Dream still lives for Yves Saint Laurent French designer celebrates 3 decades of haute couture

February 26, 1992|By Mark McDonald | Mark McDonald,Dallas Morning News

PARIS -- First came the tuxedos, wave after wave of them, squadrons of models marching to the brink of the stage of the Opera Bastille.

Then came the satins, iridescent and ablaze. Then the pastels, the Russian peasant dresses, the see-throughs, the Braques and the Matisses, a white wedding dress, capes, embroideries, hundreds of models on the stage, wearing the whole history of the house of Yves Saint Laurent.

Then came Yves Saint Laurent himself, fat, unsteady, trembling with nervousness, blinking incredulously at the standing ovation from the crowd of 2,800 that had assembled to celebrate his 30 years of haute couture. At each elbow, holding him up emotionally and literally, were actress Catherine Deneuve and his partner and longtime companion Pierre Berge.

The crowd was completely his -- his employees, his artisans, his clients and his friends. Paloma Picasso, Marisa Berenson, Nan Kempner, Danielle Mitterrand, Rudolf Nureyev. In front of them he cried, he mumbled, he hesitated.

"They are all my children -- all different ages and characters," he said of the designs. "I felt nervous and intimidated before I walked out, but then I saw the dresses, all my memories, all my past. I have given so much love to every one of them."

But how much love -- or talent -- does he have left to give?

That has been the awful question that has nagged each Saint Laurent show for the last several years. The whispers have said his glorious talents are now threadbare, that they have been rent by drugs, drink and depression.

The rumors were strongest two years ago, when for the first time ever he did not appear on the runway after his show. He was hospitalized in Paris, reportedly for exhaustion, and a confidant said that tests for AIDS and cancer turned up negative.

Negative, too, were the reviews.

Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune called the show "a sad affair." She said YSL's fezzes and harem pants reminded her of "a down-market travel brochure."

Mr. Saint Laurent appeared to be in total eclipse last summer when his collection was mercilessly scissored by the press. "Saint Laurent is drawing inspiration only from his past," said Ms. Menkes. "He has nothing new to say. By comparison [to Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld], YSL's collections are dead."

Now the rumors of that death seem greatly exaggerated. The YSL spring-summer collection that was shown here last week was well-received, even applauded. Many of the doyennes of the fashion press sounded almost relieved that "le maitre" had not embarrassed himself with yet another retrospective.

The new collection did recall some past triumphs. There were nods to "le smoking," babushka scarves and his brilliant florals, stripes and appliques. But there was no suggestion of the wholesale recycling of years past.

"I love all the colors in this collection," said Loulou de la Falaise, Mr. Saint Laurent's assistant for more than 20 years, as she sat in the boutique at the YSL headquarters on Avenue Marceau. "It is very light, very poetic."

Mr. Saint Laurent, 55, liked it, too, and he sounded positively reborn in a rare interview in the Journal du Dimanche: "This collection is a renaissance for me. I feel the same way I did when I created the trapeze line [for Dior in 1958]. I'm happy."

He hasn't always been so happy. His depressions, he said, have often kept him locked up, quite literally, afraid to go out -- whether he has been in the Paris apartment at 55 rue Babylone or in the villas he shares with Mr. Berge in Deauville and Marrakech.

"Terrible, terrible," he said of the illness two years ago. "I thought I'd never get well, that I'd be sick forever. I was going crazy."

He said he even considered suicide. His plan was to take a big bronze sculpture from his apartment, tie it to his neck and "throw myself in the Seine."

He blames his psychiatrist. It wasn't until he found a new doctor, he says, that he got well.

"I don't drink any more," he says now. "I don't take drugs any more. I have changed."

A certain amount of gentle lunacy is part of all the elite fashion houses, says Ms. de la Falaise, who insists Mr. Saint Laurent is "very strong."

"There's nothing wrong with him apart from nerves -- and apart from chocolate binges and drinking too much Coca-Cola, all that awful fizzy stuff."

Even Mr. Saint Laurent's emotional state, which seems to plunge and soar as radically as Parisian hemlines and necklines, is just a part of the business of high fashion:

"All these guys are neurotic and obsessive," his assistant says with a laugh. "They're all loonies, you know, and they tend to be fairly abstract in their thinking.

"It's a bitchy business, sure it is, and there's a hell of a lot of money involved. You employ thousands of people -- that's a hell of a responsibility."

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