Remembrance of Things Past
Forgetting sets you free.
My first encounter with a designer label was in the late 1970s, when as an aspiring junior executive I snagged an Yves Saint-Laurent dress shirt for $9 on clearance at a local department store. A creamy desert pink, it featured shadow-stitched pinstripes with interlocking trademark “YSLs,” a flat front placket and no chest pocket, presenting clean lines and a cosmopolitan elegance that for several seasons was the foundation of my favorite “power meeting” outfit.
The protégé of Christian Dior, Saint-Laurent is by most accounts the leading French fashion designer of the last half century. He also pioneered mass-market couture when he opened the first Rive Gauche boutique on the Left Bank of Paris in the mid-1960s. In 1999, The Gucci Group bought the brand and its affiliates for $1 billion, personally netting the designer and his former lover and longtime business partner, Pierre Berge, a cool $70 million. Saint-Laurent officially retired in 2002, ending a four-decade long career.
In anticipation of Saint-Laurent’s last runway show in 2001, French documentary filmmaker David Teboul was invited to capture the designer’s creative process and allowed access to his inner circle. Two feature-length documentaries came out of the sessions, Yves Saint-Laurent: His Life and Times and Yves Saint-Laurent: 5 Avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris. Released theatrically in the US in 2004, both are now available on a single DVD.
Life and Times opens with Saint-Laurent sitting alone in a formal drawing room. He’s facing the camera, flanked by two rows of gold-painted straight-back chairs with emerald green cushioned seats. The designer is dressed in a dark suit with a white tattersall button-down collar shirt and a solid black silk tie. He’s watching a TV monitor through his signature oversized plastic frame glasses while smoking a cigarette. Over his right shoulder, a stream of light shines through a large window framed by heavy gathered curtains. The gilt statue of a neoclassical figure stands on a pedestal in the corner behind him. To his left, a wall-sized mirror reflects the entire scene. From this rarefied environment, Saint-Laurent ponders his childhood in Algeria during the Second World War, shown on screen through a series of black-and-white snapshots. “Those are the days when I was happiest of all,” he wistfully muses.
The second film, 5 Avenue Marceau, is titled after Saint-Laurent’s studio address. It opens with a fitting session for one of his closest confidantes, French film star Catherine Deneuve. It then proceeds to show the steps of creating a season’s collection, from sketching initial concepts to cutting basic patterns to selecting fabrics to working out the fine points of the various pieces. The painstaking detail in which it all unfolds evidences Thomas Edison’s famous quip that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” And with its cadre of consultants, assistants and contractors that numbers in the hundreds, all dedicated to realizing the master’s vision, it also shows the group creative process of modern-day production in which the designer is sometimes little more than a figurehead.
Where 5 Avenue Marceau overwhelms with specificity, Life and Times seems to overlook whole areas of its subject. The myth of Saint-Laurent as a natural-born genius is perpetuated in the story of how as a three-year old he cried when his aunt went out in a dress of which he didn’t approve. There’s also the famous declaration, related by his mother, of how in response to schoolyard derision of his sissy adolescent ways, he vowed his name would one day be in gold on the Champs-Elysee. There’s plenty of footage projecting the designer’s persona as a sensitive “artiste.” But of his high-flying hippie days in Marrakech and disco nights in New York City, tripping out with the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, Talitha (who died of a heroin overdose) and Paul Getty, and the three-ring circus around Andy Warhol, there’s nary a peep. Nor is there anything substantial about the vast business empire he and Berge commanded and how it changed couture for better or worse. (For more on these things, see Yves Saint-Laurent: a Biography by Alice Rawsthorn of The Financial Times.)
Part of the problem may be due to the marketing of the film by the American distributor. The French title of Life and Times is Le Temps Retrouve (Time Regained), which actually provides more of an insight into Saint-Laurent’s paradoxical legacy. The designer has often referred to himself as “the last great couturier,” even though he is most widely known for his ready-to-wear innovations, such as the woman’s pants suit and the safari jacket, and franchised commodities like the Rive Gauche and Opium fragrances. Saint-Laurent’s obsession with his haute couture authenticity is not unlike Henry Ford, after having destroyed small-town American life with mass-produced automobiles, seeking to preserve it in the historic simulation of Greenfield Village near his Fairlane estate in Dearborn, Mich.
Thus the film portrays not the designer’s life story so much as the loss he experienced as he became less and less of a person to most people and more of an icon, as the now puffy old man mourning his bygone childhood we meet in the first scene came to live an existence more like the gilt statue on the pedestal haunting him in the background. The irony is that loss is built into the concept of fashion, the changing cycles of which were the foundation of Saint-Laurent’s existence since he began playing with paper dolls in his parent’s house in Algeria to the final moments of his success on the world stage.
Le Temps Retrouve is also the title of a 1991 film by Raoul Ruiz about Marcel Proust, Saint-Laurent’s favorite author. Like Proust, who withdrew from Parisian society to work in a cork-lined room on his monument to memory and loss, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Saint-Laurent became increasingly reclusive the more his name was reproduced and proliferated around the globe through various trademarked products, many of which were licensed and not even manufactured by his company. In this environment, haute couture became more of an ideal than a practice, a brand mythology, as marketers call it, giving legitimacy to the premier position of the “Yves Saint-Laurent” logo in the consumer marketplace.
As much as he ostensibly seems to be in denial about it, Saint-Laurent did bring a new level of aesthetic consciousness to segments of the consumer market where it hadn’t before been (including mine lo those years ago). In contemporary consumer society, form has become a necessary part of any product’s function. Philippe Stark and Michael Graves are on sale at Target; Tommy Hilfiger is at Wal-Mart. Saint-Laurent’s professed disdain for the bourgeoisie fittingly found subversive expression in the democracy of the shopper’s bazaar, where it continues to reign.