Saint Laurent understands that fashion is partly technique and partly concept. Today, designers have concepts that get attention on the runways, while Saint Laurent believes that what truly matters is how women are going to wear the clothes on the streets.
Fashion is now all about flash, dash and cash — and the tacky — and Saint Laurent never approached it that way. That doesn’t mean he’s old-fashioned, as some people now think. When he was younger, he saw on the streets how young people dressed and he reacted. After all, he took part in the Paris demonstrations in 1968 and saw the students in their sweaters and their leather jackets and took those as inspiration for his collections. He has always been avant-garde.
The one big contribution Saint Laurent made to fashion is bringing the sportif to the couture. He also had a color sense that no one else has ever matched. Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior were color blind next to him. So was Chanel. That color sense came from the exotic side of Saint Laurent’s upbringing in Algiers, which also added to the romance of his clothes. It was inbred in him.
What made him a great designer? He has the culture and the education to make women look like women and not little boys, which remains the fantasy of many designers today. Chanel couldn’t stand that look either, although Saint Laurent went against her belief that men couldn’t design for women. In a sense, Saint Laurent’s taste was more feminine than Chanel’s.
Saint Laurent could instinctively take an idea from anywhere — history, the streets, art or music — and express it eloquently in clothes. He could touch on vulgarity but not be that way. When he first did the see-through blouse, it was seductive rather than raunchy. Saint Laurent’s talent was to make fashion attractive and not ugly or sexy simply for the sake of it. Yet his designs were subtly more sensuous than anything done today.
I first met him at a Dior lunch at the Paris restaurant Berkely, which no longer exists. He’d taken over from Christian Dior by then and reminded me of a fawn lost in the evil fashion forest. The truth is that not everybody thought his Dior collections were brilliant. At that time, he was considered too avant-garde. For example, he did a collection that had hobble skirts — later copied by Christian Lacroix — but the fashion editors hated them. All they worried about was how women were going to go to the bathroom in them. That’s a typical example of how fashion people are limited in their vision.
A few years later, he and Pierre Berge would set up the House of Yves Saint Laurent, and WWD was among the first newspapers to cover his collections. For years, we were the only ones allowed to see them and photograph them in advance.
I cannot pick one Saint Laurent design over any of the others. What I do remember is how strong Saint Laurent was, and is, despite the numerous stories of his breakdowns and depression. Deep down, he’s stronger both physically and mentally than many other designers I know. When he shakes your hand or grabs your arm, you realize that he is a strong man who fights for what he believes in. That is why I don’t think the Saint Laurent story is over yet, despite his retirement. He’s too strong for that and believes too much in his metier and in doing things his way. I don’t know what is next for him, but there will be something.
But if I can’t pick my most memorable Saint Laurent design, I certainly remember many other things, such as watching his long, thin hands caress a model as he did a fitting. You literally could see the vibrations of his hands as he touched the fabric and worked on the perfect fit. It was that aspect that linked him to the great designers of the past. They all started their collections by making a toile out of canvas to get the shape right. It’s a far cry from what is going on in some ateliers in Paris, which claim to do couture and sell their dresses at half the price of a Saint Laurent. These houses have bastardized the concept of couture with machine work instead of only handwork. It isn’t the real thing.
Then there is how much Saint Laurent loves to eat and how everything at his table — the roses, the marble table and the food — is always the most beautiful you could imagine.
And how could I forget his relationship with Pierre Berge? You can see immediately that Saint Laurent is the strong one and the boss, yet also that he loves Berge and trusts him completely. Few people realize that Berge’s helicopter pilot license meant he also could fly at night. I once flew with him and Saint Laurent and sat there, nervously awake, watching every move. I turned to ask Saint Laurent if he was nervous — and he was fast asleep!
We once were having lunch and Berge came into the room in a tweed Norfolk jacket before setting off to fly his helicopter. Saint Laurent took one look at the jacket and said simply, “No, Pierre. It is not possible.”
Berge, to get back at Saint Laurent’s constant teasing, once said that he believed he could design, too, and was going to do a collection of hats. “My God,” Saint Laurent said. “Forget it!”
But he couldn’t get along without him. “That boy can’t do anything,” Berge used to complain. “His toilet is overflowing so he calls me in New York from Paris and asks me to get it fixed!”
During his constant bouts of depression, I would tell him to get out and see what was going on, to go and buy a baguette, a newspaper and talk to people. Saint Laurent would just sit there and gaze at me, smiling slightly. It wasn’t in his makeup.
People often ask me who are the world’s greatest designers. To me, the three would be Saint Laurent, Chanel and Giorgio Armani. Intellectuals also might list Balenciaga, but only up to a point. What links those three is that they always dressed everybody. Their goal was to design clothes that could be worn on the streets, not simply in fashion magazines or on the runways.
There certainly could be another Saint Laurent in fashion’s future. Anything is possible. But I don’t see it in the celestial skies at the moment. The considerable power of hype, advertising and big bucks is inhibiting the golden hand of creation.
The times have so changed that what Saint Laurent stands for no longer has a real place. And if that is the case, the question has to be: Where do designers go from here? If design no longer has a place for Saint Laurent, what has happened to the romance and fantasy in fashion?
Editor’s note: John B. Fairchild is the former chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications. He currently is editor at large.
Following is a translated transcript of Yves Saint Laurent’s complete remarks on Monday.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have invited you here today to announce an important event concerning both my personal life and my metier.
When I was 18, I had the great fortune to become the assistant of Christian Dior. In 1958, at the age of 21, I was appointed to succeed him and met with success with my very first collection. In a few days’ time, that will be 44 years ago.
Since then, I have lived for my metier and by my metier. Today I would like to pay tribute to all those who have influenced me, guided my actions, and served as a reference to me. First and foremost, I would like to pay tribute to Christian Dior, my master, who was instrumental in revealing to me the secrets and mysteries of haute couture. I do not forget Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, and, of course, Chanel, who taught me so much, and who, as we all know, liberated women. It was this that enabled me, years later, to give women supremacy and, in a way, to liberate fashion.
By opening the world’s first pret-a-porter boutique from a grand couturier in 1966 and by creating clothes that fell outside the realms of haute couture, I realize that I helped to advance the fashion of my time by allowing women access to a universe that had previously been inaccessible to them.
Like Chanel, I have always accepted copies and I am extremely proud that women, the world over, today wear pants-suits, smoking suits, peajackets, and trench-coats. In many ways I feel that I have created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman and that I have participated in the transformation of my era. I have done so through clothes, which are certainly less important than music, architecture, painting or many other art forms, but it is nonetheless what I have done.
You will forgive me if I indulge in a little conceit, but I have believed for a long time now that fashion is not merely there to embellish women. I believe it is also means to reassure them, to give them confidence, to enable them to assert themselves. Similarly, I utterly reject the fantasies of those who seek to satisfy their egos through fashion. Unlike them, I wanted to put myself at women’s disposal. That is to say, to serve them, to serve their bodies, their gestures, their attitudes, their life. It was my wish to accompany them in that great movement of liberation that occurred during the last century.
In 1962 I had the opportunity to create my own couture house. That was 40 years ago. I would like to thank all those who from the outset had faith in me.
I would like to thank Michel de Brunhof who led me to Christian Dior; Mack Robinson who believed I had a future and who enabled me to open my couture house; and Richard Salomon to whom I owe so much. And how could I forget journalists like John Fairchild, Carmel Snow, Diana Vreeland, Nancy White, Eugenia Sheppard, and Edmonde Charles-Roux?
On a more personal note, I would like to thank Pierre Berge, which, of course, goes without saying. My thanks also go to Anne-Marie Munoz and Loulou de la Falaise. It would be impossible for me to cite all the Premiers and Premieres d’atelier who have accompanied me since the beginning, nevertheless, what would I have been able to achieve without them or their enormous talent which I salute? The same applies to all the ouvriers and ouvrieres whose admirable devotion has been of such great assistance to me. To them and to all at my couture house, I express my profound gratitude.
I would also like to thank the women, be they famous or unknown, who have worn my clothes, remaining so faithful to me, and bringing me so much joy.
Over these many years, I feel that I have carried out my work with unflinching professionalism. I have made no concessions. I have always placed a respect for this profession above all else. While not exactly an art, it nonetheless requires an artist for it to exist.
I do not believe that I have betrayed the adolescent who showed his first sketches to Christian Dior with such unshakeable faith and conviction. That same faith and conviction has never deserted me.
Every man needs aesthetic phantoms in order to exist. I have hunted mine out, pursued them, tracked them down. I have grappled with anguish and I have been through sheer hell. I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs. I have known the prison of depression and the confinement of hospital. But, one day, I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober. It was Marcel Proust who taught me that “the magnificent and pitiful family of the hypersensitive are the salt of the earth.” I, without knowing it, was part of that family. It is my own. I did not choose this tragic descent, but through it I was able to rise to the heavens of creativity, where I came across the fire-makers that Rimbaud spoke of, discovering myself and understanding that the most important encounter in one’s life is that with oneself.
However, I have today decided to bid farewell to the world of fashion I have so loved.
The next show to which I invite you, on Tuesday 22nd January 2002 at 6:00 PM in the Centre Georges Pompidou, will be largely composed of a retrospective of my work. Many of you already know the models that will be shown. I am naive enough to believe that they are able to resist the attacks of time and that they still have their place in today’s world.
I would also like to thank Mr. Francois Pinault and to express him my gratitude for allowing me to bring this marvellous adventure to a harmonious close, he too believing, as do I, that this House’s Haute Couture line should come to an end upon my departure.
Last but not least, I would like to thank all of you who are here and all those who cannot be, for your loyal presence at the many rendezvous that I have given you over the years. Thank you for your support, your understanding and your love.
I shall not forget you.