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Yves Saint Laurent Bids Adieu to Couture Career

Fashion: The French designer helped shape not only an industry but women's identities.

January 08, 2002|ACHRENE SICAKYUZ and MARJORIE MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARIS — Any doubt that 20th century fashion belongs to history was put to rest in the chic Right Bank salon of Yves Saint Laurent on Monday when the last of the great couturiers bowed out of the industry that he helped shape for more than 40 years.

He is the designer who popularized trousers for women and dressed actress Catherine Deneuve in elegance. He made Mondrian paintings into clothes and clothes into poetry for generations of women.

But Saint Laurent, 65, said his spring haute couture collection--to be shown later this month along with a retrospective of his work--will be his last.

The announcement marked the end of a fashion era defined by Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Saint Laurent. The Saint Laurent couture salon will close, but the YSL Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line will continue under a different owner and designer.

"In many ways, I feel that I have created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman and that I have participated in the transformation of my times," Saint Laurent told a news conference here.

"For a long time now, I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to enable them to assert themselves," he said. "However, I have chosen today to bid adieu to this profession that I have loved so much."

Shy and reclusive, Saint Laurent read his statement through his trademark thick glasses, then departed quickly without taking questions about his decision to close the fashion house that he founded with his friend and business partner, Pierre Berge.

Saint Laurent infused women's fashion with sex and power in an era of women's liberation. He introduced to high fashion the trench coat and the see-through blouse, the safari jacket and diaphanous skirt, and posed nude for his own perfume ads.

In recent years, Saint Laurent has complained about the rock-concert style that younger designers, such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Britain's John Galliano of Christian Dior, have applied to women's fashion. He also is said to have been at odds with the executives of Italy's Gucci Group, which bought the Rive Gauche label and beauty business in 1999 and will continue them under American designer Tom Ford.

Berge said Monday that he believes this alienation is the reason for Saint Laurent's retirement.

"He no longer feels at ease in a world where people use women instead of serving them," Berge said. Asserting Saint Laurent's predominance in the fashion world, he added, "It's not very fun to play a tennis match when you are all alone."

Depression and Health Problems Dogged Career

Saint Laurent is known to have battled ill health and depression for many years and had been hinting that he might retire out of weariness. At the news conference in his gold and mirrored salon, he referred to his demons as inspiration.

"Every man needs aesthetic phantoms in order to exist. I have hunted mine out, pursued them, tracked them down. I have grappled with anguish, and I have been through sheer hell. I have known fear and the terrors of solitude. I have known those fair-weather friends we call tranquilizers and drugs," he said.

"I was able to come through all of that, dazzled yet sober," he added. "It was Marcel Proust who taught me that 'the magnificent and pitiful family of the hypersensitive are the salt of the earth.' I, without knowing it, was a part of that family."

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria. His father owned a chain of movie theaters, and his doting mother served as the boy's first muse. As Saint Laurent once wrote, "I can still see my mother about to leave for a ball, coming to kiss me good night, wearing a long dress of white tulle with pear-shaped sequins."

He started working as a design assistant for Christian Dior in 1955, and when Dior died suddenly less than two years later, he took over the fashion house at the age of 21. By January 1958, the debut of his trapeze-silhouette collection for Dior couture was received with great--and at the time unmatched--fanfare.

Saint Laurent presented his first fashion show under his own name in 1962 and stayed ahead of the times by creating dramatic new approaches to clothing that have had lasting impact.

His deluxe-hippie look, along with his peasant skirts and blouses, has reverberated through international fashion since its debut decades ago. In 1965, he applied modern art to fashion with his color-blocked Mondrian dresses. The next year, he shocked the design world with tuxedos for women. He introduced the skimpy sweater and the leather biker jacket to high fashion and married ethnic influences from Africa and India to Western fashion.

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