A TRIBUTE TO YVES SAINT LAURENT
Tim Blanks reminisces on the legacy of the great French fashion designer
MY FIRST PARIS FASHION SHOW was Yves Saint Laurent’s haute couture collection for Spring ’88. The word was he was riding on his rims, all tapped out talent-wise, but my tiny mind was blown by a display the likes of which I seldom saw again. Sure, there have been Mugler and Montana shows, Gaultier and Galliano extravaganzas and—bringing things up to this century—cerebral spec-taculars from Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquière, but that first time was indescribably vivid. Which means, of course, that I’ll go right ahead and attempt to convey the aerodynamic wonder of cubist doves swooping from the shoulders of gorgeously draped gowns, or Braque’s guitar lavishly reproduced in sequins across the front of a jacket by master embroiderers in Jean-Francois Lesage’s workshop.
As well as such flights of fancy, the catwalk was filled with graceful, sombre mousselines in shades of shadow, clasped at one shoulder by a gold dove. Then, of course, there was Le Smoking, Saint Laurent’s signature co-opting of a man’s tuxedo, with beaten satin lapels playing against the dark skin of women such as Mounia and Katoucha, the African models the designer al-ways favoured. I remember their heads were wrapped. They looked like tribal queens.
And all of this was supposed to be when Saint Laurent was down for the count, crushed by his various neuroses and addictions. It’s true, if you ever tried to interview him backstage after a show, he was an incoherent mess, but Saint Laurent was not a crea-ture of the sound-bite era. Just as his shows would run for eternity (now 40 outfits feels about right; the old guard, like YSL and Ungaro, would regularly present upward of 90), there was nothing about his presentation that was tailored for the era when fash-ion went wide on cable TV. And when he tried to get with the program, complying with some press demand that he shuffle forth and be interviewed, it was a disaster.
But why should an artist have to explain himself when his work does such a wonderful job on his behalf? For anyone who grew up—as I did—on the distant margins of human civilization, Yves Saint Laurent was just about the only fashion name that regis-tered. Time magazine gave fulsome coverage to his Russian-peasant collection in 1976. He launched his perfume Opium with the kind of party (on a boat in New York City’s harbour) that made anyone who wasn’t there (but who was assiduously reading about it) feel like an insignificant mote in God’s eye. Saint Laurent was fashion’s equivalent of Andy Warhol, the anomic genius with the dazzling, decadent entourage.