Laurent,” Benaim contends. But Benaim asserts that the declaration of war with Ford came from Saint Laurent himself, and not his prickly partner, Pierre Berge.
Despite the stinging reviews she penned in Le Monde on Ford’s first collection, Benaim said she found Ford to be “very charming and seductive.” And she asserted that everyone in her book is treated with a fair hand, including Saint Laurent and Berge, whom she exposes as fragile and egoistical in their own ways.
“I’m not a super fan of Tom Ford’s fashion,” admitted Benaim. “Maybe I’m not the right public. Maybe I expect too much. A man as sensitive and cultured as Saint Laurent is rare in fashion.””