A legend in French fashion

1936 - 2008:

Innovative designer redefined couture for modern women

June 02, 2008|By Mary Rourke | Mary Rourke,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 yesterday at 71.

He died at his Paris home after 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, he 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 TV commentator said in 1967 about Mr. Saint Laurent's impact 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 was 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Saint Laurent's rise to fame.

At the top of his form in the 1970s, he 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.

But as often as he was declared a genius, he 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.

Shy and illusive, he 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.

He often declared himself to be a lover of women who wanted to make them look beautiful.

In 2002, Mr. Saint Laurent announced that he would retire and close his couture house. He reportedly had overcome his addictions and seemed to be in good health. But he felt alienated from the industry he had ruled for so long.

"I am extremely proud that women of the world over today wear pantsuits, pea jackets and trench coats," he said at his retirement news conference. "In many ways I feel that I have created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman."

Mary Rourke writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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