Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective
The name Yves Saint Laurent is hardly synonymous with Denver, Colorado, but that’s where we caught his spectacular retrospective, having missed it at earlier stops in Paris and Madrid. With 200 of his stunning haute couture designs on view, this comprehensive exhibition spans his earliest work for the House of Dior in 1958 which he helmed at the tender age of 21 after Dior’s sudden death, through the splendour of his last collection in 2002. Viewing this iconic designer’s work through the course of his lauded career, makes his tremendous innovation – he is credited both with reviving haute couture in the sixties, as well as establishing ready-to-wear as respectable – readily apparent.
Although the show was flooded with viewers during our visit, the exhibition design is excellent and the designs are presented so they are temptingly close enough to touch, the better to see their flawless draping, cut and execution. Seeing so many of Saint Laurent’s garments gathered in one place is striking evidence of just how pervasive his influence has been on contemporary dress. A section on “Gender Revolution” evidences his ground-breaking move to dress women in clothing traditionally reserved for men. His mixing of high and low, before this was de rigeur in fashion, was shocking. In 1962 he began designing peacoats, jackets which were originally the functional military garb of the navy, as part of his haute couture collections, and this staple was included in every collection until his last show. In 1966, he invented the tuxedo or “Le Smoking” for women, a revolution in eveningwear for women who were formerly restricted to dresses. Sporting pants as eveningwear was so radical during this period that the socialite Nan Kempner was denied entry to a New York nightclub because she was dressed in pants from Saint Laurent’s collection; she defiantly removed her trousers and wore her tunic sweater as a mini-dress instead. The following year, he created the first safari jacket and pantsuit for women using tough gabardine, a rebellious choice in a world dominated by silk and satin. His Safari Jacket was featured on the cover of Vogue with a model holding a rifle and a sheathed knife – a defiantly powerful and provocative image. That same year, Saint Laurent was the first designer to use black models on the runway. His simple but drastic option of offering women the opportunity to wear pantsuits anticipated and spurred on their changing societal roles.
By Saint Laurent’s own admission his designs were not premeditated but a “miracle of the moment” – and watching footage of him drawing, one is reminded of some of the great draughtsmen of the 20th century. His renderings have the spare sensuality and effortless ease of Matisse’s line drawings. The exhibition lends incredible insight into his creative process – the designer would draw for 15 days every December and June and return to his fashion house at 5 Avenue Marceau where his drawings were produced in toile to assess their proportions. These were corrected, then fabrics were chosen, and his designs were brought to life in their assigned materials, always using live models. Although Saint Laurent denied having a calculated agenda, he drew inspiration from a myriad of sources and in a section titled “Imaginary Journeys”, the visitor is treated to sumptuous designs inspired by exotic cultures including those of Morocco, Japan, China, Russia, India and Spain resulting in manifestations over the years as peasant blouses, kimonos, gypsy vests and troubadour outfits. Although he didn’t enjoy travel, except to his home in Morocco, he was fascinated with other cultures and drew inspiration from them, cross-fertilizing references and creating hybrids that paid homage but were uniquely his own. “A Dialogue with Art” displays his designs inspired by artists like Léger, Braque and Picasso and his famous 1965 colourblock cocktail dress that is a tribute to Mondrian. The incredible craftsmanship involved in his work visible to the naked eye – his cocktail jackets inspired by van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises are each composed of some 230,000 sequins which took a painstaking 670 hours to apply in order to capture the thick impasto of the artist’s characteristic painting technique.
Saint Laurent’s retrospective ends in visually stunning crescendo. In “The Iconic Tuxedo” a floor-to-ceiling montage of his creations from 1966 pay homage to the ultimate alternative to the little black dress in incarnations including Bermuda shorts tuxedo (1968), Tuxedo dress (1970), Tuxedo jumpsuit (1975), and a safari jacket tuxedo (1996) demonstrating his versatility and enduring ability to innovate. The final section of the exhibition, “The Last Ball” presents a sumptuous assembly of his formal wear over the years on a tiered, red-carpeted platform, lit from above by shimmering chandeliers, evoking the glitz and glamour of the parties where his creations would be worn. Several of his creations, now some 30 years old, appear incredibly au courant. Truly a contemporary designer, Saint Laurent said that he regretted all his life not having invented jeans, the modern wardrobe staple.