The death of fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent at 71 marked the end of an era for the world of designers. Saint Laurent was a man of his time and in many ways played a role in the social and political upheavals that took place during the 20th century.
Yves Saint Laurent’s remarkable five-decade career began on August 1, 1936 when Yves Henri Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria to a French colonial family. His first experience in fashion design was when he created clothes for his sisters’ dolls at the age of twelve. His more formal entry into the fashion scene came in 1954 when he and Karl Lagerfeld shared first prizes in an International Wool Secretariat competition. Christian Dior, who happened to be a judge for this contest, immediately hired the remarkably talented eighteen-year-old, and was later to be replaced by Saint Laurent at the age of 21.
While Saint Laurent had early success working for Dior (his “Ligne Trapeze” was very well received), his later designs received rather lukewarm reviews and it was not until 1961 when Saint Laurent left Dior to create his own design company, which he began to become an icon for his magnificent fashion creations.
Together with his friend and partner, Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent founded the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent and began a remarkable 20-year streak, when the Saint Laurent name became synonymous with glamor and elegance on the Paris catwalks, and he was the undisputed leader of international fashion. . His trademark, YSL, remains the most famous initial in fashion history.
Saint Laurent has a number of important “firsts” to its credit. His revolutionary idea of putting women in masculine yet elegantly fashionable tuxedos was a watershed moment in fashion. Her designs celebrated women’s growing empowerment and increasing sexual liberation and came at a time when the feminist movement was just beginning to gain traction across the globe. He was also the first fashion designer to use black models, another example of his revolutionary role in the design world.
While Saint Laurent was extremely talented in the broad spectrum of fashion design, his greatest fame was as the best colorist in fashion history. Her unique use of color led to fashion designs that were as much a work of art as they were functional clothing.
Saint Laurent’s sensitivity was legendary and this led to a nervous breakdown when he was forced into military service in the 1960s. Hidden behind large glasses, the quiet and shy Saint Laurent liked to stay at home rather than to enjoy the notorious nightlife of Paris and he went to work daily with his beloved French bulldog Moujik.
Upon Saint Laurent’s death, his associate, Pierre Berge noted “There will be two that will undeniably remain – one which symbolizes the first part of the 20th century, and that is Chanel, and the other which will symbolize the second part of the 20th century, and it’s Yves Saint Laurent.” It was a fast and historic time, the last half of the 20th century, and Yves Saint Laurent unquestionably led the fashion industry through many of the same changes that the world at large was participating in.