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Exit, With a Flourish

Some weep during Yves Saint Laurent's final show, a trip through fashion history.


PARIS — Legendary French designer Yves Saint Laurent bid adieu to fashion Tuesday with a haute couture show that charted a glittering chapter in fashion history and reduced many faithful clients to tears.

Some of the most memorable looks of the 20th century flashed before the 2,000 guests gathered at the Georges Pompidou Center for the retrospective of a 40-year career. An army of models filed past in classics like the see-through blouse, the safari jacket and the women's tuxedo, which have won icon status and influenced countless other designers.

Highlights included brilliantly embroidered jackets re-creating the paintings of Picasso and Van Gogh, which showcased the exquisite craftsmanship of haute couture's exclusive made-to-measure creations.

"It's the end of an era maybe, but Yves Saint Laurent will continue beyond the limits of time," said French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. "I can only be moved and impressed at what I am going to see. We have all brought our handkerchiefs."

Many in the audience wiped their eyes during an emotional finale to the show as French screen diva Catherine Deneuve sang a love song for Saint Laurent, who took his final bow flanked by 60 models dressed in his trademark women's tuxedo.

Thousands of well-wishers packed the square outside the Pompidou Center. They watched the show on two giant video screens erected outside. His retirement at 65, announced two weeks ago, has unleashed a tide of emotion in France, where he is seen as a national treasure. It has also triggered a heated debate about the future of the exclusive world of haute couture, as opposed to the mass market business of ready-to-wear fashion.

The famously reclusive designer said he was quitting in disgust at an industry ruled by commerce above art, he told the newspaper Le Monde.

"We live in a world of confusion and decadence. This battle for elegance and beauty was causing me a lot of sadness," Saint Laurent told the highbrow daily in an interview published as part of a special eight-page supplement Tuesday.

"Now, there is no haute couture. No house can reach the level of elegance."

Predictions by the Saint Laurent camp that haute couture would die following his departure have irritated rival designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, who showed his spring-summer collection for Chanel on Tuesday.

"What a dramatization, this departure! He's overdoing it. I mean, it's not as if this were a funeral in the presence of the corpse," Lagerfeld told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

The German designer presented demure outfits in pastel shades to guests including American actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Capshaw, wife of Steven Spielberg.

Although only two years younger than Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld has undergone a make-over in the last year, losing 93 pounds and revamping Chanel for a younger generation.

By contrast, Saint Laurent trembles in public and has difficulty speaking following his well-documented struggles with addiction and depression.

Although many wondered what was in store for the man who once declared he would die when he stopped designing, another designer, Christian Lacroix, said it was time to stop the hand-wringing.

"For the last two weeks, it's been like witnessing a national funeral," Lacroix told France Inter radio Tuesday. "What bothers me is that he's being remembered as something that's over, as if he were being buried alive in a mausoleum."

While Saint Laurent's house of haute couture will close, the name will not disappear. His Rive Gauche collection, perfumes--including the designer scent Opium--cosmetics and accessories are now owned by the Gucci Group NV and overseen by Gucci's creative director, Tom Ford.

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