Yves Saint Laurent: From Boy Wonder to Bon Vivant

YSL logo
Image credit: FuFu Wolf / CC BY 2.0

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent came into the world in Oran, Algeria on August 1st, 1936. Though born into a well-off family, a young Saint Laurent was severely picked on for his gentle and timid nature as well as for his sexual orientation, which led him to turn increasingly inward to a world of fantasy and creativity. What must at the time have been a period of great distress for the nascent designer was nevertheless the foundational moment of his early career. As an escape from his childhood torment, he created a make-believe fashion house populated by cut-out paper designs, imaginary models, only the finest suppliers, and even a captive clientele, played by his two sisters.

Saint Laurent’s dreams would become a reality just a few years later in 1955. At the recommendation of Michel de Brunhoff, the editor-in-chief of French Vogue, who had been impressed by Saint Laurent’s drawings, he was taken on as an assistant by none other than Christian Dior. Moreover, just two years later, Saint Laurent was appointed his successor upon Dior’s sudden death. Saint Laurent was just 21 years old. 

Despite his youth, Saint Laurent’s first collection for Dior was a hit. As time wore on, however, that youthful eye proved ill-suited to outfitting the average Dior customer, who skewed somewhat older. Once again, the young Saint Laurent was in for a difficult time, not helped in any way by a great deal of media scrutiny and news that he had been conscripted into the army of his home country. Under the weight of these pressures, Saint Lauren suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged from his service both in the military and at the house of Dior. 

Despite this setback, the designer was able to establish the label that still bears his name in 1961. With the help of his longtime partner in life and business, Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent managed to bring into the fold some of his former colleagues at Dior, secure a logo designed by Cassandre (at that time known as the world’s greatest graphic designer), as well as a hefty $7 000 investment from American entrepreneur, J. Mack Robinson.

This time around, despite any lingering public scepticism, Saint Laurent did not disappoint and quickly established himself as one of the most influential voices in twentieth-century fashion. Among his many innovations was the popularisation of high-class ready-to-wear garments in a world where couture reigned supreme. A key moment in this development was his famous Piet Mondrian-inspired shift dresses. Despite taking their cue from the world of high art, these were garments made to be modern, functional, and accessible to a young, high street-dwelling audience. Moreover, designs such as these seemed to recognise and resonate with a groundswell of women’s empowerment in the 1960s, a movement that celebrated the power, individuality, and sexual liberation of women and proved a rich vein of inspiration to one of the era’s most celebrated designers.

One of the ways in which he celebrated female empowerment was by embracing gender fluidity and injecting into its feminine counterpart the sense of power that can be engendered by wearing menswear. In doing so, Saint Laurent took up Coco Chanel’s mantle of bringing menswear into the world of women’s fashion with innovations like his famous ‘Le Smoking’, a sharply tailored tuxedo worn by such luminaries as Bianca Jagger and Catherine Deneuve, and his power pantsuits that popularised women’s trousers worn for all occasions. 

This blend of masculine and feminine aethetics makes him a figure of interest not simply in the sphere of women’s fashion but also for those primarily interested in menswear. Of course, YSL has also made men’s clothing since the late ’60s, in addition to a popular range of men’s accessories and fragrances, the latter being introduced in 1971 via a famous campaign in which Saint Laurent posed nude for a portrait by Jeanloup Sieff.

Yves Saint Laurent wearing black
Image credit: otosuar / CC BY-SA 2.0

When clothed, however, Saint Laurent himself has been as much of a figure of fascination to menswear fans for his personal wardrobe as for his label’s designs. He was particularly known for wearing versions of the sharp suits and safari jackets he so deftly incorporated into his womenswear collections and was rarely seen without some chic silken accessory or, perhaps most famous of all, a pair of his signature eyeglasses. These were usually heavy-framed and uniformly eyecatching — the kind of thing which, as Stephen Fry astutely points out, ‘on men of any other nationality can look dull and nerdy, but which the French somehow manage to make impossibly glamorous’.

Yves Saint Laurent sold his eponymous brand to the Gucci Group (now Kering) for $1 billion in 1999. He retired in 2002 and died a few years later in 2008. At the end of his life, as Colin McDowell wrote for Business of Fashion, ‘he could look back over his years as a designer and, with perfect justification, claim not only that every major change in women’s dress had originated with him, but also that many current female attitudes were, in part, the result of his uncompromisingly bold fashion approaches, not least to self and sexuality.’

YSL was the first true piece of luxury wear I ever owned. It came in the form of a vintage tie that has hung in my closet for so long that I’m no longer sure how it came to be there, no doubt a serendipitous thrift store find or the generous gift of a person with a far better eye than me because it took me years to realise that this humble but characterful necktie was in fact made by one of the most influential designers to take up the mantle. Now, however, I never put it on without pausing for a second to spare him a thankful thought.

Vintage Yves Saint Laurent tie
Image is my own / All rights reserved