YVES SAINT LAURENT: After all the drama of the last two weeks and the last 40 years, the most illustrious career in fashion came to a close on Tuesday night when Yves Saint Laurent presented his final haute couture show, a 75-minute retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou. A live audience of 2,000 packed the space, and those facing the structure’s glass exterior could see residents of the apartments across the plaza glued to two huge screens outside, watching the simulcast that also aired live on French television.

In addition to the press, legions of Saint Laurent intimates and loyalists turned out. There were presidential wives (Bernadette Chirac and Danielle Mitterand), former jet setters (Betty Catroux, Bianca Jagger and Diane Von Furstenberg) and countless clients and friends (Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Lauren Bacall, Nan Kempner, Deeda Blair, Josie Natori). A designer contingent showed up as well: Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Oscar de la Renta, Hubert de Givenchy, Sonia Rykiel and Yohji Yamamoto. They all came to say goodbye and thank you, and to chronicle for themselves the end of an era, one of those public milestones by which we can chart our own aging process.

In announcing his retirement to the press on Jan. 7, Saint Laurent alluded to his dissatisfaction with the current state of the industry. “I utterly reject the fantasies of those who seek to satisfy their egos through fashion,” he said. He also acknowledged the emotional, psychological and drug problems that have tormented him through the years: “I have grappled with anguish and I have been through sheer hell+I did not choose this tragic descent, but through it I was able to rise to the heavens of creativity.”

He got that right. Yves Saint Laurent astounded with his imagination and daring, one of the few designers able to elevate clothes to a level that approached art. And he not only changed fashion, but through his craft helped to change popular perceptions of gender roles at a critical point in history for women.

Yet for all the anticipation surrounding his retirement, the expected crescendo of emotion never quite materialized at the event itself, perhaps because the show lacked drama. Still, the stage had an airy feel: a low, wide runway and a simple stage set — a backdrop emblazoned with the famous interlocking YSL initials, and a square doorway trimmed with a garland of white flowers. Several screens hanging high above both sides of the runway projected images of the designer and those important to him over the years.

But, despite the lineup of 107 multi-generational models, including Jerry Hall, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and his longtime muse Mounia, some in the audience found the pace too leisurely, especially the finale. What should have been an arresting moment, a long le smoking parade, grew tiresome as each girl stopped and posed at the end of the runway to facilitate that perfect photo op. And overall, the production seemed surprisingly unpolished for so masterful a creative presence as Saint Laurent. At its start, an off-stage woman announced “1962” over the sound system to introduce a pea jacket and pants. She then set the audience up for a chronological stroll through the archives — smokings from 1968 and 2002, for example — but the lack of consistency in dating the looks didn’t quite make sense.

What rang crystal clear was the beauty of the clothes. And the innovation. It is now difficult to imagine the cultural impact of Saint Laurent’s boldest creations in their own time. The pantsuits that liberated women’s wardrobes as women were fighting hard to liberate themselves. The cross-cultural celebration — Russia, Africa, Spain, the Orient, Eastern Europe, the Mideast. The shock of transparency. The fashion-meets-art fusion in the Mondrian and Picasso collections. Saint Laurent flaunted cone breasts long before Gaultier was lured by Blonde Ambition. His matador rode with the bulls before McQueen. As for retro, he saw the Forties through a Seventies lens. He has been there and done that with impact unimaginable today, while maintaining higher standards than anyone else now working.

The sad thing is, at some point he stopped. Everybody who follows fashion knows that, in truth, Saint Laurent didn’t really just retire yesterday. His removal has been a gradual one, stretched over years, and utterly self-induced. Whether due to inner demons or disgust with the ever-changing industry, Saint Laurent chose to retreat from the forefront of fashion, from the realities of a changing industry and even a changing world. He chose isolation over involvement, and settled into a pattern of reworking his greatest hits — and they are great indeed — for loyalist clients ever in the market for his impeccable, distinctive chic.

At the end of Tuesday’s show, one such woman, Catherine Deneuve, stepped up on the runway and sang, “Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour,” [“My Most Beautiful Friend”]. Saint Laurent took his final walk down the runway to a thunderous standing ovation.

Au revoir, Yves. Merci.

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