Search Obituaries
Legends & Legacies View More

Yves Saint Laurent: Vive le Roi

Published: 8/1/2011

Written by Judy Bachrach. Originally published on

Every woman who got dressed at any moment during the ’60s or ’70s wore Yves Saint Laurent – even if she never purchased a single thread from the great French couturier. (Or, as the newspaper Le Figaro phrased it in a banner headline on the occasion of his death at 71, “the greatest couturier of the world.”)



Great or greatest, it hardly mattered: Saint Laurent, although he rarely ventured beyond France and the vibrantly painted indigo gardens that haloed his second beautiful home in Marrakesh, was everywhere. If you wore a tuxedo jacket on any continent, it was undoubtedly in the style of Saint Laurent, and inspired, as he revealed, by Parisian lesbian cross-dressers of the ’30s. The cheapest pantsuit in the street was likely a YSL knockoff; a safari jacket invariably carried his DNA as did thigh-high boots and even the humble peacoat of Army-Navy stores, which he salvaged, sleekened, and perfected. His only regret, Saint Laurent once said, was that he didn’t invent jeans.

Yves Saint Laurent, with models, at the opening of his new shop in London, 1969 (Wesley/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)But he was almost that brilliant. It was he, inspired by Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who made the black leather biker jacket de rigueur in the world of couture. He did much the same kind of upscale number on sober black turtlenecks, which he practically pulled off the meager torsos of beat poets on the Left Bank, and then revamped.

Saint Laurent by then understood upscale very well. He was in his late teens when he found a temporary home, working for the celebrated French designer Christian Dior – a genius, yes, but stuffy and unyielding to the demands of youth. It is likely that Dior understood his own limitations; he was fond of calling Saint Laurent “my dauphin” -- a prescient description.

A scant few years later when Dior died, Saint Laurent was named heir to the throne, entrusted as head designer with saving the esteemed fashion house from the financial ruin that threatened it. He was 21 when he had his first major show under that label. It launched the bold trapeze dress: perfectly fitted shoulders, a raised waist and vast rangy skirts that swung like a cowgirl’s; really the exact opposite of the highly structured, almost architectural wear espoused by Dior. Saint Laurent was in luck. Le tout Paris loved the collection.



Yves Saint Laurent display at San Francisco's deYoung Museum (Flickr Creative Commons/David Hilowitz)

Yves Saint Laurent display at San Francisco's deYoung Museum (Flickr Creative Commons/David Hilowitz)



In other words, triumph – wild, almost instantaneous triumph – came far too soon for Saint Laurent, who was always of a delicate and fragile temperament, unsure of how to build on success. And it would be followed, in a terrifying rollercoaster pattern that would repeat itself throughout his celebrated life, by despair and severe depression. Right after his miraculous trapeze show, for example, young Saint Laurent was drafted, ordered to serve in the French army, which was then fighting in Algeria, when that colony was seeking its independence.

As it happened, Saint Laurent, born in Oran, Algeria, couldn’t bear the stress. Not only had he been conscripted to fight in the country of his birth, he also had to endure the misery of being hazed and taunted as a homosexual by his fellow soldiers. Within short order he had a nervous breakdown. Psychiatric treatment, institutionalization, electroshock therapy – none of it really helped then or ever, at least not for long.

Self-medication was every bit as useless; Saint Laurent was done in by cocaine and panic, one feeding constantly off the other. “I have known fear and the terrors of solitude,” the designer once said. “I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs…. I have known the confinement of hospital.” He was betrayed by them all. More than most people, Saint Laurent was alone in the world.

Still, there were those who understood him. Among the earliest: the designer’s mother, Lucienne Andree Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, an elegant woman with a passion for scarlet lipstick, hats, chunky heels – and the designs a teenage Yves had whipped up for her. Seated in the front row of all his shows, she was his earliest fan.

But by no means the only one. After the early ’60s, when Saint Laurent opened up his own haute couture house with the help of his partner and lover, Pierre Berge, the designer became the idol of the exquisitely attired. The movie star Lauren Bacall wore Saint Laurent as did the jewelry designer Paloma Picasso and Marella Agnelli, the wife of the Fiat tycoon. In 1971, Bianca Jagger married Mick in a brilliant white Saint Laurent tuxedo. When the ravishing French actress Catherine Deneuve was starring as a high-class hooker in Luis Bunuel’s classic movie Belle de Jour, it was Saint Laurent she turned to for guidance. (The star wanted to appear in very, very short dresses, which were fashionable at the time. He said, Non. The hemline should be only slightly above the knee. She must look sexy but refined.)

What was Saint Laurent’s secret? To begin with, he understood what women wanted – and it was no longer the flouncy dresses and expensive hosiery of their mothers. Revolution was in the air, as he well knew. “My small job as a couturier is to make clothes that reflect our times,” he said. “I’m convinced women want to wear pants.”



Yves Saint Laurent display at San Francisco's deYoung Museum (Flickr Creative Commons/David Hilowitz)

Yves Saint Laurent display at San Francisco's deYoung Museum (Flickr Creative Commons/David Hilowitz)



That conviction proved correct, but it took a while before certain self-regarding arbiters of propriety accepted his notions of style. The late New York socialite Nan Kempner, for example, was famously refused entrance to a chic Madison Avenue restaurant because she was wearing a Saint Laurent pantsuit (she whipped off the pants, left on the tuxedo, and sailed on in).

But the designer’s other secret was at once subtler and more remunerative: He understood that ordinary women hungered every bit as much as their wealthier sisters for a taste of class. And he gave them just that: a taste. Under his aegis, more than 500 licenses for shoes, fragrances, scarves, jewelry and even cigarettes were launched, some to tremendous acclaim, others to almost universal derision (especially when he popped up, naked, in a magazine ad for one of his scents). In 1977, the designer brought out Opium perfume, and although the product with its improbable marriage of rough musk and impenetrable cinnamon achieved commercial success, it was also widely denounced. Saint Laurent was condoning drug use, it was said; he was corrupting youth.

However, Saint Laurent’s wild side was really never aimed at the ruination of strangers. At heart he was a sentimentalist. “The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves,” he once said. “But for those who haven’t had the fortune of finding this happiness, I am there.” It was on his own psyche that he exerted his formidable powers of self-destruction.

It wasn’t just the cocaine or the alcohol that did him in. His work was neglected. Throughout much of the turbulent ’70s, for instance, he was famous for dancing at assorted Paris nightclubs till dawn, Andy Warhol by his side.

By the ’80s, he was pretty much washed up. From time to time, he would appear at fashion events, but his manner appeared disoriented, his words slurred. And his clothes were beginning to look … old. When the revered Diana Vreeland, who curated a retrospective Saint Laurent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1983, pronounced Saint Laurent “a living genius,” everyone in the fashion world knew that the opposite was true. The genius was no longer really living. He was simply breathing.

Almost a decade ago, Saint Laurent and Berge sold the brand to the Gucci Group for almost $1 billion. When Tom Ford was named Saint Laurent’s successor, the French designer lost his composure (“The poor guy does what he can,” he muttered). Indeed by the end of his life, he found much to regret. “So they crowned me king,” he said. “Look what happened to the other kings of France!”

But they were never as brilliant.



Yves Saint Laurent working at his fashion house in Paris, 1965 (Reg Lancaster/Hulton Archive)

Yves Saint Laurent working at his fashion house in Paris, 1965 (Reg Lancaster/Hulton Archive)






Related Topics
Our Picks and its newspaper affiliates publish obituaries for approximately 75 percent of people who die in the U.S. – updated continuously throughout each day – as well as government records for all U.S. deaths. Find an obituary, sign a Guest Book or build an interactive memorial. Get directions to a funeral home, order flowers or donate to charity. Read advice from experts or participate in online discussions. Thanks for visiting – Where life stories live on. We welcome your feedback.