Yves Saint Laurent: His Beginnings

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Yves Saint Laurent is a legendary brand; one that has long been associated with the epitome of taste and class, and also one of the leaders in democratizing fashion. One may expect such a revolutionary brand to have an outgoing director, but Yves was much more reserved than many initially think, though he was nothing short of extraordinary.

Yves was truly a man who had intrinsic talent; from a young age, it was evident that he had a unique eye for art and fashion, something that actually led to his getting bullied at school. It is in this youth that we see the first seeds of anxiety linked to his art.

He remained shy, but he held onto his passion for the world of fashion, drawing his first designs for female family members, before eventually moving to France and enrolling at the esteemed Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. Unlike his elementary school days, he wasn’t ridiculed for his sense of aesthetics, but rather lauded. The editor of French Vogue, Michel de Brunoff, was thoroughly impressed, and was momentous in propelling Yves’ career in fashion.

Brunoff had just been to an exclusive preview of Christian Dior’s 1955 A-line designs, a collection that hadn’t been released to the public, and one the Yves’ couldn’t have known about as he had no connection to Dior at this time. While the A-line is familiar to us now, it was a brand new style at the time. Yet, later that same day, Yves showed Brunoff some of his sketches, which were astonishingly similar to Dior’s unreleased line. Sensing a similar in Dior and Yves’ way of thinking and creativity, Brunoff set up a meeting for the two, and the also shy and reserved Dior hired Yves.

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While Dior was impressed, Yves was still very young, and thus started off low in the company. However, he learned much from working and decorating the boutiques and the other women, it was an action that really helped him understand what the brand was about. Despite being shy, he was loved and doted over by the other employees. Over time, Yves would pass along sketches to Dior, and little by little, his work began being exhibited in the Dior lines, with one collection having 35 of the pieces being sketched by Yves. At 21, Yves Saint Laurent became Dior’s new creative director after the death of Christian Dior.

He debuted his Trapeze line for Dior, and it was at this moment that he defined and set himself apart by creating an entirely new silhouette. Few people have been able to create to silhouettes and have them become an integral part of the fashion of a certain period of time, and Yves had done it time and again. Unlike the very cinched waists of previous Dior designs, the Trapeze designs used less material so that they were lighter and less structured, creating a softer and more fluid look. A success with clients and the press, he was dubbed the “little prince of fashion.”

However, not every show was a luminous success the way his debut was. Yves was a risk taker, and he often focused on what the youth were wearing. Many of the clients however, were conservative older women, who considered many of his designs to be much too radical. His unique eye, as a consequence, was hurting the business aspect of the company, something the head, Marcel Boussac, was not happy about. Thus, Yves would alternate between his “radical” designs, and ones that would please the press and the general public, lines that were safe. One season he would drop a hemline three inches (unheard of in the fashion community) or use fitted crocodile leather jackets, and the next he would placate his conservative clients and businessmen. His Spring 1959 “Long Line,” was a success with conservative clients and the youth alike, and was more reminiscent of the old Dior. It brought back focus to the waist, but it used belts instead of rigid boning to accomplish it. This was yet another iconic silhouette—the champagne flute. In classic Saint Laurent fashion though, his next collection that same year, which focused on hobble skirts with a hemline that fell well above the knee, brought about outrage once again from the conservatives, but much praise from those who were able to see past the fact that it was unlike anything done before.

Fashion, though innately an art form, at the scale Dior was at, was also inevitably a business, and run by businessmen. While Boussant was able to pardon Yves from enlisting in the French-Algerian war for a while, the constant back and forth in Yves’ successes with the older clients was costing Boussant, and so a time came where he no longer was able to pardon Yves. It is thought that this was an intentional move so that Yves could easily be replaced as the creative director of Dior, which was very soon after his enlisting in the war.

Yves was once again thrust into a world where he was an outcast, and he had a breakdown after serving three weeks in the army, after which he was shipped off to a mental institution. At the time, these facilities were not the best (to say the least), and for most of his time there, he was sedated. He was bound and unable to move, and was often harassed. An already anxious man, this experience broke him in many ways, according to his partner Pierre Bergé. He was no longer the same Yves once he was released, and likely contributed to his heavy reliance on drugs and alcohol later in life. This marks the end of Yves’ time at Dior, but the beginnings of his work with his partner Bergé, in creating his own fashion house: Yves Saint Laurent.

Works Cited: "Yves Saint Laurent: A Biography" by Alice Rawsthorn.