The magic of the Y

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(Designer in his studio, circa 1970. Photo Credit: W Magazine)

Yves Saint Laurent, born in Algeria in 1936, is a tortured genius, prolific inventor and owner of the last century’s most notable initials- YSL. He spent his childhood in the searing heat of Oran, making paper theaters and costumes for his sister’s dolls and dreaming of living in Paris. Known as „The Saint“ in fashion circles, Saint Laurent put his foot on the first rung of the ladder when he won a competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat in 1954, and was introduced to Christian Dior by Vogue’s Michael de Brunhoff. He was then hired by Dior to work alongside him as a design assistant. Two years later, after Dior’s premature death, 12-year-old Saint Laurent was thrust into the limelight. More than a mere hemline issue, his first collection was a life or death situation. The verdict was unanimous: ‘Saint Laurent has saved France!’ That said, his collection for Dior was a radical departure from the refined femininity and curvaceous tailoring of its founder. Saint Laurent spiced it up, producing Trapeze lines and, in 1960, the Beat Look, which shocked his more conservative customers but thrilled the Left Bank.

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(Going over a sketch with Farah Dibah, empress of Iran, 1959. Photo Credit: Pop Sugar)

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(Saint Laurent’s sketch for Dior, 1955. Photo Credit: Pattern Vault)

Saint Laurent was conscripted into the army in 1960 but discharged after two months due to ill health. In 1962 he founded his own fashion house and by 1969 he was a walking contradiction: infatuated by fashion, but pulled into artistic pursuits. Vogue was heralding the YSL signature as ‘the most sought after look today‘, but Saint Laurent felt pulled apart: ‘I wish I could break my fingers when I think of what my love for sewing and dressing has become. But it was always there’, he said.

Saint Laurent’s temperament has always been more suited to creativity than to business. His fortuitous partnership with Pierre Bergé has always allowed him to design without the financial stress, and business has been crucial to Saint Laurent’s success. In addition, Bergé’s direction enabled him to become of the first fashion designers to successfully reinvent his look- from couture to ready to wear. His second line, a ready-to-wear line, Rive Gauche, was a triumph. In 1970 he shocked the world again by posing nude in an advertising campaign.

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(YSL catwalk, 2016. Photo Credit: Azzuro Due)

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(In front of the YSL store in Paris, circa 1972. Photo Credit: Vogue)

On celebrating his thirtieth anniversary at the Opéra de la Bastille in Paris in 1992, he was joined by his friend, Catherine Deneuve, a long-standing customer. All his genius and inspiration was on display, including his homage to Léon Bakst’s designs for the Ballet Russes, and to Piet Mondrian. There was also his masterly Le Smoking jacket, the feminized tuxedo, with just the right amount of angles and curves, and his beautiful vintage season jackets, immaculately embroidered with glittering vineyards by Lesage.

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(Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent by Alice Springs, 1983)

After over 30 years of creating immaculate clothes, in January 2002 Saint Laurent retired and closed his couture line, leaving YSL Rive Gauche in the capable hands of Tom Ford. In 1998 Alber Elbas was appointed artistic director, followed by Tom Ford two yeas later.

After many turbulence within the brand (including the notorious re-branding to JUST Saint Laurent), the Y is finally back this season in the form of black stiletto shoes, as elegant as they ever were.