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The rumors started months before it became official. Then, as the date approached, the media blitz built steam. And finally, on Jan. 7, in an emotional news conference, the tears welled in people’s eyes.
Yves Saint Laurent, arguably the most influential and iconic fashion designer of the last half of the 20th century, had decided to call it quits.
“I have today decided to bid farewell to the world of fashion I have so loved,” a composed but rueful Saint Laurent told a hushed group of reporters and intimates who had gathered in his salon at 5 Avenue Marceau to document the historic fashion moment.
Saint Laurent’s achievements are prodigious. Since founding his house 40 years earlier, he had created much of the wardrobe of modern women. Many of his designs had reached mythic proportions — Le Smoking, the spectacular Ballet Russe style, the motorcycle jacket, Pop Art dresses, the peasant blouse, safari shirt-jackets, and the list goes on.
But beyond the clothes, Saint Laurent had grown to symbolize a moment in cultural history. He was the tortured artist who had grappled with angst, anguish and depression. He was the man who helped liberate women by putting them in trousers and transparent shirts. He was the first couturier to provide greater access to high-fashion’s rarified ideas by creating his less-expensive Rive Gauche ready-to-wear.
That’s why his retirement crystallized the end of an epoch —and raised speculation about which designers of his generation might retire next. (They all denied they would). Saint Laurent’s work had been inscribed in a broader cultural context. His contemporaries felt a certain nostalgia and loss for the passing of an era.
But for many of the younger generation, the emotional significance of the moment was more difficult to grasp.
During the last years of his career, Saint Laurent’s designs seemed obsolete, irrelevant or just plain boring. Certainly the mastery of cut, proportion and technique remained. But much of what he had recently sent onto the runway lacked the dazzle and flash that one has come to expect of contemporary fashion.
The last few years had also been characterized by the building displeasure Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, felt about the house being funded by French billionaire François Pinault. Equally unpleasant for Saint Laurent was watching Gucci Group — to whom Pinault had entrusted YSL’s ready-to-wear — move aggressively to reinvent the YSL brand.
Two weeks after he made his intentions public, on Jan. 22, 2,000 guests packed the Centre Georges Pompidou to bid Saint Laurent adieu at his final show. There were his intimates and loyalists, including Betty Catroux, Bianca Jagger, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Paloma Picasso, Lauren Bacall, Nan Kempner and Deeda Blair. There was France’s first lady, Bernadette Chirac. And there were designers, including Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Sonia Rykiel and Yohji Yamamoto.
The 75-minute retrospective presentation underscored the extent of Saint Laurent’s artistry and bold innovation, from the pantsuits, the cross-cultural celebrations, the conical breasts (long before Jean Paul Gaultier) and the matador (long before Alexander McQueen). Watching more than 100 models who participated in the extravaganza reinforced one last time the far-flung impact Saint Laurent made on fashion.
His clients rushed to place orders for their final Saint Laurents, which would bear a special label. The house was supposed to close by the end of summer, but it stayed open longer to cope with the demand.
There was also the prickly business of closing the doors. Unexpectedly, Pinault announced plans in March to sell the house for a symbolic euro, or one dollar, to Patrice Bouygues, a French industrialist. Bouygues intended to transform Saint Laurent’s formidable workrooms into a multibrand couture operation. But workers at YSL, who contended that Bouygues was not forthcoming about the health of his finances, rebutted his plans in court.
In July, that Saint Laurent and Bergé purchased the house from Pinault, also for a euro, and began hammering out an agreement to resolve matters. The process took months. French law stipulates that workers had to be compensated. Many of Saint Laurent’s seamstresses retired, while others went on to join other Paris houses, including Azzedine Alaïa and Gaultier.
Finally, on Oct. 31, Saint Laurent’s long fashion adventure formally ended. The designer spent the last hours of work among his staff. Most of the packing was already complete. Boxes were everywhere. But Saint Laurent’s workroom and office had remained untouched.
When asked how he felt, Saint Laurent responded: “I am much more at peace now,” and added he has “no regrets. I am not sad — just nostalgic.”
Even as he walked out of the house around 1 p.m. that day, his faithful dog Moujik in tow, the Saint Laurent story was far from over.
Only a week later, Bergé revealed that the house will become a museum dedicated to Saint Laurent’s fashion. Expected to open within the next year, it will also sponsor cultural activities.
“The thing about life is that you always have to keep moving forward,” Bergé said.