For 44 years, Yves Saint Laurent defined glamour. Through his namesake house and ready-to-wear line, the designer embodied the glitz of each decade. Full of decadence and romance, many pieces attended modern history’s most iconic parties; and as fashion’s notorious club kid, Saint Laurent himself was likely there, too.
The late French designer’s massive retrospective “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” at the Seattle Art Museum—on until January 8, 2017—is, in its grandeur, an ode to his vision. Saint Laurent had a seemingly insatiable hunger to do everything larger—with more sex, with more drama. The trait led him to create some of the most ground-breaking emblems of contemporary women’s fashion, such as the smoking suit, the paint suit, and the safari jacket.
Bringing together 900 pieces mostly from the Foundation Pierre Berge – Yves Saint Laurent, as well as from private collections, the exhibition moves through 12 creative stages of the designer, beginning with his first works for Christian Dior—where the press named him “the little price of fashion”, securing his role as artistic director at just 21 years old. Early pieces on view at the exhibit, such as the Chicago short daytime ensemble inspired by motorcycle jackets, are representative of Saint Laurent’s bold and radical ideas on dressing. “Yves Saint Laurent was actually fired from Christian Dior,” says the Seattle Art Museum’s deputy director for art Chiyo Ishikawa. “He clearly had a direction he wanted to go in, and the business side of Christian Dior was uncomfortable with that. And so he decided, ‘Well, okay, let’s start our own house.’”
In 1961 Saint Laurent did just that, with longtime partner Pierre Berge. There, it was Saint Laurent’s vision through and through. In the late 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent the brand broke through with revolutionary garments that were based on men’s fashion, but made for women; the exhibition’s section “The Genders” puts together a fascinating look at these new androgynous silhouettes.
Perhaps Saint Laurent’s most lasting contribution to fashion, however, is the designer’s introduction of his ready-to-wear line Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, established in 1966. Made in the same atelier as the couture line, it was an entirely new way of thinking about a woman’s attire. “Before, it was the vision of a couturier and the women followed the dictatorship,” says Florence Müller, the Denver Art Museum’s Avenir Foundation curator of textile art, curator of fashion. “Now suddenly it’s the expression, the freedom of the ‘60s, and backed with a strong style. But with so many aspects of this style, the idea is that every woman can find her own way—her own way of expressing herself in the diversity of Yves Saint Laurent.”
Beyond the garments, the show also features drawings, concept sketches, even paper dolls created by Saint Laurent as a teenager—an impressive array of historic materials not typically seen in a fashion exhibition. “Very early on they began saving every document and saving the clothes that were produced for the runway shows and the prototypes,” says Ishikawa. “I think pretty early on, in the ‘80s, they were thinking of establishing a museum, so they had an idea of establishing a legacy. And it was rare.”
Saint Laurent retired in 2002 and died in 2008, and the house continues on today as a ready-to-wear line (helmed by newly appointed creative director Anthony Vaccarello). Saint Laurent had personal struggles with addiction and psychological issues, yet he remained a daring and determined sartorial inspiration. “The Perfection of Style” is an intimate celebration of four decades of fashion, envisioned by one man with a voracious need to create.
Stay up on Style.