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All About Yves : Rumors and scandals aside, Yves Saint Laurent's place in fashion history is assured. His influence, long dormant, is being seen everywhere this fall. So what's with the promotional appearence in New York?

September 15, 1994|GERALDINE BAUM | LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK — Yves Saint Laurent was the Buddy Holly of fashion: super thin with dark, square glasses; vigorous and with it.

But somehow, overnight, the fashion icon retreated into old age. And he's only 58.

Monday night, at the launch of his newest scent, Champagne, Saint Laurent--unsteady and bloated--struggled to focus. Although he still has the shock of brown hair and wrap-around smile, behind the dark, square glasses he seemed in his own world.

Perhaps it is hard for a man who lives in isolation to react when there are cameras flashing. The next day at an intimate lunch at Nan Kempner's Park Avenue apartment, he apparently was in better shape. Saint Laurent, Kempner said, is "totally free" from drugs and alcohol, problems he has acknowledged over the years. "He was adorable and all excited about being in New York," Kempner said. Nonetheless, years of overindulgence have "left their mark."

Asked about Saint Laurent's health, his partner and protector, Pierre Berge--the bull to Saint Laurent's doe--snapped:

"He works very hard and very well. The rest, we don't care."

Indeed, the bad reviews, the rumors, the scandals, the lawsuits are remnants compared to the racks of his original creations that dominated fashion in the '60s and '70s. Although his work has been dismissed in the last few years, as recently as this fall echoes of his elegant looks showed up in the collections of young designers. He'll always be material for fashion history.

But that doesn't explain why he had to appear at the Statue of Liberty this week. A year ago Saint Laurent sold his name and empire to Elf Sanofi, a French government-owned company. And the perfume launch was an example of what happens when a designer, even one as reclusive as Saint Laurent, sells his body: He must produce it. Particularly to flog perfume, which raises on average 85% of most designers' profits.

And so, in one of the most beautiful settings in this metropolis--Liberty Island--with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, Saint Laurent came out to pose with a giant bottle of perfume.

Among the 1,200 guests were members of fashion's old guard. All were most kind about Saint Laurent. "I adore him," Bill Blass said. "Yves is just the greatest," said Oscar de la Renta.

Despite 10,000 votive candles, 12 minutes of fireworks and the torch held by the lady herself, there wasn't enough light. So old friends stumbled into each other as they refilled their flute glasses with champagne. In the end, it was a lovely evening--but a most sober one. After the last fireworks at 9:45, people raced to the ferries to be the first to get their cars from valet parking. This was nothing like the wild revelry of 16 years ago, when Saint Laurent launched Opium aboard a Chinese junk parked under the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Opium party, perhaps like the decadent Studio 54 era during which it was held, was by all accounts much naughtier: More people were snorting cocaine in the bathroom than ingesting 13,000 oysters, clams and mussels on the disco deck. People were actually having sex on a lower deck. And the cream of society and fashion, led by Diana Vreeland and Truman Capote, showed up.

Those were heady, glamorous times in New York, and Yves Saint Laurent was the premier couturier .

He had single-handedly saved haute couture in the politically tumultuous '60s by keeping rich clients in sync with students rioting in the streets. Rather than run away from the democratization of fashion, as Chanel and Balenciaga had, Saint Laurent suggested it was chic to wear bomber jackets over ball gowns; he adapted pea jackets and smocks for ladies who lunch; he introduced the rich peasant look and dyed fur apple green.

By the end of the '70s, the Saint Laurent look was ubiquitous, with women showing up for all occasions in square-shouldered blazers, trousers and vinyl raincoats.

And for a generation of designers growing up in a fashion climate influenced by ready-to-wear, Saint Laurent demonstrated the enduring value of haute couture --of a beauty and rigor that can only come through custom-making clothes.

Saint Laurent's glory years lasted an unusually long time--almost 20 years. But like a painter who fills several museum galleries with extraordinary works and then as many with barely an interesting canvas, Saint Laurent's work in the 1980s was at best routine.

Today's fashion heroes are Giorgio Armani and Jil Sander, both of whom have blended America's love of sportswear with European tailoring for women with careers.

While Saint Laurent's initials blanket sunglasses and men's shirts in China and his name recognition in Europe remains high, his image on American shores has foundered as home-grown designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan have come to the fore.

Part of the problem may be that in fashion, image is everything and Saint Laurent's has become, well, static.

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