Yves Saint Laurent was born on August 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria. As a 17 year old, he emerged as a promising designer, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design. (Karl Lagerfeld came third.) The next year, Yves enrolled in the prodigious Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but only stayed three months – he was introduced to Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest couturier of his day, who was amazed by the young designer’s talent, and shocked to find that his sketches were remarkably similar to the latest Dior collection that had not yet been seen by outside eyes. Needless to say, he hired him on the spot.
When Christian Dior died suddenly in 1957, the 21 year old Yves was named head designer of the House. The next year, the ‘Trapeze’ line, his first solo collection for Dior, launched his stardom. The trapeze dress with its narrow shoulders and wide, swinging skirt was a hit, and a breath of fresh air after years of constructed clothing, tight waists and girdles.
In 1960, Yves was drafted into military service. The petit pede (the French slang word for Pederasts or boy-lovers, as they were referred to at the time) designer was not appreciated by his fellow soldiers who tormented him endlessly, an experience that shattered the delicate designer (Pierre Berge, his longtime business partner and former romantic partner, was quoted as saying that Yves was born with a nervous breakdown), and by the end of the year he was given a medical discharge for nervous depression. Placed in an archaic mental institution, his depression was treated with shock therapy and huge doses of anti-depressants which left him with permanent anxiety and a heavy drug dependency.
Yves returned to the spotlight in 1962, opening his own couture house with the help of Berge. The designer revolutionised the old fashioned world of French couture, by taking inspiration from the street, in doing so creating designs that appealed to both young and old. One standout collection grew from the 60s Beatnik-chic French student protesters who wore a uniform of black leather jackets and knit turtleneck with high boots. Undeniably his most famous design was ‘le smoking’, the satin trimmed tuxedo jacket for women, that underlined his statement on equality of the sexes. He showed that women could wear men’s clothes, which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity.
Yves had an extremely successful career that lasted 40 years but that was dogged by depression and drug abuse. He became a recluse – unable to leave his house or studio, and unwilling to talk to strangers. He was plagued by anxious twitches, fluctuating weight, strokes and poor health.
Yves Saint Laurent died yesterday at the age of 71. Although widely regarded as the greatest designer of the 20th century, his life was a sad reminder of the perils of drug use and the unfortunate reality that money, fame and success are not catalysts for a happy existence.
I hope he’s happy now. Enfin, vous pouvez dormir.