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Yves Saint Laurent, 1936 - 2008

Designer created wardrobe for contemporary women

June 02, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Yves Saint Laurent, the French fashion designer who created a bold new dress code for women during the feminist revolution of the 1970s and helped launch the era of the celebrity designer with his jet-set lifestyle, died Sunday at 71.

The designer died at his Paris home following a long illness, Pierre Berge, his longtime friend and business partner, told the Associated Press.

From the start of his career at 21, when he replaced his mentor, Christian Dior, as chief designer of the couture house of Dior in Paris, Saint Laurent crafted a modern look for women that set a new standard.

He was the first to make pants and pantsuits the basic pieces of a woman's wardrobe, doing it in a way that conveyed femininity, self-confidence and style. In contrast for evening, he styled sheer blouses, flounced skirts and a slinky tuxedo worn over bare flesh that he famously named "le smoking."

"The word 'seduction' has replaced the word 'elegance' in fashion," a French television commentator announced in 1967, about Saint Laurent's effect on the industry.

His gift for redefining French couture was apparent in a single dress he showed in his first collection for Dior in 1957. A "trapeze" style, it fell in loose folds from the yoke to the hem with no padding, no whalebone construction, no corseting. The easy shape and loose fit were younger, freer than anyone thought of as haute couture, a world dominated by designers in their 70s.

For the first decade of his career in fashion, Saint Laurent continued to startle audiences with his innovations -- a Navy peacoat, a "beatnik" motorcycle jacket, a dress that looked like a Piet Mondrian painting.

His designs were "the antithesis of the haute-couture school, with its premise of buttressing and correcting the woman's silhouette," wrote Alicia Drake in "The Beautiful Fall," her book about French fashion during Saint Laurent's rise to fame.

At the top of his form in the 1970s, Saint Laurent had amassed a fashion empire that included a couture and ready-to-wear division, best-selling perfumes starting with Rive Gauche, and licensing agreements that put his name on sunglasses, hosiery and more than 100 other products. His estimated annual take-home pay was about $4 million.

As often as he was declared a genius, however, Saint Laurent was described as a tormented man who struggled with clinical depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. At low points, starting in the 1970s, he was hospitalized, discharged only long enough to oversee his latest fashion show and then whisked back to confinement. His emotional problems worsened later on.

He portrayed himself as a suffering artist while his business associate, Berge, tried to make light of it. Saint Laurent "was born with a nervous breakdown," Berge said.

Shy and illusive, 6 feet 2 and exceedingly thin, Saint Laurent looked like a gangly schoolboy through the first decade of his career. He had moved to Paris in the early 1950s to study fashion at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale, the school overseen by French designers. He captured early attention by winning a design competition sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat in 1954, with his sketch of a dress with one bared shoulder.

After a few months in school, he was introduced to Dior, who offered him a job as an assistant at Dior in 1955. Two years later he was Dior's design assistant. When Dior died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1957, a four-person team replaced him. Saint Laurent did most of the designing.

"I was in a state of complete euphoria preparing that first collection," Saint Laurent recalled in a 1991 interview with Le Figaro. "I knew I was going to become famous."

As abruptly as he was appointed at Dior, he was dismissed in 1960. House executives said he was unfit for the pressures of the job. He had been drafted into the French army that year and was hospitalized after a breakdown during basic training.

Rumors were that it was not so much his fragility as his fashion designs, many of them too radical a departure from the Dior image, that led to his dismissal.

The following year, with the help of Berge, an enterprising businessman who was by then his lover, Saint Laurent sued for breach of contract and was awarded more than $100,000 in a legal separation from Dior. The sudden infusion of cash changed his career and his life. He was on his way to superstar fame and to a public struggle with addiction.

In 1961 he opened his own couture house. Several years later, he added a ready-to-wear division, adapting his style to mass-produced clothing that sold for a fraction of the price of his couture. Suddenly his label was affordable to many more women.

In 1966 he opened his first ready-to-wear boutique, an innovation that was soon imitated by designers in Milan, Paris and New York. His first shop, on the Rue de Tournon near the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, carried his clothing collections as well as hats and handbags he designed and jewelry by his friend Paloma Picasso.

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