By  on October 30, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Yves Saint Laurent’s life and work will be celebrated at the M.H. de Young Museum here in an exhibit showcasing fashion, drawings and photographs from the designer’s personal collection.

“Yves Saint Laurent, Eternal Style,” opens Saturday after a three-month run at the Montreal Fine Arts Museum, and will close March 1. It is part of the de Young’s effort to elevate fashion. The museum was the only U.S. venue for the Victoria and Albert retrospective of British designer Vivienne Westwood and was the sole stop outside Manhattan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s look at the late socialite Nan Kempner’s couture-filled closet.

The San Francisco and Montreal museums organized the exhibit featuring 125 outfits — with accessories YSL selected for the runway — in collaboration with the Pierre Bergé -Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris.

“The exhibition’s opening here is bittersweet,” said de Young director John Buchanan, referring to Saint Laurent’s death in June at the age of 71, five days after the exhibit opened in Montreal.

Bergé, YSL’s longtime partner, is scheduled to attend receptions today at the de Young to inaugurate the exhibit’s San Francisco opening. In an introduction to the catalogue, Bergé wrote that retrospectives such as the one in San Francisco and Montreal are part of the foundation’s work in “spreading the word” about Saint Laurent.

“The first Yves Saint Laurent exhibition was held in 1983 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the instigation of Diana Vreeland,” Bergé wrote. “Twenty-five years later we are honored to return to North America.”

A YSL exhibit has been on Buchanan’s wish list, and fit with de Young board president Diane Wilsey’s goal of expanding the museum’s commitment to costume shows, as well as increasing its own collection of 20th century fashion.

After a 1989 earthquake closed the de Young’s original structure, Wilsey became the fund-raising force behind a modern, copper-sheathed museum designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, whose work includes the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing and London’s Tate Modern.

In addition to housing the de Young’s collection of American art, as well as native art from the Americas, Africa and the Pacific, the architects carved out space for a 5,000-square-foot costume gallery, a costume research library and state-of-the-art garment-storage archives that house 13,000 textile pieces, including 1,200 couture dresses, suits, jackets and gowns.

“The fashion we have is art, conceived by masters,” said Wilsey, a philanthropist and couture customer, who favors Oscar de la Renta. She said the museum’s increased fashion emphasis has been met with some resistance from those who don’t embrace fashion as high art.

“If you look at our couture collection it’s mostly from San Francisco,” said Jill D’Alessandro, associate curator of textile. Donors have included local socialites such as Eleanor Christensen de Guigne, Kempner, Jeanne Magnin and Dodie Rosekrans.

The de Young recently received eight Lucile Ltd. gowns from the Twenties, designed by Lady Duff Gordon. The mint-condition fashion artifacts were stowed in a trunk belonging to a local family, the McEvoys, who are descendants of the newspaper-publishing de Young family that founded the museum.

A de Young “Couture Circle” of donors is also promoting donations. Rosekrans, a matriarch of San Francisco’s old guard couture customers, said, “Wearing fashionable clothes has been my manner, my way of life.”

Although the 125 pieces in the exhibit represent a sliver of the 5,000 pieces of clothing in Saint Laurent’s personal collection, the exhibit covers his entire career as YSL revolutionized fashion, introducing wardrobe staples like the safari jacket, culotte skirt, tuxedo, pant suit and peacoat. The show also explores the designer’s love of referencing painters, art movements and literary figures.

“San Franciscans appreciate fashion,” Wilsey said. “They love art and they love to dress up.”

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