PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent, his French bulldog, Moujik IV, puttering at his feet, thumbs through a rack of his celebrated smoking suits.
"This one, in velour, it's very smart," he says, lifting the jacket to the afternoon sun pouring into his workroom at 5 Avenue Marceau. "Here, this one, it's from 2001. It's très chic — the trousers are very straight.
"And here," he continues. "This is the first — 1966 — my first smoking. It's my favorite, a beloved child."
Among his many influential creations — the safari suits, the transparent blouses, the tunics, the brilliant, art-inspired gowns — "le smoking," as Saint Laurent's softened version of the masculine tuxedo became known by such stylish adepts as Betty Catroux, Catherine Deneuve and Nan Kempner, is one of the celebrated couturier's most recognizable signatures.
Now it is the subject of an exhibit, "Smoking Forever," which will open at the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Foundation on Oct. 5 and run until April 23.
It is the second of the foundation's shows to examine the designer's proclivities and influential design vocabulary; the first was an exhibit devoted to Saint Laurent and art. The latest exhibition will feature some 50 smoking suits, presented in a chessboard-like arrangement, with about 30 original sketches.
But what may not be immediately apparent to the show's visitors is the smoking's place in the larger scheme of social change in the turbulent Sixties.
When the designer first put women in it, "le smoking" was a powerful gesture — one that is hard to imagine in today's world of navel-baring celebrities. As a statement, it became the outfit for women who were as strong as men, and were out to prove it.
"It made women more powerful — in their conquest," said Saint Laurent.
So controversial was it that in the Sixties, the manager at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan refused to serve women who wore "le smoking."
"I remember when Françoise Hardy wore a smoking to the opera in Paris," recalls Saint Laurent. "Scandal. People screamed and hollered. It was an outrage."Perhaps the smoking's most infamous incident was when the manager at another fashionable Manhattan restaurant turned Kempner away because she was in a YSL smoking. The socialite then removed her "slacks" and transformed her jacket into a makeshift minidress.
"Madame Kempner wore the smoking with such chic," remembers Saint Laurent.
But it was Catroux, with her long, sinuous body and striking angular features, who seemed to best incarnate the smoking's contemporary attitude.
"Betty wore my first smoking," says Saint Laurent. "She had a slender, androgynous body. In fact, the smoking was better suited to her than an evening gown."
Pausing, he adds, "And then, I thought, the smoking was more modern than an evening gown. It played with a certain ambiguity."
After rifling through the rack, Saint Laurent moves to his opulent art-filled office to discuss his affinity for the smoking, his current state of mind and his opinions on fashion today.
Back from holiday at his house in Tangiers, where he had an "agreeable summer with the fun set that's down there," Saint Laurent, 69, looks slimmer, younger and relaxed.
"I have to order some new suits," he jokes, pulling on his jacket to show how baggy it has become. "I feel good. The suffering, that's over."
As he reminisces about the more than 230 smoking suits he created over his 40-year career, Saint Laurent delivers his recollections briskly, then grows pensive as he seems to sift through the memories piling up in his head.
He says the idea to put women in tuxedos came to him simply.
"I was at a soiree one evening, looking around, and I saw that all of the men were very handsome in their tuxedos, and that it was an outfit that flatters everyone," says Saint Laurent. "Since I'd put women in trouser suits, it seemed natural to do a smoking suit.
"What I would have loved to have done with the jean, I achieved with the smoking suit. That's to say, I created something that looked equally chic on men and women."Soon the smoking took on a life of its own, becoming a recurring theme in Saint Laurent's repertoire. It went through many evolutions and versions.
"It changed over the years," he says. "The smoking existed with skirts, with Bermudas, with trousers. There were smoking coats and a smoking dress in muslin with a smoking collar and cuffs.
"It's part of the house's legends," he continues. "It's something very personal for me. It's one of the things I did best. Because it was always a success and I never had difficulty getting a smoking right."
Yet Saint Laurent says there are "secrets" to getting it right, including the magical "touch of the iron" involved in the positioning of the collar and sleeves.
"It's something that is not easy to do," he says. "It requires great technical skill."
Recently, Saint Laurent says, he feels good, his physical health improved — though he still suffers from a shoulder injury that keeps him from sketching — and his disposition brighter.
"Thank God I no longer think up new ideas for dresses," he quips. "It would be too much to handle."
He also is happier with the direction of YSL Rive Gauche since Tom Ford's departure. He said YSL designer Stefano Pilati consults the archives on a regular basis.
"Some of what he does is good," says Saint Laurent of Pilati. "Some of it is not so good."
In recent months, Saint Laurent has been reading Paul Claudel, especially the French writer's plays, which the designer says remind him of a gilded era in French theater after the war.
"I read often, but I also get bored," he continues. "It's because I miss it, but I think I would be incapable of starting up again, because I don't like what fashion has become. Times have changed. Women have changed.
"But when I look at the magazines, what I see is so scary that I don't regret having retired," he adds. "Chic is a mélange of the personality of the woman and the clothes that she wears."
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