PARIS -- "I today decided to bid farewell to the world of fashion I have so loved."
With those simple words, a composed but rueful Yves Saint Laurent bid an official and emotional adieu Monday. He confirmed during a hushed press conference at his salon at 5 avenue Marceau that his retrospective show on Jan. 22 will be his last and that his 40-year-old couture house will close once orders from the show have been filled.
With his partner and business associate Pierre Berge at his side stifling sobs and blinking through tear-filled eyes, Saint Laurent read from a prepared statement above the constant whir of the photographers' shutters. Dressed in a black suit with his ash blond hair swept neatly back, he paid thanks to his various collaborators, supporters and mentors; reflected on a long career marked by personal turmoil and strife; and articulated his contributions to fashion in the 20th century, which are countless.
He and Berge also played down reports of a feud with Francois Pinault, whose family holding company, Artemis, has backed the couture house since it acquired YSL in 1999 and then sold it to Gucci Group. Meanwhile, Berge didn't miss a chance to take a swipe at some of today's younger designers, and at the media.
"I would also like to thank Mr. Francois Pinault," Saint Laurent said, "and to express to him my gratitude for allowing me to bring this marvelous adventure to a harmonious close, he believing, as I do, that this house's haute couture line should come to an end upon my departure."
The press conference was a brisk, no-frills affair, starting promptly at noon with Saint Laurent's arrival, the designer clutching his speech in a plain blue folder and confronting a wall of television cameras and newspaper photographers. Several French stations broadcast live feeds from the press conference for their noon programs.
Saint Laurent characterized his couture team as a family, and the press conference was attended by the likes of Betty Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise, Anne-Marie Munoz and even Hedi Slimane, who Saint Laurent and Berge have befriended in recent years. Saint Laurent paid tribute to Christian Dior, calling him "my master, who was instrumental in revealing to me the secrets and mysteries of haute couture. I do not forget Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, and, of course, Chanel, who taught me so much and who, as we all know, liberated women. It was this that enabled me, years later, to give women supremacy and, in a way, to liberate fashion."Saint Laurent became Christian Dior's assistant at the age of 19 and in 1958, at age 21, was appointed to succeed him. That was 44 years ago.
Outlining key moments in his career, Saint Laurent recounted the establishment of his couture house in 1962 and the opening of his first ready-to-wear boutique in 1966.
Also, for a man of enormous modesty despite his stature as one of the century's greatest designers, he indulged himself "in a little conceit" by enumerating his contributions.
"In many ways, I feel that I have created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman and that I have participated in the transformation of my era. I have done so through clothes, which are certainly less important than music, architecture, painting or many other art forms, but it is nonetheless what I have done," he said. "Like Chanel, I have always accepted copies and I am extremely proud that women the world over today wear pantsuits, smoking suits, peacoats and trenchcoats."
While Saint Laurent rarely comments on the work of his competitors, he took a swipe at the motives of some of today's designers.
"I have believed for a long time now that fashion is not merely there to embellish women," he said. "Similarly, I utterly reject the fantasies of those who seek to satisfy their egos through fashion.
"I believe [fashion] is a means to reassure [women], to give them confidence, to enable them to assert themselves. It was my wish to accompany them in that great movement of liberation that occurred during the last century."
While projecting an image of strength Monday, looking rested and alert, Saint Laurent spoke frankly about the torture of his craft and the "phantoms" with which he's dueled throughout his career, including drugs and alcohol.
"I have grappled with anguish and I have been through sheer hell," he said. "I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But one day, I was able to come through all that, dazed yet sober."I did not choose this tragic descent, but through it I was able to rise to the heavens of creativity...discovering myself and understanding that the most important encounter in one's life is that with oneself."
Saint Laurent ended his speech with a long list of thank yous, including everyone from his backers to the models to journalists and his customers. "I would also like to thank the women, be they famous or unknown, who have worn my clothes, remaining so faithful to me, and bringing me so much joy," he said.
Finally, addressing the roughly 60 people in attendance, he concluded: "Thank you for your support, your understanding and your love. I shall never forget you."
Once finished, he closed his file folder and stood up, lingering for a sustained and hearty ovation before exiting. He fielded no questions.
Thereafter, Berge, his hands trembling with the emotion of the moment, took the microphone and made some remarks, declaring that couture itself would end with Saint Laurent's retirement.
"It is a very, very difficult day," he said. "I am very sad. It's a miracle he is quitting because creation is a miracle. This is the end of a miracle."
But showing a glimpse of his famous temper, Berge, 71, took the media to task for playing up icy relations between he and Pinault, with whom he and Saint Laurent had a contract stipulating they could do couture through 2006.
"Even if we have had some disagreements [with Mr. Pinault] never, and I repeat never, has our agreement been called into question," he said. "If [Saint Laurent] has decided to stop today, it's of his own accord."
He even addressed reports that the couture house had further miffed Pinault by electing to do a retrospective of Saint Laurent's career in the display windows of the Galeries Lafayette department store, which rivals Pinault's own Printemps flagship next door.
Berge insisted he had consulted Pinault on the issue. "Francois Pinault said it was not a problem," said Berge.
For his part, Pinault's office issued a statement Monday praising the Saint Laurent legacy. "[Mr. Pinault] acknowledges his great admiration for the work and for the creative adventure that [Saint Laurent] has led for almost a half-century, with the constant help of Pierre Berge."Reports of bad blood between Pinault and Berge reached a fever pitch last year when Berge and Saint Laurent attended former YSL men's wear designer Hedi Slimane's debut runway show for Christian Dior. Pinault rival Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, controls Dior. Berge and Saint Laurent did not attend Tom Ford's debut men's effort for Rive Gauche.
Berge admitted that Pinault was upset by his and Saint Laurent's presence at Slimane's show, but that their motives were understood. "We admire Hedi Slimane and wanted to go to his show," said Berge.
Responding to questions from the audience, Berge gingerly addressed suggestions that he and Saint Laurent are displeased with Ford's new, sexed-up vision for Rive Gauche. "Yves never reads the fashion magazines; I don't think he has the slightest notion what Tom Ford has done [at YSL]," Berge said. "It became clear for us [from the moment Rive Gauche was acquired by Gucci] that we would not have control over or complain about what they did. We were separated into two parts. We did not have them trailed by a detective to know what state of adultery they were in."
Asked what he would do after the couture house is shuttered, Berge confirmed he will mount a bid for France's Drouot auction business. "But I won't hold a news conference if I don't succeed," he said, to a round of laughs.
As for Mr. Saint Laurent's plans, Berge said: "I don't know and I don't think he knows either. He does a lot of painting, drawing and writing, but I don't know."
Berge noted that all of the designs Saint Laurent will feature in his show later this month would be offered for sale. He said the label would be adorned with a special marking to commemorate Saint Laurent's retirement.
As for the YSL Couture boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, which opened in fall 2000 and was seen as a gesture of antagonism against Gucci Group, Berge confirmed that it will shutter around the middle of the year.
In a rare moment of levity at the press conference, Berge likened Saint Laurent to a tennis player at the top of his game who has outlived all opponents worthy of his effort. "He decided it's time to hang up his racket," he said, pleased that his sports analogy drew some smiles on a day of heavy emotion.
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