YSL? Why not?

Designer Masks

There’s that moment in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), when the novel’s anti-hero, Patrick Bateman, admits that he is only an abstraction. Bateman’s obsession with fashion is a consumerist manifestation of his lack of personality and emotional depth. He can recognise every single designer label, but no one seems to remember his name. It is because he is often mistaken for someone else, of course, that allows him to get away with his crimes. Bateman has understood that identity is constructed through the gaze of the other, but entrapped by namelessness and beinglessness, he conflates labelling with existing and his mask becomes his raison d’être. Then all he needs to do is make sure he takes enough tranquilizers to dull any sense of his empty reality:

Before leaving my office for the meeting I take two Valium, wash them down with a Perrier and then use a scruffing cleanser on my face with premoistened cotton balls, afterwards applying a moisturizer. I’m wearing a wool tweed suit and a striped cotton shirt, both by Yves Saint Laurent, and a silk tie by Armani and new black cap-toed shoes by Ferragamo.

But I have a problem with this type of critical commentary, a problem which I fully understand is linked to the penchant I have for designer clothes. Does this make me superficial? Self-possessed? A fundamentally bad person? Do I wear designer clothes to hide the fact that though “you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there?

We need to make up our minds. Complexity reflects depth, it is a good thing and by definition it cannot be condensed or rendered obvious, hence we are told not to judge a book by its cover. On the other hand, simplicity is what we understand most clearly, and in a world of growing complexity, ‘what you see is what you get’ has become synonymous with honesty and candour.

The choice of question then is simple: ‘Am I to be judged for wearing an Yves Saint-Laurent suit?’ or ‘How am I to be judged for wearing an Yves Saint-Laurent suit?’

In the opening chapter to Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan famously declares that the medium is the message, that all extensions of ourselves (medium) are valued by the contingent effect they have on human affairs (message). And so the wearing of Yves Saint-Laurent (an extension of myself) must be qualified by the impact the designer and his clothes have had on the way we interact as sentient dressed beings.

Remembrance of Things Past

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, to give him his full name, doesn’t quote from Ellis. As a true Frenchman he chain-smokingly recalls Marcel Proust: “Les vrais paradis sont ceux que l’on a perdu” (the true paradises are the paradises we have lost). Yves Saint-Laurent: His Life and Times, the first of two documentaries by David Teboul available as a special collector DVD from Empire Pictures (and reviewed elsewhere in PopMatters, see Remembrance of Things Past ), opens on the frail 65-year-old designer looking over photographs from his youth.

Born in August 1936 in Oran, Algeria, Saint-Laurent was sent to a private faith school to be ‘protected’ along with other pied noir children. This was not an enjoyable experience for Saint-Laurent, perhaps because his homosexuality sat uncomfortably with the macho world of the sons of the French colonialists to which the Matthieu-Saint-Laurents did not belong (Saint-Laurent’s father was a businessman). We understand, therefore, that the paradise lost here is the one of a childhood spent specifically at home surrounded by the women in his family; his mother, his grandmother, great-grandmother and great aunt. And the time not spent at home was time lost.

The story goes that at the age of three, Saint-Laurent was already telling his great aunt how to dress, and at 14 he would play at being a tailor in a haute couture fashion house. It would take Saint-Laurent just five short years to go from fantasy to reality. After winning the International Wool Secretariat contest with an asymmetrical cocktail dress in 1954 and graduating from the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, he walked into his first job, at just 19-years-old, as an assistant to Christian Dior.

The opening sequence of the film is narrated through tales told by Yves mother, Lucienne Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, reflecting, as might be expected, her strong influence on these formative years. Later we are told that when he moved to Paris, his mother was constantly by his side. Dior may well have understood this, and insisted that he meet Saint-Laurent’s mother. This encounter took place in 1957, and in Saint-Laurent’s absence he told Lucienne that he wanted her son to be his successor when he retired in four years time. Four days later Dior was dead. And so it was that at 21 years of age, Saint-Laurent took over the Dior brand, hailed as a young hero. The nature of haute couture was about to change forever.

Youth Couture

Accompanying Saint-Laurent’s meteoric rise to the heights of couture were the likes of author Françoise Sagan, who had published her first book, Bonjour Tristesse, at 18 years of age in 1954, setting her up as the voice of disillusioned post-war adolescents. By the time of her fourth book in 1959, Aimez-vous Brahms, she had already established herself as a serious writer. In 1958, the artist Bernard Buffet had his first retrospective — he was just 30. And the pop phenomenon Johnny Hallyday released his first album in ’60. These were Paris’s bright young things playing against the backdrop of Général de Gaulle’s burgeoning Fifth Republic. For all intents and purposes, this was the birth of French youth culture as it would later be defined by the ’60s.

There is one key name that I have yet to mention: Pierre Bergé. Impresario, manager, financier, his name may not be as well-known as those I have already mentioned, but Bergé was often the man pulling all the strings: the Malcolm McLaren of his day. He was both Buffet’s manager and lover, till the painter married Annabel Schwob. And it was shortly after Saint-Laurent went holidaying with Bergé and Buffet in 1958 that Bergé and Saint-Laurent fell in love.

Interviewed for the film, Pierre Bergé admits that at first he believed couture and culture belonged to two distinct spheres, that haute couture was simply a French social class construction and in no way a major art form. We can clearly see how and why Bergé had drawn this conclusion. Even today collections seem to be full of improbable creations that are unaffordable, for those who have manages to save enough to buy one of the outfits, could you afford to go anywhere you could wear it, or, more importantly, get away with wearing it? But when Bergé witnessed for the first time a Saint-Laurent collection, he talks of how the designs became less a question of aesthetics, and more about being clothes. Paradoxically then, and if I understand Bergé correctly, it is through this transformation, the breaking loose from the shackles of mere aesthetics, that haute couture became an art form. It became clear to Bergé that these clothes weren’t simply part of the way we lived; they were the very extension of ourselves.

The following year could be seen as a new departure in women’s fashion when the form of dresses was no longer dominated by geometrics, when style came to have the upper hand on the ‘line’. This may have something to do with the female forms to which Saint-Laurent was drawn. He was the first designer to use black models on the catwalk because he found their bodies provocative and exhilarating. He also believed that American women make perfect models, though for Saint-Laurent, the elegance of the Americans is down to French design as, he concludes, there is no such thing as American fashion.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as if haute couture was ready for this change in perception and in 1960, after a sixth collection met with mitigated interest, Dior let Saint-Laurent go, citing the excuse that he had to do his national service.

From Haute Couture to Prêt-à-porter

Saint-Laurent was discharged from the army following a nervous breakdown, and it was then that he persuaded Bergé to help him start his own fashion house. Bergé sold his flat situated on Ile Saint Louis and became Saint-Laurent’s business partner.

The birth of “YSL”, however, was a difficult one. As Bergé’s remembrances are interrupted by his squawking parrots (why this wasn’t edited out beats me), so the film is inter-cut with segments of archival footage from the ’60s. Yves Saint Laurent’s designs were notoriously difficult to wear, and it is interesting to hear the movers and shakers of the time make asides about how easy a dress might be to put on and take off. In perfect French, Princess Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s younger sister, defends YSL and how easy the clothes are to wear. And though she isn’t keen on the idea that these clothes should become accessible to a wider market for fear of everyone dressing in Yves Saint-Laurent, she defends the idea that his designs can be copied and made available as prêt-à-porter, ready-to-wear clothes.

This could be considered one of the most pivotal moments in the history of high fashion, when it was decided that its future lay in ready-to-wear clothing. It met with some opposition. Edmonde Charles Roux, editor in chief of Vogue (France) from 1950 to 1966, believed that the beautiful could not be copied. But for Bergé the businessman, Saint-Laurent was a revolutionary.

The second film on the DVD follows the preparations of what will be Yves Saint-Laurent’s final collection. It’s a simple fly-on-the-wall piece condensing several weeks work into 85 minutes. It takes its name from his studio, 5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris, where we see the beautiful Catherine Deneuve, one of Saint-Laurent’s muses, discussing her farmyard animals, oblivious to the gaggle of seamstresses measuring her up. Haute couture deals in unique outfits for singular customers. But Saint-Laurent would radically change the relationship between clients and clothes.

He claims to hate the bourgeoises, the well-to-do upper middle-class ladies with their taste for pearl necklaces. Saint-Laurent is a hippy manqué, confirmed by his desire to relive his life as a beatnik. In 1966, when he was the first grand couturier to open his own retail outlet, Rive Gauche, he dreamt of a prix unique, putting a single standard price on all his articles of clothing. Of course this didn’t happen, but it was through the YSL Rive Gauche franchise that Saint-Laurent brought us the democratisation of high fashion. He was a man very much in tune with the world around him. The appropriation or recycling of the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian for the print of his 1965 dresses was a nod to contemporary pop art, and Saint-Laurent was then fully embraced by popular culture when Andy Warhol gave YSL his familiar portrait treatment in 1972.


After Yves Saint-Laurent designed the first three-quarter length coat for women in 1962, it was towards the end of the decade that he gave the man’s suit a sex change and made it ultra-feminine. Although Coco Chanel had given us her classic tailleur in 1954, in 1966 Saint-Laurent designed the first tuxedo for women, followed in 1968 by the first safari jacket for women, and in 1969 the first trouser suit for women.

Clothes, for Saint-Laurent, are a way of life and not a way of dressing. In this way, the wearing of trousers is not a way for women to claim equality but for them to fully exploit their femininity in the most positive of ways. He saw that men appeared far more confident in their clothes than women, and so wanted to give women that said confidence. Fashion can give and change attitude. As Saint-Laurent explains, you may be wearing the most anodyne of dresses, but if you walk with one hand in your pocket then you create a mind-set. This allows the designer to suggest that both the stagnant notions of ‘elegance’ and ‘haute couture’ are out of fashion. For him, ‘seduction’ must be the new ‘elegance’.

The fashion icon and Amazonian-looking Betty Catroux believes that her androgynous fashion sense inspired Saint-Laurent to dress women like men. She explains that though he likes the classical feminine side, he is also drawn to the “shady side of things”, where the poetry lies. But when Saint-Laurent says that he found his style in a man’s wardrobe, I wonder if we could not take this literally? Could this man’s wardrobe have been the one of his father that he so adored?

Towards the end of the film, an ageing Edmonde Charles Roux understands Saint-Laurent’s impact on the history of fashion but also on the way we project ourselves: Chanel liberated women; Yves Saint-Laurent liberated fashion. Jean-Paul Gaultier remarks that Saint-Laurent gave us the foundations of contemporary design. The man himself simply quotes his great idol Coco Chanel: “fashion fades but style remains.”

In the first film, Saint-Laurent spends much of the time looking at the television screen projecting a slideshow of his life. But Yves Saint-Laurent’s life is expressed to us through other actors allowing the perpetuation of the YSL myth. It is the dialogue that his mother, Pierre Bergé and others hold about Saint-Laurent that reveal and conceal to us the detail of his life. And it comes as no surprise that in the second documentary we spend much of the 85 minutes looking at Saint-Laurent through a mirror as he himself looks through the mirror at the models wearing his creations. YSL through the looking-glass? He does this, of course, to gain more perspective on his designs, and I’m sure this was director David Deboul’s thinking when constructing his perspective on Saint-Laurent.

Asked in 1968 what his motto was, Saint-Laurent borrows from Noailles, “I prefer honour to honours.” At the end of the film as he sits in his studio in 2001, his motto has become “the important thing is to last.” It is perhaps out of respect for both codes of life that the more his designer label spread across the globe, the more he became a recluse. Or if you prefer, the more his name became synonymous with the brand, the more Yves Saint-Laurent simply was not there.

RATING 7 / 10