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Appreciation

A Paris Original

From his stunning debut as the successor to Christian Dior through the tumultuous decades to follow, fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent captured the essence of it all in his own distinctive style.

January 08, 2002|MARYLOU LUTHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paris designer Yves Saint Laurent began his career as the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

He was 21. It was his first collection following the death of his predecessor, the legendary Christian Dior. And he had chosen what he called the trapeze silhouette to begin his own ascent to the sometimes dizzying heights of Paris haute couture.

As a fashion reporter for the Chicago Tribune at the time, I found it relatively easy to describe the clothes, which evolved from Dior's own A-line. But what astounded me were the truly extraordinary events that followed the Paris show.

First, I ran to have a quick lunch at a nearby cafe, and an English journalist asked if she might join me. We talked about the show, and I mentioned that I had decided to end my story with "The king is dead. Long live the king." She told me I could not. She said that was a British expression, reserved for the monarchy. I didn't tell her, but I went ahead and used it anyway, as it seemed a fitting last sentence. And history has proved that it was, as Saint Laurent has reigned as the king of fashion for most of his illustrious career.

By the end of that cold, cloudy January day in 1958, the young man born in Algeria was on the balcony of Dior headquarters at 30 Avenue Montaigne, waving and blowing kisses (the first air kisses?) to a crowd of well-wishers that had gathered below in a kind of French fashion frenzy I had never seen before and I have never seen since. The ovation lasted for hours.

I cannot imagine anything like this happening on Seventh Avenue. From that day, he was revered by the French press. I've never seen a designer treated with such respect.

After serving in the French army, Saint Laurent opened his own house in 1962. In the 40 years since, he has risen to become a fashion icon, one of the most important designers of the 20th century, the first living designer ever to have a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983. Two years later, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by then French President Francois Mitterrand. In 1998, a retrospective of his work was featured before the World Cup soccer final at the Stade de France.

Like any great designer, Yves Saint Laurent's most memorable contribution has nothing to do with hemlines or shoulder pads, but to his acuity as a social commentator. His blazered pantsuits of the mid-'60s and his tuxedo for women in 1966 were the first fashion expressions of women's liberation. His see-through dresses of 1968 and his posing nude for his fragrance ads were equally prescient as harbingers of the sexual revolution.

The first haute couture collection I covered at Saint Laurent's own house was for the Los Angeles Times more than 30 years ago. It was dubbed the "happy hooker" collection, a kind of haute salute to the prostitutes of the Rue Saint Denis. One jazzy satin dress was embroidered on the back with the words "Love Me Forever or Never." I will never forget it, especially the fact that this amazing Frenchman would do his fashion-writing in English.

Even back then, when his clothes were stirring almost as much controversy as his behavior, Saint Laurent was not one to give press conferences or in-depth interviews, preferring, it would seem, to let his clothes do the talking. The one journalist he talked most to was John Fairchild, then the publisher of Women's Wear Daily, and later W magazine. Fairchild treated Saint Laurent like a god, and managed to get this memorable quote from him in 1986: "I don't want to compare myself to God. I'm already a Saint."

Anyone who has attended Saint Laurent shows over the years has seen his suffering, widely attributed to drugs and alcohol. Once his longtime partner Pierre Berge pushed him on stage, clutching a hot water bottle. Another time he was too ill to attend his own collection. As the years progressed, Saint Laurent has become more and more of a recluse, his partying days now but a distant memory.

A few years ago, during summer haute couture season, the late Nina Hyde of the Washington Post and I were walking from the Hotel Intercontinental, where he has held most of his haute couture shows, when sharp-eyed Nina cried, "Look, there he is in his limo!" With that, she knocked on the car window, which he rolled down with a look of complete terror, and said that the two of us just wanted to congratulate him on his collection. He said nothing, but smiled faintly. Before we could get in another word, the driver, who we decided was more a bodyguard than a limo driver, drove off, leaving us quote-less.

When Alber Elbaz, a longtime assistant to Geoffrey Beene, was being interviewed to replace Saint Laurent as the ready-to-wear designer, I remember asking him if Saint Laurent would have any say-so in his hiring or if it would all be up to Berge. Elbaz, astounded by my question, said, "But of course Monsieur Saint Laurent will make the final decision." And he did.

Just as he has made the decision to retire.

In my view, he has left the design of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche (his ready-to-wear line) to a worthy successor, acknowledging the talent of American-born Tom Ford of Gucci. Just as Saint Laurent began by emulating his predecessor, Christian Dior, Ford has drawn on such Saint Laurent classics as the safari look, the Russian peasant and the tuxedo--all with a distinctly Ford interpretation of what looks right for now. Just as Saint Laurent was a fashion oracle of the '60s and '70s, Ford is a fashion oracle of today. If you're wearing a peasant blouse right now or a safari suit, you can thank them both.

*

Marylou Luther is a New York-based syndicated columnist and editor of the International Fashion Syndicate. She was The Times' Fashion Editor from 1969 to 1985.

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