Far from the achingly chic entrance of my imagination, the Tour de France had entered Paris in full force on the weekend of our visit and the promotional junkyard that afflicted the Avenue Winston Churchill could have left me easily thinking that I had signed up for a weekend at Butlin’s.
However, the truth will out and once we had ascended the steps of the architectural feast that is Le Petit Palais, I was inclined to believe that our Eurostar journey had not merely been a figment of my subconscious. The exhibition was surprisingly dark, with spotlights bathing the decadent mannequins in glittering white light. Rooms peeled off to the side, revealing photos and videos from Pierre Berge’s collections. The narrow entrance hall feels as though it is the last catwalk, a final tribute to the inimitable designer.
Yves Saint Laurent joined Dior in 1955, as his personal assistant. Three years later, as Christian Dior’s successor, the twenty one year old created the ‘Trapeze’ line that saw him hailed as an outstanding couturier by the fashion press. However, Saint Laurent soon began to break away from the classic Dior ethos and took inspiration from the streets around him. In 1962, the style revolutionary opened his own house and went on to become one of the world’s leading and best-loved designers. His passionate approach to his art, coupled with his understanding of the female form and desires is truly realised in this retrospective.
Over three hundred pieces manifest their beauty in this stunning display. A whole wall is devoted to ‘Le Smoking’ in all its guises. The grid of black and white, beginning in 1966, shows the career-long development of one of Saint Laurent’s most iconic and memorable phenomenas. The abundance of rainbow-coloured chiffon shapes which paraded the catwalk for Spring/Summer 2002 are suspended aloft, each dress with its own wind machine underneath, to convey the movement of the fabric. This was the designer’s last collection, and the exhibition does the work justice, as you would expect, right up until the end. Nothing is left hanging or unexplained.
The pieces that have been chosen encapsulate the sentiment that whilst Chanel gave women freedom, Yves Saint Laurent gave them power. Just as 1966 brought the first smoking, 1967 brought the trouser suit and 1968, the jumpsuit. Simplicity is key, and by transposing men’s work clothes onto female figures, women were able to dress in functional, pared-down clothes yet still wear them in a totally feminine way.
This emphasis on the female led to the couturier’s fascination with the naked female form, it was as though Saint Laurent knew more about what women wanted than they knew themselves. Expectedly, the sheer pieces are transfixing, simultaneously disguising and revealing anything between glimpses of skin and the full curve of the naked female back. Through the transparencies of chiffon, lace and muslin, the maestro bestowed women with a thousand new gestures and a higher degree of sensuality. Chief curator, Florence Muller, explains how ‘a dress was designed like a second skin that was slipped over the body’. Women were finally able to feel free.
The ‘little prince of fashion’ designed fifteen thousand haute couture pieces in his lifetime, and Berge says that the exhibition demonstrates the ‘timeless modernity in the style of Yves Saint Laurent’. This includes extensive reference to the scandal of the designer’s forties-inspired collection that emerged in Spring/Summer 1971. It was the collection that the critics panned without hesitation. Eugenia Sheppard of the New York Post wrote that it was ‘the ugliest show in town’, with its short dresses, green fox coats, red corsets and heavily made-up mannequins. The exhibition displays a number of these heavily criticised designs and does well to use Saint Laurent’s words to justify them. ‘Women’s liberation is also the liberation of their seduction’ he said. Ironically, the box-shoulders and fur that permeate the collection can be seen in abundance on today’s catwalks, portraying the unique way in which Saint-Laurent really was ahead of his time.
Despite his favourite colour being black, and the remarkable emphasis on simplicity, the paradoxical emergence of exoticism, colour and foreign influences made its mark all over Saint Laurent’s collections. Although he detested travelling, the designer often commented on how he put his imagination to work with books and photographs of lands he knew nothing of. ‘If I read a book about India, with photos, or Egypt, where I’ve never been, my imagination just goes wild’ he said, ‘That’s how I go on my most marvellous voyages’. And thank goodness for the potency of his imagination, for it bore many astounding garments. As I follow the twisting pathway through what is quickly becoming more of a theatrical show than a conventional exhibition, I reach the room which defines Saint Laurent’s taste for the tropical. India, Morocco, Russia and China all make substantial appearances. Heavy embroidery and embellishment and luxurious fabrics helped make the gypsy skirts, gold-threaded capes, fur hats and Chinese lacquered jackets such a resounding success, with that delectably modern, wearable edge banishing any hint of the folksy. The high-ceilinged, ethnic rainbow of a room dazzles with delights from across the globe and illustrate a how-to in fashion fusion.
This exhibition appears to take great pride in stunning you into silence every so often. We entered a majestic hall, darkened in a blanket of night and spotted with stars across the velvet ceiling. Each mannequin seemed a guest at prestigious ball, the ‘Last Ball’, in fact, each dazzling in a piece of Yves Saint Laurent from the exhibition’s amassed collection. This is a room which denotes the scale of the couturier’s achievement. With minimal text, the dresses explain themselves and every single one tells a story.
Finding a fitting end, I imagine, was always going to be touched with both a practical and sentimental difficulty. The last object one sees is Saint Laurent’s
astounding jewel, The Heart. Designed for his first collection, the magnificent piece was worn by the model wearing his favourite design from each collection henceforth. Some of us may quiver at the thought of choosing just one piece, and the troves of ‘Femmes Saint Laurent’ are testament to his great understanding of both the female form and feminine desire. And so we are left, marvelling at the legacy of one man, a man who created thousands of dresses and inspired many more of us. Yet I can’t help feeling, despite the staggering exhibition, that none of us will ever truly be able to comprehend the scope of Yves Saint Laurent’s genius, the man who preferred to ‘let the mystery be’.