PARIS — In many ways, the legend of Yves Saint Laurent has become larger than the man.

Near the end of a career that was cited as an inspiration to the start of many others — and one that influenced virtually every designer who came after him — the colleagues and clients of Saint Laurent on Monday praised him as an unparalleled visionary. Some offered a toast to celebrate Saint Laurent’s retirement, others reacted with pure sadness, yet the unanimous response among designers was that of a melancholy farewell to an unfaltering example.

“I am deeply sad to learn that Yves will no longer be designing haute couture,” said Tom Ford, creative director of Gucci Group and the designer of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche since October 2002. “I have tremendous respect for Mr. Saint Laurent. Yves invented the modern woman’s wardrobe 40 years ago and it is still valid today. Yves revolutionized the fashion industry with the invention of designer ready-to-wear.”

Giorgio Armani described Saint Laurent as a “wonderful inventor” who was “fundamental” to his work.

“In particular, his take on men’s clothing for women deeply influenced me,” Armani said. “He was extremely modern and I often go back to his designs. Saint Laurent has always tried to do a different kind of fashion. Today, however, people want to look alike and often, the more important an event, the less elegant people show up and I don’t even know who is to blame.”

Some felt that, as time went on, they knew the designs better than the designer. “As I have known Yves since 1954, I have many [recollections and anecdotes],” said Karl Lagerfeld. “But since 1975, the friendship stopped. We stopped seeing each other and all that faded out of my mind. I remember him vaguely as being fun to be with. All the rest came later. I never noticed then that he was born with depression.”

But Lagerfeld praised his contributions to fashion.

“I loved the trapeze for Dior and his early work there,” he said. “The idea of the Smoking mixed with the spirit of Balenciaga, and the idea of some kind of Chanel style was a great mix and right for the times when he did it. The Ballets Russes collection was great, too, and many other things he did.”

“I am sad to learn that one of the few designers left that created real clothes is retiring,” said Valentino. “My deepest admiration and love for him.”

“This is a milestone in the history of French fashion,” said Bill Blass, who retired two years ago. “There wasn’t a designer in the world who wasn’t inspired by Saint Laurent — not only inspired, but copied. His contributions were extraordinary, as the definitive designer of the last century.

“A few years ago, there was a time when the fashion world seemed to have been neglectful of him, so intrigued with the bizarre and a new change every six months with no regard,” Blass said. “They deserted him at a time when they should not have, but the rest of the world knew what Yves was about. He won in the end. The fashion press that ignored him has been proven wrong.”

Hubert de Givenchy, who retired from couture in 1995, said he was surprised by the rapidity of Saint Laurent’s decision, but added: “I believe he has done the right thing. He is leaving in a very reasonable manner — in beauty and with the glory he deserves. I also believe that his decision was well-thought-out, well-calculated, as Mr. Saint Laurent is an intelligent man.”

Gianfranco Ferre praised Saint Laurent for defining elegance and bringing innovation and versatility to fashion. “I admire him for his talent and for such a brave decision,” he said. “He made some clothes that were not considered glamorous — pantsuits, a women’s tuxedo, safari jackets, cabans. In addition, I find extraordinary the way he reread figurative art: a sign of authentic passion and deep knowledge.”

Christian Lacroix also applauded Saint Laurent for bringing art and fashion closer together, referencing operas like “Carmen” as well as modern painters. He said Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior impressed him as a six-year-old boy and heralded a new era of modernity and youth.

“It’s weird that most people, including those in his circle, want to sum up his work to a timeless classic fashion when many generations were mostly impressed by his most whimsical, fancy and crazy collections inspired by Africa, Pop Art or courtesans,” Lacroix said, describing Saint Laurent’s legacy as “Betty Catroux style: free, chic and elegant sexiness with attitude.”

Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons said that spirit of creativity will continue beyond his retirement. “For many reasons, I am deeply sad, but I am sure he will continue to create something freely in his own way,” she said.

Santo and Donatella Versace called him “one of the designer myths in the history of 20th-century fashion, a genius of creativity and style, capable of introducing sartorial innovations and of being ahead of his time.”

Saint Laurent’s closest collaborators expressed a mix of emotions Monday after attending his retirement press conference.

“It’s more than a little sad, however expected this news was,” said YSL muse Loulou de la Falaise. “He was the first couturier I ever met and the last one as well.”

“He’s a genius,” said Betty Catroux. “But now, he can pursue other interests and do other things. I think he’ll now have time to write, to sketch, to paint and to go out with me. He’ll do a thousand other things now. I’m very positive. And I don’t feel any nostalgia for the past. We still have the future together. We can do plenty of things together. Now, we’re going to have fun.”

But others felt that the larger the mystique Saint Laurent grew, the less they knew him as a person.

Donna Karan first met Saint Laurent at the 1973 Franco-American fashion show held at Versailles. She was designing for Anne Klein, and he was an icon — “and icons you do not touch,” she said. “I was so young at the time.

“When I think of Saint Laurent, I think of him as a colorful man, a spark of light and energy,” Karan said. “The magnificence of what he has been able to create is something that will carry on far beyond him, and that is something so beautiful, when you create something that is bigger than you as a person.”

“He is a man for eternity,” added Oscar de la Renta, in Paris working on Balmain’s fall couture. He praised Saint Laurent as “certainly the most modern designer to have come out of the 20th century.

“What Chanel did she did for herself and she influenced a lot of the women around her,” de la Renta said. “What Yves did was for women all over the world. He influenced the masses. He really created the concept of a modern woman.”

Emanuel Ungaro said Saint Laurent as a couturier represented “an absolute reference of the excellence of this profession. He is the symbol of what Paris can produce in terms of creative genius fed on very strong symbols and culture.”

Retailers were also moved by Saint Laurent’s impact. Bloomingdale’s was the first store to have an in-store Rive Gauche shop, which opened on the third floor of the 59th Street flagship in the early Seventies. “It had a huge impact and did very, very well with peasant looks, patterned skirts and pantsuits,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction. “It was definitely the most desired, most fashion-forward and most satisfying line. All of the major American designers were influenced by him.”

“As long as there are women who prefer style rather than fad, Saint Laurent’s indomitable influence will continue to inspire the fashion world,” added Dawn Mello, president of Dawn Mello & Associates consulting firm, and a former Bergdorf Goodman president and Gucci creative director.

Meanwhile, longtime couture clients confessed they will be at a bit of a loss without Saint Laurent.

“It’s definitely the turn of the century for haute couture, and a sad one,” said Jacqueline de Ribes. “I feel extremely sad about it. My life as an elegant woman coincided with the house and style of Yves Saint Laurent for many, many years. We were very close friends. He used to tell me, ‘You must never add, you must always take away.”‘

Nan Kempner said she was heart-broken.

“The other night I put on an Yves Saint Laurent sweater that was 40 years old and it looked better than anything I have in my closet. Nothing of Yves’s ever gets old,” she said. “There is no other Yves. He is the single greatest creator of today. You walk down Madison Avenue and see his influence in every single window. He’s irreplaceable in my book. We’re all going to miss him.”

“I’m deeply saddened by the news,” added Pat Buckley. “I think it’s probably the right thing for him to do. He’s had his day in the sun. What are people going to do? They can’t copy him anymore.”

“The YSL style is and has been a determining force in modern fashion,” said Lynn Wyatt. “For someone like me who has been a client for over 25 years, he leaves a legacy that has had a strong, creative and directional effect on fashion — ‘le smoking,’ the military looks, his brilliant mixture of color and his supreme talent of updating historical costumes into wearable design. I still wear all of the above today. Yves Saint Laurent has set an example of everlasting style that is sensationally chic and impeccable beyond words.”