The death of fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent at age 71 marked the end of an era for the designer world. Saint Laurent was a man of his times and in many ways played a part in the social and political upheaval that took place during the twentieth century.
The remarkable five decade career of Yves Saint Laurent got its start on August 1, 1936 when Yves Henri Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria to a French Colonial family. His first experience in fashion design was when he created clothes for his sisters’ dolls at the age of twelve. His more formal entry into the fashion scene occurred in 1954 when he and Karl Lagerfeld shared top prizes in an International Wool Secretariat competition. Christian Dior, who happened to be a judge for that competition, immediately hired the remarkably talented eighteen year old , and was later to be succeeded by Saint Laurent at the age of 21.
While Saint Laurent had initial success working for Dior(his “Ligne Trapeze” was very well received), his later creations were given rather tepid reviews and it would not be until 1961, when Saint Laurent left Dior to start his own design company, that he began to attain icon status for his wonderful fashion designs.
Together with his friend and partner, Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent started the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house and began a remarkable 20-year streak, when Saint Laurent’s name became synonymous with Paris catwalk glamour and elegance, and he was the unquestioned leader in international fashion. His patented trademark, YSL, remains the most famous initials in fashion history.
Saint Laurent had a number of important “firsts” to his credit. His ground-breaking idea of putting women in masculine yet stylishly fashionable tuxedoes was a defining moment in fashion. His designs celebrated the growing empowerment of women and their increasing sexual liberation and came at a time when the feminist movement was just gaining traction across the globe. He was also the first fashion designer to use black models, another example of his ground-breaking role in the design world.
While Saint Laurent was extremely talented across the wide spectrum of fashion design, his greatest fame was as the best colorist in fashion history. His unique use of colors led to fashion creations which were as much a work of art as they were functional clothing.
Saint Laurent’s sensitivity was legendary and this led to a nervous breakdown when he was forced to do military service in the 1960’s. Hidden behind large spectacles, the quiet and shy Saint Laurent enjoyed staying at home rather than taking advantage of the notorious Paris nightlife and he commuted to work daily with his beloved French bulldog Moujik.
Upon Saint Laurent’s death his partner, Pierre Berge noted “There will be two who will undeniably remain – one who symbolized the first part of the 20th century, and that’s Chanel, and the other one who will symbolize the second part of the 20th century, and that’s Yves Saint Laurent.” They were fast moving and historic times, the last half of the twentieth century, and Yves Saint Laurent unquestionably led the fashion industry through many of the same changes that the world in general was participating in.