After a Fashion

Reflections on Saint Laurent.


On October 24, 1957, on a lovely afternoon in France, Christian Dior, one of the reigning masters of couture, dropped dead from gluttony. A scant 24 hours later, on October 25, 1957, on a cool fall evening in New Orleans, Louisiana, an unusually gifted child was born, possessing brilliance and a multitude of rare talents. Needless to say, I was that child, and it has always brought me great comfort to imagine that maybe I was the receptacle for Monsieur Dior's wandering soul. While I may have inherited only his deep desire to create beauty (well, yes, and perhaps his gluttony), I have always felt a special kinship with Dior's handpicked successor to his throne, Yves Saint Laurent. A sweet, painfully shy young man, Saint Laurent stepped into the master's shoes on the day I was born, thus giving us "birthdays" in common. Yves, a tortured talent, shone brightly during his short reign at Dior, cautiously retaining utmost respect for the essence of the House of Dior, while imparting his own inimitable chic on everything he touched. He understood, as very few designers today do, that the couture, by nature, is about sparing no detail in the quest for complete luxury and elegance. He belonged to an era in which a design form could be studied and developed over a period of time. His breathtaking creations for the House of Dior made him famous overnight, and the fashionable world clamored to his doorstep. Always a bit nervous, his early success was difficult for him to cope with, but not as difficult as being drafted into the French army. He served briefly, suffered a creatively crippling breakdown, and did not return to Dior. Instead, with the support of Pierre Berge, his partner (with whom, it is speculated, he is partners in many ways), he opened his own couture house and turned the haute monde on its collective ear. But times were changing rapidly, and Yves was one of the first to accept the sad inevitability, announcing to the world that "high style for daytime is dead." He countered the decline of the haute couture by opening his Rive Gauche boutique and unleashing sophisticated yet youthful styles that were far more affordable and able to reach a larger audience than the couture. The marketing of the collection became a phenomenon and the licensing of his name spawned an enormous industry. YSL was everywhere from shoes to cigarettes, and his influence still is undeniable.

His perfumes evoke the senses like treasures of distant fantasy worlds. His use of color was beyond compare with dazzling combinations of azure, amber, emerald, and cyclamen. The black velvet le smoking became an instant sensation and will forever be a hallmark of exquisite styling. His dresses based on the paintings of Piet Mondrian graphically illustrated the connection between art and fashion. His Russian collection was magnificent beyond description, capturing the Cold War fascination with Russia and combining all of the richest details of both peasant and aristocratic styles.

It goes without saying that he paid a heavy price for his creativity. The rumors of emotional and drug-related problems have been rampant for years, along with the most enduring rumor -- that he has AIDS. There has never been any substantiation of this, though every time he made a rare appearance, the buzz was thick. But Yves Saint Laurent has recently retired after a stellar career, and with him goes one of the last vestiges of the sensibility of unrestrained elegance, and the world is a poorer place for it. If this sounds like an obituary, it is unintentional, though it is all too unfortunate that we usually wait until death to pay tribute to those who make such an impact on us. But Saint Laurent's recent retirement (along with the retirement of so many of the leading gentleman geniuses of the couture), and the not-unexpected announcement of Tom Ford's appointment as creative director of Gucci (which puts him in creative control of YSL), signals an entirely new era for the House of Saint Laurent. I had so many bits of news, rumors, lies, and innuendo to pass on this week, but upon sitting down to commit them to a comprehensible form, my fingers became possessed, and I was forced to submit to them. It was the news of Ford's appointment that set the wheels of thought in motion, and I realized that YSL had been a governing force in the fashion world for my entire life, and that as talented as Ford is, he operates in a world where couture is a price-point rather than an indication of quality. May the Force be with them both.

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