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PARIS — Hundreds of onlookers thronged behind barriers around the Eglise Saint-Roch here Thursday as the world of fashion bid adieu to Yves Saint Laurent.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, accompanied by First Lady Carla Bruni, decorated Saint Laurent’s oak coffin with the French flag and gave Saint Laurent military honors in the late designer’s capacity as a grand officer in the French Legion of Honor.
When Saint Laurent’s remains arrived at the 17th-century church on the Rue Saint-Honoré on the Right Bank, applause erupted from the crowd that had come to pay their respects to the celebrated couturier, who retired in 2002. Saint Laurent died of brain cancer Sunday at age 71.
The memorial mass is likely to be remembered as one of the most important and biggest French fashion funerals since the death of Christian Dior in 1957. After the mass, Saint Laurent was cremated and his ashes are to be flown to Morocco, where they will be placed in an urn in the Majorelle Gardens.
People began to arrive outside the church in the morning to stake out a spot behind the police cordon from which to watch the mass. A giant-screen television, first broadcasting YSL fashion shows (including the designer’s farewell in 2002), was erected outside the church for the public, who snaked around the block. Inside, the church, Paris’ parish for artists, was redolent with lilies and jasmine, while the outside was ringed with bouquets of white roses.
The mass started at 3:30 p.m., but the more than 800 guests began to trickle in as early as 2 p.m. A visibly emotional Catherine Deneuve arrived cradling a bouquet of wheat. “Saint Laurent was pure elegance,” she said.
Other notables included Valentino, Marc Jacobs, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano, Alber Elbaz, Sonia Rykiel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Stefano Pilati, Kenzo Takada, Hubert de Givenchy, Vivienne Westwood and Ricardo Tisci. Giorgio Armani and Hedi Slimane were among the designers expected, but they were ultimately unable to attend.
LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault, PPR owner François Pinault, Bernadette Chirac, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, Robert Polet, Valerie Hermann, Sidney Toledano, Jacqueline de Ribes, Philippine de Rothschild, Farah Diba, Bethy Lagardère, French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy and his wife, Arielle Dombasle, Ines de la Fressange, Laetitia Casta and Claudia Schiffer also climbed the stone steps to the church.
The mass was a solemn affair, punctuated by moving music, including live renditions of Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater” and Mozart’s “Requiem,” and a recording of Bellini’s “Casta Diva” by Maria Callas.
The coffin, greeted by applause outside, was borne into the church in utter silence. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s companion and business partner of 50 years; the late designer’s mother, Lucienne Mathieu Saint Laurent, and his sisters Brigitte and Michele; other immediate family, and members of his inner circle, including Betty Catroux, followed.
Once the coffin had been laid on the altar, a string quartet played the andante moderato from Johannes Brahms’ “String Quartet no. 1 in B flat major,” followed by a crackled recording from the Sixties of Saint Laurent briskly answering the Proust Questionnaire.
Father Roland Letteron presided over the service, during which he praised Saint Laurent’s ability to transform his personal suffering into creative genius. Letteron made a case for Saint Laurent being called an artist and not merely an artisan. “We buried another artisan in this church — a gardener,” said Letteron, referring to 17th-century landscape architect André Le Nôtre. He added Saint Laurent had become an artist in the noble approach he took to fashion.
Fighting back tears, Deneuve, a big YSL heart pendant hanging from her neck, read a poem by Walt Whitman.
Bergé followed Deneuve’s homage, recalling in a 10-minute tribute of his own how he met Saint Laurent a half century ago and the two men decided to combine their destinies into what would become one of fashion’s most historic partnerships.
“How could I have imagined that 50 years later I would be here addressing you for the last time?” said Bergé in an emotional tone.
“It is to you that I’m talking,” he continued. “You who can’t answer me.”
Bergé’s remembrance of his relationship with Saint Laurent was eloquent, touching and intensely personal, provoking tears from many guests. “I remember the first collection you did under your own name. How quickly the years have passed.”
He continued, “I want to tell you the qualities I most loved in you: honesty, rigor and perfectionism.
“Artists are made to create; it’s their only raison d’être. You lived to create. You belonged to the grand family of the sensitive that are the salt of the earth. I have to leave you. I don’t know how to do it because I’ll never leave you….One day I’ll join you under the Moroccan palm trees. I want to tell you of my admiration, profound respect and love.”
At the end of his speech, the crowd outside the church could be heard applauding. Once Bergé, his head hanging low, passed Saint Laurent’s coffin and returned to his seat, Jacques Brel’s “La Chanson des Vieux Amants,” or the “Song of Old Lovers,” was played.
Saint Laurent’s coffin then was borne out of the church and set on a plinth on the street before a row of uniformed military officers hoisting bayonets. A hush fell over the crowd as the Sarkozys exited with Bergé, trailed by other VIPs.
The group stood on the steps for several moments for photographs, before the president left with his motorcade, the crowd chanting “Nicolas, Nicolas.” Bergé departed in the hearse with Saint Laurent’s coffin, the crowd erupting in fresh applause.
Before and after the service, attendees expressed grief, shared memories and trumpeted Saint Laurent’s indelible legacy.
“We were close friends back in the days when he, Karl [Lagerfeld] and I studied in Paris and would meet at night at the Café de Flore and hang out,” recalled Roman couturier Valentino. “I was 22, Yves 18 and Karl more or less my same age. We were young, free-spirited and had a passion for fashion, for life.
“Yves was a great colleague,” he continued. “I admire his faith to a precise style that has never passed, his interminable fantasy and the respect for women and beauty. He has left an immense heritage by which all young designers should be inspired. Fashion isn’t losing Yves. His work stays in his archives, in the work of who is inspired by him and in our memories.”
Pilati, creative director of Yves Saint Laurent since 2004, couldn’t agree more: “Mr. Saint Laurent influenced everyone, including every designer that came after him because, in my estimation, his greatness surpassed that of any of his peers. Now that I am a designer, and designing for the house that he founded, I can acknowledge this influence and I can say with confidence that he will continue to inspire me.
“I live a YSL moment every day of my professional life and it’s almost impossible to imagine it any differently,” Pilati continued. “The success, the recognition, the response to my daily work at the house is what helps me to ‘respect’ the legacy instead of merely ‘coping’ with it. It is a pleasure and it is a passion, and as such I look ahead vigilantly every day, which is itself a gift Mr. Saint Laurent gave to the world of fashion.”
“He was one of the most elegant, well-mannered, cultured and gentle people of this world,” said Schiffer, her eyes shielded by dark glasses. “I remember meeting him for the first time at his atelier in Paris, I was trying on the tuxedo finished off with YSL red lipstick. It was a very intimate and warm welcome. I was terribly shy and quiet. He had this air of shyness about him too, which made me feel immediately comfortable and close to him. He changed the face of fashion and made a mark on the world that can never be forgotten.”
Marisa Berenson said Saint Laurent’s passing represented the “closing of a chapter for us all. Those were such important days of our youth. He had such elegance of heart and mind.”
“We were really good friends,” noted French actor Pascal Greggory. “We went on holiday together often, to Morocco, to Russia. I have a thousand memories of him. It’s a shock.”
Westwood said she met the couturier several times backstage. “He was always so pleased when you liked what he did. He was extraordinary,” she said.
“He was my idol when I started out,” said Takada. “He expressed the beauty of women. I did get to know him and would sometimes have dinner with him in Tangier. He was very shy, and so am I — especially in front of a giant like Yves Saint Laurent — so it was sometimes a little [awkward]. There were other [fashion] greats, such as Chanel, but he marked the century.”
Designer Jean-Paul Knott, who worked for Saint Laurent for a dozen years, straight out of school, had an inauspicious beginning.
“The first time I met him, I went into the studio and I was panicking and trembling and Moujik, his dog, the second Moujik I think, jumped up and bit me in the leg. And Mr. Saint Laurent came to get him, and apologized. It was my first week,” Knott said. “He taught me to look, and to have respect for people and for things: To such an extent that when you looked at something with him, you saw it differently. He was very reserved, he showed very little what he was thinking, but he had this enormous energy, with an enormous force. He was never happy. He was a perfectionist.”
But it was perhaps Edmonde Charles-Roux, writer and former chief editor of French Vogue, who captured the mood of France. “We are all very, very sad, even the taxi drivers are sad,” Charles-Roux said. “I took a taxi [the other day] and we passed in front of the Madeleine church and the driver exploded and I asked what’s wrong. And he said, ‘When you think of that beautiful church in the center of Paris, and then you think of Saint-Roch. Well, it’s a scandal. We had a genius and the church is not big enough.’ The people on the street are sad.”