The Patron Saint of Couture Yves Saint Laurent

Posted on 20. Dec, 2008 by in Fashion, Profiles

words by Jen Kay

The recent passing of famed fashion revolutionary Yves Saint Laurent has resurrected many precious memories of his life and creations. He had the bravery to take huge artistic risks with both his haute couture and prêt-a-port lines, which was either a testament to his creative conviction – or the arrogance of youth. After all, he was only 21-years-old when he was appointed head designer of Christian Dior, France’s premiere label and monumental moneymaker. He went on to mix the lines of traditional roles, allowing women to wear the pants, and bringing high fashion to the civilian middle class.

Raised by Algerian-French parents, Saint Laurent found his first muse and fashion devotee in his mother, who, once her son turned to the sewing machine, would remain clothed in his designs for the rest of her life. He had the creative vision as well as the technical skill to flawlessly bring his sketches to life. This aspect of couture design, the actual process of cutting and sewing the fabrics, has long become a delegated task, but it was a crucial component to Saint Laurent’s success. Yves knew clothing, he knew women, and he knew how to combine his love of both to create iconic fashions that both reflected and shaped pop culture itself.

Yves Saint Laurent set many firsts over the course of his career, which spanned the better part of a century. He was the first couturier to launch a ready-to-wear line and by doing so he set trends on a level not possible with just his couture collections. The beatnik turtleneck, the bolero jacket, the transparent lacy blouse, the safari jacket, bohemian skirts, the pop-art inspired Mondrian dress, and of course, the pantsuit are all original creations by Yves Saint Laurent which have been re-invented year after year, and devoured by each new generation of fashionistas.

As controversial as he was creative, Laurent caused a much celebrated stir in the 1960’s Manhattan social scene with his iconic women’s tuxedo, Le Smoking Suit. Folklore has it that famed socialite Nan Kempner wore the suit to a four-star French restaurant in New York, and was turned away by the Maitre d’, citing the dress code. Nan promptly slipped off the trousers and dined in the jacket alone. It isn’t surprising that such precocious behavior was inspired by an Yves Saint Laurent design.

Saint Laurent was the first designer to feature women of color on his runway, which at the time was as revolutionary as the designs he fashioned. His gender-bending collections challenged men’s authority, and gave women the external inspiration to act as powerful as they felt. Empowering the sublimated was a mission dear to Yves’ essence. The slight man with the thick glasses, bullied and berated during his youth, once told a journalist, “Whenever they picked on me, I’d say to myself, ‘One day you’ll be famous.’ That was my way of getting back at them.” Years later, as he enjoyed wealth, creative adulation, and the company of the most beautiful women in the world, one cannot deny that for some, revenge is sweet indeed. 

A forty-year retrospective, featuring a collection of  Yves Saint Laurent’s most iconic designs is currently on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco,, running until March 1st, 2009.

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