NEW YORK — Yves has arrived.
For the first time in a decade, Yves Saint Laurent has come to America, for the rollout of his fragrance, Champagne. Plans include a huge party for 2,000 tonight at another French export — the Statue of Liberty — as well as a store appearance or two.
Just before he left Paris, Saint Laurent sat down for an interview with WWD. He was clearly feeling his oats, greeting a visitor with a firm handshake and a ready smile.
His triumphant July couture collection, the success of Champagne and, perhaps above all, the sense that fashion is turning his way again have all invigorated Saint Laurent, who has had his share of emotional turmoil.
“I feel like a young couturier again, about to do his first show. It’s a great feeling.”
“I’m happy that people are inspired by what I have done. It proves that la mode passes, but true style resists. And let’s be honest, not many couturiers have their own style,” Saint Laurent says.
On the schedule, in addition to tonight’s party, are a visit this morning to the Rive Gauche boutique on Madison Avenue and a Tuesday store appearance for the perfume at Saks, which is giving over its Fifth Avenue windows to a retrospective of Saint Laurent’s fashion.
He will also attend a Wednesday morning memorial service in the New York Public Library for Richard Salomon, the former chief executive officer of Charles of the Ritz, which owned the YSL perfume business until 1986 and at one stage owned 80 percent of the YSL fashion business. Salomon died in July.
Saint Laurent arrived in New York on Friday’s Concorde. Over the weekend, Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé and the rest of the YSL group relaxed and went to various restaurants like Mortimer’s and Le Madri, where they had dinner Saturday night. At the next table were Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi, and Saint Laurent couldn’t get over the fact that Agassi traveled with his own big burly bodyguard.
Tonight’s big event includes a massive fireworks display, but the designer is certainly no stranger to mega-fêtes. His 1977 party for Opium in New York Harbor was staged on a junk festooned with 2,000 Hawaiian orchids, Chinese temples and a giant Buddha and cost $300,000, a staggering figure at the time. Indeed, one of Andy Warhol’s most plaintive cries in his “Diaries” was having to miss the “big, glamorous YSL Opium party” due to an engagement in California.
You May Also Like
“Opium was a magical party, extraordinaire. We ended up spending the night in Studio 54. That won’t be the case now, I suppose. I’ve aged,” says Yves, before another thought crosses his mind. “However, you never know, there must be some interesting nightspots.”
If tonight’s fête doesn’t quite measure up to Opium’s legendary kickoff, Champagne, based on its short track record, may still be quite a bell ringer in the U.S.
The scent has retailed exclusively in 50 Saks since June 5. By the end of August, it had racked up $1 million at retail and ranked fourth in the department store chain. And, according to Sanofi Beauté SA, Champagne became the top-ranking scent at Eatons in its first month in the store. Sanofi owns 100 percent of the YSL perfume business and 90 percent of the fashion business. Saint Laurent and business partner Pierre Bergé own the remaining 10 percent, but control 90 percent of the voting rights of the company. The fragrance will roll out to 800 doors over the next two months.
Not that everything has been smooth sailing for Champagne. Last December, the Paris Court of Appeals ordered every bottle of Champagne pulled from French store shelves when it ruled that the name violated French trademark laws, in a high-profile case brought by French vintners and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.
“It was shameful,” says Saint Laurent, in his first public comment on the court case. And he’s not afraid to take aim at LVMH president Bernard Arnault: “Certain people did their utmost to stop the name coming out. His [Arnault’s] behavior wasn’t correct, or clean. It was not sympathique.”
“Now I have to call it Parfum, but everyone knows its real name,” said Yves, paraphrasing the scent’s French ad tag line. “The name is very important. It signifies a party, the joy of a baby becoming a new member of the family, love of life,” says Saint Laurent, before rising to let his dear friend, French bulldog Moujik, into his avenue Marceau office.
And what an office it is, with a beautiful Louis XV desk for Yves to sketch on, deep Louis XIV chairs for visitors and lit by an 18th-century Crystal de Roche chandelier — all reflected in two opulent 19th-century Italian mirrors on the ceiling.
But outside, the modern world marches on: For the past two years, the house of Saint Laurent has been engulfed in a slew of lawsuits and court cases. This spring, YSL won a heavily publicized action against Ralph Lauren for copying a dress, but in May, a French magistrate indicted Bergé for insider trading and violation of French stock market trading laws.
“I was amazed by the reports in the papers. Whatever we did was honest. That’s for sure,” Saint Laurent snorts. Moujik, too, seems upset by this line of questioning, making the first of several attempts to bite the hem of a visitor’s trouser leg.
Asked about the Lauren case, Saint Laurent insists: “I was shocked. If someone is inspired by the past, that’s okay. But to copy the present… I must say that I don’t find that very enthusiastic for fashion.”
Saint Laurent is clearly unimpressed by the newer generation of designers that have followed him. He claims to “know nothing” about Christian Dior under Gianfranco Ferré, won’t discuss other French couturiers and even insists: “All I know is what I do.”
Italian designers, he concedes, have managed to create beautiful fashion. “I don’t know Armani so well, but he has made some lovely clothes.”
His biggest complaint about his peers is what he sees as their obsession with massive runway shows. “I really think designers should do less shows. Too many of them take themselves for film directors. In fact, a lot of them should go into the theater, because what they do is all such of a rumpus,” he cracks. “It’s hard to know who really has a style.
“I was trained by the House of Dior and had to struggle to reach the ranks of Balenciaga and Mademoiselle Chanel. I think most people accept that these three are the ones who left a definite style.”
Recalling his early days, Saint Laurent said he was always very sure of himself.
“I had a youthful insouciance. I dreamed of rivaling the great designers of my epoch. I came to Paris in 1955, and right away I got a job with Dior. He gave me the chance to acquire a style that allowed me to create the Trapeze collection. That was a different look from the last dress of Mr. Dior.”
Saint Laurent’s opinion of the fashion press is candid. “I think fashion magazines — Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar — are all like each other. I never get the feeling when I read them that there’s a great master in charge of the magazine. Like Diana Vreeland. We miss her very much.”
Saint Laurent is more interested in talking about his recent couture collection, whose structured look, classic tailoring and opulent Saint Laurent color palette seemed the apotheosis of the current obsession with glamour.
“I wasn’t surprised by its success. When I went back to look at it on video, I realized what a beautiful collection it was. When you work on a collection, it’s often hard to appreciate what you are doing. That only comes after.”
Clearly, this trip to New York has stirred his blood. His last was in 1983, for the giant retrospective supervised by Vreeland in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an event that attracted more than a million people.
“It was such a marvelous feeling to be the first living designer to have a retrospective like that. That made me very happy,” says the designer, who was unfazed by the huge interest. Given the quality of his work, he argues, “It was normal.”
His favorite American city remains New York.
“It’s so alive, it is a fantastic city. But I abandoned the United States, and I missed it, because New York is such an inspiring city. That’s why I’m so delighted to go to New York again — to pick up the excitement of its streets, to enjoy its restaurants, its energy.” Going back to New York will allow him to catch up with old friends and clients.
The couturier says illness explains his long absence from the U.S. “I had a long depression,” he sighs, looking away. “I’m happy now, but deep within me there is a profound sadness.”
Despite his well-known mood swings, Saint Laurent, 58, has no plans to retire. “I like what I do and still have a feeling for it. I’m planning to continue, whatever happens, come hell or high water.”
Saint Laurent is clearly at ease with last year’s sale of the house he and Bergé founded in 1961 to state-owned Sanofi.
“I’ve no regrets. In many ways it’s as if it never happened. Nobody comes from Sanofi and gives us any orders. That has never happened. Naturally, they are in charge of the perfumes. But we work closely together, and they have done a great job.”
After the U.S. trip, it’s back to Paris to work on the spring-summer Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection. “I’m planning a new theme,” says Saint Laurent, revealing only, “It will have artistic influences.”
As soon as the season ends, Saint Laurent will head to the villa Oasis, the Moroccan estate he and Bergé acquired in 1980. For the past decade, Saint Laurent relaxes there after every season, except in the summer, when he retreats to their chateau in Deauville.
“Whenever I can, I go to Marrakech, though not in August, when it’s too hot. I find a great calm looking after our beautiful Majorelle gardens,” he smiles.
Does he ever consider what else he might have done with his life?
“No,” he says thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have changed anything. I think that fashion would have missed me too much.”