Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

by Alice Rawsthorn, Rawsthorn


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Yves Saint Laurent is arguably the greatest fashion designer of this century. World-renowned since the age of twenty-one, when he shot to fame as the savior of Christian Dior, he has changed the way that women dress with a series of innovations—from trouser suits and leather boots to peasant shawls and safari jackets—now regarded as classics. His business empire has become a role model for the fashion and beauty industries, establishing Rive Gauche as the first chain of ready-to-wear boutiques, launching Opium as a bestselling perfume, and opening up the vast Asian market.

Raised in colonial Algeria, Saint Laurent was taken on by Dior as an assistant while studying in Paris as a teenager. Hailed as a hero in France for saving the company after Dior's death, his world collapsed when he was conscripted into the French army. Saint Laurent broke down and was committed to a military hospital where he was brutally treated. His lover, Pierre Berg, rescued him and set him up in his own couture house. Thanks to Saint Laurent's genius and Berg's business acumen, their company dominated fashion throughout the 1960s and '70s, making them fabulously wealthy. But the pressures of fame and the commercial constraints of fashion took a toll on Saint Laurent. The charismatic young man who partied with Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol fell prey to addiction and depression, retreating from the world to live as a recluse, while Pierre Berg became a force in the French arts and in politics. As Saint Laurent withdrew, his financial affairs came under scrutiny, culminating in the political storm over the sale of his empire in 1993 to a state-controlled company.

Alice Rawsthornhas followed the fashion industry for many years for the Financial Times of London, and her unique access has enabled her to write this biography, the first full account of Saint Laurent's life and business. Full of the drama and excitement of the fashion scene, Yves Saint Laurent is the remarkable story of a remarkable man.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385476454
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/1996
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.55(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.37(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Paris of the early 1950s offered everything Yves had longed for in Oran. The intellectual life of the city had exploded after the rigours of the Occupation, and there was a resurgence of interest in the work of his favourite pre-war novelists and dramatists, Andr Gide and Jean Anouilh. A new generation of younger writers was emerging: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. The decorative arts were thriving. Yves's hero, Christian Berard, had died in 1949, but Cocteau and Clav were still prolific. Roland Petit had breathed new life into ballet and French fashion was flourishing after the success of Christian Dior's "New Look" in 1947 and the work of his peers, Pierre Balmain and Cristobal Balenciaga. Even the social scene regained a whiff of its pre-war grandeur in the opulent soires of the great hostesses, Marie-Laure de Noailles and Marie-Louise Bousquet, where France's oldest families mingled with the brightest young artists and any interesting American who happened to be visiting the city: from the writers, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, to the conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

Yves and Lucienne were outsiders in Paris. People from Algeria, even those with money and old Alsatian names, were pieds noirs to the French. The name pieds noirs, or "black feet", came from the clumpy black shoes that poor French farmers wore in North Africa. Lucienne and Yves spoke with the accents of wealthy pieds noirs, which, in Parisian eyes, placed them rather low in the social pecking order. But they were happy to be there and Lucienne showed Yves the city she remembered from childhood holidays with Aunt Rene, taking him for walks alongthe riverbank and for strolls around the shops. As was customary for the wife of a wealthy French businessman on a visit to the capital, she treated herself to a new outfit at one of the haute couture houses by ordering a gown from Jean Patou.

Before leaving for France, Lucienne had asked a family friend to arrange for Yves to meet Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue. Yves was to show him his sketches and ask his advice about his chances of pursuing a career in theatrical design; or, in the wake his success in the International Wool Secretariat competition, as couturier. The interview was as much for Charles's benefit as for Yves's. Charles was happy to tolerate his son's passion for art as a hobby, but not as a career. Yves had always done well academically and his father wanted him to follow the family tradition--and to fulfill his own adolescent ambition--by becoming a lawyer. Knowing that Yves was determined to work in the arts, Lucienne hoped that the endorsement of an eminent man like Michel de Brunhoff might persuade her husband to change his mind.

Michel de Brunhoff was one of the most powerful figures in French fashion and a member of the artistic Parisian circle that seemed so enticing to Yves. His brother, Laurent, was the author of the Babar children's books and Michel himself a confidant of Christian Dior, Jean Cocteau and, before his death, of Christian Brard. He had ruled the roost at Paris Vogue since the 1930s and under his editorship it became the arbiter of French chic. "Vogue was very litist," observed Marie-Jos Lepicard, one of his young writers. "Michel de Brunhoff insisted that everything was done absolutely correctly. The fashion editors were expected to dress immaculately, like models. We wore tailored suits with gloves buttoned up to our elbows, full make-up and Joy perfume, probably because it was the most expensive. When I went to work for Vogue the first things I bought were a pair of gloves and a bottle of Joy."

Despite his lofty status, Michel de Brunhoff was a kindly man who was happy to help talented youngsters. He had a bluff, almost comical appearance, with a round face, bushy eyebrows and tufts of white hair around his bald pate. Too short and plump for conventional elegance, he dressed like Winston Churchill in double-breasted suits with a white handkerchief sprouting out of the breast pocket, occasionally topped off by a bowler hat. It was typical of him to have found the time to see the wife of an obscure Orani businessman and her shy seventeen-year-old son. He thought Yves's sketches were excellent and said so, but advised him that, although he might well have a dazzling career in Paris, he should first go back to school and pass his baccalaurat. If he was serious about a career in fashion, Yves could then return to Paris and enroll in one of the design courses run by the industry body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. Lucienne was thrilled. Her son was as talented as she had thought, but she would not have to part from him; at least, not for a while. They returned to Oran hoping Charles would be swayed by Michel de Brunhoff's encouragement.

Charles knew when he was beaten. He found it difficult enough to stand up to his wife, but Yves was impossible; even as a child, he had an imperious side. Besides, the opinions of a man like Michel Brunhoff were not to be taken lightly, his advice to Yves seemed sensible and all Charles had ever really wanted was for his children to be happy. "Yves was never influenced by anyone," he told American Vogue years later. "I'd say it was his mother who was influenced by him. As for me, I've always believed that a child should be allowed to do what he wants in life. What matters is that he wants to do something."

Yves reapplied himself to his studies--with escape in sight, even school did not seem so grim. He spent his evenings and weekends working on new sketches of dresses and theatre sets, sending off a batch of drawings to Michel de Brunhoff in early 1954, a few months after their meeting in Paris. De Brunhoff wrote back in a kindly but instructive manner. "Dear sir, I find your designs most interesting, and can only repeat what I told you when you were in Paris, that your gift for fashion is beyond doubt. I have marked with a cross those of your designs that I find most successful. If I were you, I would take advantage of this year when you are relatively free of other commitments to work from nature--landscape, still life, portraits, as well as fashion models. As a matter of fact, I am rather afraid that your particular talents do not encourage you to work hard enough in your drawing. I can see that you are still influenced by Brard. All to the good--he was one of my oldest friends, and you could not choose a better master. But I should tell you that he did work hard at his drawing, and the few wonderful portraits he left behind him--remarkable portraits--are inclined to make one sorry that he devoted the end of his life solely to scenery and costume for the theatre and to fashion."

Yves waited to reply until he had received the results of his baccalaurat. "Dear sir, I am sorry not to have written back sooner, but I wanted to wait for the results of my examination before doing so. As I had hoped, they proved entirely satisfactory and I am to move to Paris at the beginning of the autumn. Perhaps my plans are too ambitious. Like Brard, I want to focus on a number of different activities which are really all parts of one thing--that is, scenery, costumes, decoration and illustration for the theatre. On the other hand, I am very much drawn to fashion. No doubt my career will develop naturally out of one or the other of these areas. In any case do you still think I should start by attending the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture? If you think otherwise, I should be grateful if you would tell me."

Charles enrolled his son in the Chambre Syndicale course starting in autumn 1954. Michel de Brunhoff had convinced him that Yves really did have a flair for design, and Charles had abandoned any hope of his going into the law. He had another reason for sending his eighteen-year-old son away from Algeria--the violent clashes between Muslim nationalists and the French forces, which threatened to plunge Algeria into a colonial war.

Until then Algeria had seemed more stable than France's other colonies. There had been nationalist protests in Morocco, Tunisia and Indo-China since the 1920s, but the French influence was stronger in Algeria as the European population was so large that it was more difficult for the nationalists to build a political base there. By 1954 Muslim militants were stepping up their attacks on French targets across North Africa and the violence had spread to Algeria. Early that year France retreated from Indo-China after a brutal defeat by the Vietnamese nationalists at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and by summer it was preparing to withdraw from Morocco and Tunisia. The prospect of an independent Algeria no longer seemed improbable. Muslim militants were rallying behind the National Liberation Front, which was committed to expelling the French by force. Anxious to avoid seeing Yves conscripted into the French army, it seemed to Charles that sending him away to study in Paris was a sensible solution.

Yves set off for France that September; this time he travelled alone. Lucienne arranged for him to rent a room in the apartment of a family friend, the widow of a general, on Boulevard Pereire in the seventeenth arrondissement, a quiet residential district north of the Arc de Triomphe. He set off from there each day to his classes at the Chambre Syndicale school on rue Saint-Roch, a road running down to the Tuileries Gardens.

Yves disliked his lodgings and was bored by the course, "learning about the right thread, the cut, all the little things like that". But he found a kindred spirit among his fellow-students in Fernando Sanchez, an ebullient young Spaniard. A flamboyant figure, Fernando was as tall and spindly as Yves, with wiry curls and a foppish dress sense. His father had died when he was young, leaving him to be brought up by his Belgian mother, a wealthy woman who pampered him, just as Lucienne had her son. Fernando shared his new friend's interest in art and the theatre, but he was worldlier and more extrovert than Yves. Having persuaded his mother to let him live alone in Paris, he rented a studio on the fashionable Left Bank and took Yves under his wing, organizing escapes from the tedium of the Chambre Syndicale course by taking him off to nightclubs, art galleries, the opera and the theatre.

That autumn Yves reentered the International Wool Secretariat competition. This time he was placed first, winning three of the seven prizes and easily beating the other finalists, including Fernando and Karl Lagerfeld, a German boy who was awarded first place in the coats section. Yves won the main prize with a sketch of a cocktail dress, which had an asymmetrical neckline and a slim tulip skirt tapering elegantly beneath the knee. At the ceremony, Yves looked younger than his eighteen years with his stern steel-rimmed spectacles and brilliantined crew-cut. His heavy woolen jacket gave him the gauche air of a schoolboy shuffled into his best clothes for a special occasion. L'Echo d'Oran, the Mathieu-SaintLaurents' daily paper, sent a young fashion reporter, Janie Samet, to interview him afterwards at the Boulevard Pereire apartment. "We were both very young and nervous about the interview--trembling like fawns," she recounted. "He was even younger and shyer than me. But what struck me about him was that, despite his shyness, he knew exactly what he wanted. His ambition was to be a famous couturier."

Yves returned to Oran in triumph that Christmas, elated by his competition success and talking excitedly about his future plans. On his return to Paris that January, his classes at the Chambre Syndicale school seemed even duller, as did life in the rented room on Boulevard Pereire. He told his parents that he was thinking of quitting the course. Charles was so concerned that on 14 January 1955 he wrote to Michel de Brunhoff appealing for help. The tone of his letter was sensible and sympathetic, showing how hard he was trying to understand his son and to do his best to advise him. "We have received two letters from Yves since his return to Paris after his Christmas holiday in Oran," he wrote. "It is clear to me that he has become very dejected after the thrill of his first term and, above all, his success in the Wool competition. He was full of enthusiasm and plans during the holidays. But I know all too well that the transition from home back to student lodgings can be depressing, particularly after spending a holiday with old friends. It would appear that he also feels disillusioned with his course work and does not find it sufficiently demanding to fill his time. He has pursued various other projects but they don't seem to fill the empty hours in his day and sometimes seem to make him even more depressed. You must have noticed his timidity, and his fear of intruding, so knowing of his great confidence in you, I am taking the liberty of asking you, when you see him, to give him a little help and advice."

Michel de Brunhoff replied a month later, apologizing for not having written sooner and explaining that he had been in hospital. He told Charles that he had sent Yves to see a friend at the Comdie Franaise who had promised to try to find him work as a theatre designer. He concluded by assuring him of his high regard for Yves. "I am extremely fond of your son and rate his talent very highly. I shall do all I can to ensure that he does find the right niche and that his stay in Paris is a real success."

He kept his word. A few weeks later Yves went back to see him with yet another set of sketches. De Brunhoff was astonished when he saw the drawings. They looked just like the "A" Line that his friend, Christian Dior, had designed for his spring 1955 couture collection. Michel de Brunhoff had seen the collection privately that morning but it had not yet been shown to the public. A young Chambre Syndicale student could not possibly have known what Dior's designs looked like. De Brunhoff telephoned the couturier, knowing that he was about to leave Paris for a vacation, and told him that he had to find time to see Yves before he went. "Dior agreed to meet me," said Yves, "looked at my designs and offered me a job."

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