Yves Saint Laurent was a dreamer, born in the summer—on August 1, 1936—in the French colony of Algeria. As a boy he happily spent his time designing dresses for his mother and re-creating theater in his comfortable family home. When Catholic school and its bullies were too much for him, the young Saint Laurent escaped through the pages of Vogue into a fantasy of Paris, fashion, beauty, and light. He would soon become one of the greatest fashion designers of the 20th century. As the sun sets on his living memory, a sweeping exhibition further weaves the legend of Yves Saint Laurent into the life of Paris and its art.
It is now 60 years since Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, launched his eponymous couture house, and on January 29, “Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées” will invite visitors on a journey through the permanent collections of six Parisian museums, exploring the designer’s lifelong dialogue with art and literature.
Saint Laurent was just 19 when the Vogue editor Michel de Brunhoff introduced him to Christian Dior, who immediately hired the aspiring designer. It was a perfect match, for the deeply refined Dior was famous for addressing culture—art, music, opera, dance—in his worldly collections. Two years later, when Dior died suddenly, in 1957, Saint Laurent stepped into the role of chief designer and brilliantly met the moment. He was 21.
In 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted for his military service, only to be discharged after three weeks following a nervous breakdown. Yes, he was emotionally fragile, but his design vision was steely. Indeed, Saint Laurent’s last collection at Dior had shown an autonomy and a modernity that scared management. While he recovered in a private clinic, the house hired Marc Bohan to replace him. Was Saint Laurent’s meteoric rise coming to an end? In fact, it was only just beginning. With his lover, Pierre Bergé, who would become his longtime business partner, Saint Laurent opened his own house in 1962.
And artful it was. His first sensation, one that proposed an equivalence between art and design, arrived in 1965. Inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian, the uncompromising Dutch painter, Saint Laurent transformed two-dimensional modernism into a perfectly tailored three-dimensional form. At the Centre Pompidou, the exhibition’s curator, Mouna Mekouar, is delighted to be showing these dresses next to works by Mondrian. She describes Saint Laurent’s creative process as “a metamorphosis from picture to moving couture.” Saint Laurent and Bergé later bought three Mondrians.
“Art was an essential part of Yves Saint Laurent’s daily existence,” says Madison Cox, president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent. The designer had a huge collection of art books, catalogues, and magazines, and attended all the exhibitions in the museums where his dresses are now being shown. That passion for collecting was shared with Bergé. “They never bought a piece,” Cox recalls wistfully, “without mutually agreeing on it.” Mixing art from all over the world with old-master and contemporary pieces, the collection at Saint Laurent and Bergé’s apartment, on the Rue de Babylone, achieved heady acclaim with the title of “sale of the century” when it was sold at Christie’s, in 2009.
In addition to the Pompidou, “Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées” takes place at the Musée d’Art Moderne, where colorful designs are inspired by the French painter Pierre Bonnard; at the Musée National Picasso, featuring Cubism with a twist; and at the Louvre, where in the magnificent Galerie d’Apollon jewel-like jackets represent the seasons.
The Musée d’Orsay celebrates Saint Laurent’s profound love of Marcel Proust. Here are two gowns created for the 1971 Proust Ball: one in rich satin for the hostess, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, and a long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length number for Jane Birkin, which feels unusually demure for the sex symbol Birkin had become after her hit single “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus.” The Musée d’Orsay is also the perfect place to explore what could be described as Saint Laurent’s greatest contribution to women’s fashion: Le Smoking. A man’s black dinner jacket recalibrated for a woman, it is perhaps the most elegant bit of gender-bending in fashion history.
The bite-size interventions at these museums serve as amuse-bouches for the larger, deeper exhibition at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which holds the master’s full archive. Here the focus is on process, on the translation of Saint Laurent’s visionary drawings into finished pieces, enduring fantasies. —Sarah Hyde
“Yves Saint Laurent aux Musées” opens on January 29 across Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Orsay, Musée National Picasso, Musée du Louvre, and Musée Yves Saint Laurent
Sarah Hyde is a London-based writer