Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, known as Yves Saint Laurent (August 1 1936 – June 1 2008), was an Algerian-born French fashion designer who was considered one of the greatest figures in French fashion in the 20th century. In 1985, Caroline Rennolds Milbank wrote, "The most consistently celebrated and influential designer of the past twenty-five years, Yves Saint Laurent can be credited with both spurring the couture's rise from its sixties ashes and with finally rendering ready-to-wear reputable".
Unlike most French children, Yves and his sisters were not directly affected by World War II, as their father was not called up and Algeria was far enough away from France that it was spared the worst of its defeat and occupation.. Yves was severely bullied while at school; he once told a reporter, "Whenever they picked on me, I'd say to myself, 'One day you'll be famous'. That was my way of getting back at them." He found a refuge at home, where his parents allowed him to use an empty room to act out performances of plays by Molière and Giraudoux for his family. He eagerly devoured the theatre reviews in the French magazine Vogue, and became fascinated not just by the descriptions of the plays but also by the descriptions of the costumes. This led him to study the fashion sections of Vogue as well, and soon he was as interested in fashion design as he was in the theatre.
Later that same year, Yves entered the International Wool Secretariat competition again and won, beating out his friend Fernando Sanchez and a young German student named Karl Lagerfeld. Shortly after his win, he brought a number of sketches to de Brunhoff who recognized in them close similarities to sketches he had been shown that morning by Christian Dior, a leading haute couturier. Knowing that Dior had created the sketches that morning and that the young man could not have seen them, de Brunhoff sent him to Dior, who hired him on the spot.
Although Dior recognized his talent immediately, Yves spent his first year at the House of Dior on mundane tasks, such as decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually, however, he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection; with every passing season, more of his sketches were accepted by Dior. In August 1957, Dior met with Yves's mother to tell her that he had chosen Yves to succeed him as designer. His mother later said that she had been confused by the remark, as Dior was only 52 years old at the time. Both she and her son were surprised when in October of that year Dior died at a health spa in northern Italy of a massive heart attack.
Yves found himself at the age of 21 the head designer of the House of Dior. His Spring 1958 collection almost certainly saved the House from financial ruin; the straight line of his creations, a softer version of Dior's New Look, catapulted him to international stardom with what would later be known as the 'trapeze dress'. It was at this time that he shortened his surname to "Saint Laurent", as the international press found his hyphenated triple name difficult to spell.
His Fall 1958 collection was not greeted with the same level of approval as his first collection had been, and later collections for the House of Dior featuring hobble skirts and beatnik fashions were savaged by the press. In 1960 Saint Laurent found himself conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Alice Rawsthorn writes that there was speculation at the time that Marcel Boussac, the owner of the House of Dior and a powerful press baron, had put pressure on the government not to conscript Saint Laurent in 1958 and 1959, but reversed course and asked that the designer be conscripted after the disastrous 1960 season so that he could be replaced.
After his release from the hospital in November 1960, Saint Laurent sued Dior for breach of contract and won. After a period of convalescence Saint Laurent and his lover, industrialist Pierre Bergé, started their own fashion house with funding from Atlanta millionaire J. Mack Robinson. The couple split romantically in 1976 but remained business partners. During the 1960s and 1970s, the firm popularized fashion trends such as the beatnik look, safari jackets for men and women, tight pants and tall, thigh-high boots, including the creation of arguably the most famous classic tuxedo suit for women in 1966, the Le Smoking suit. He also started mainstreaming the idea of wearing silhouettes from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. He was the first French haute couturier to come out with a full pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear) line; although Alicia Drake credits this move with Saint Laurent's wish to democratize fashion, others point out that other couture houses were preparing pret-a-porter lines at the same time; the House of Yves Saint Laurent merely announced its line first. The first of the company's Rive Gauche stores, which sold the pret-a-porter line, opened on the Rue de Tournon in Paris on September 26, 1966. The opening was attended by Yves Saint Laurent, and the first customer was Catherine Deneuve.
He was also the first designer to use black models in his runway shows, and one of the first to use Asian and Pacific Islander models.
Many of his collections were received rapturously by both his fans and the press, such as the Spring 1967 collection that introduced the Le Smoking tailored tuxedo suit. Other collections raised great controversy, such as his Spring 1971 collection which was inspired by 1940s fashion. Some felt it romanticized the German Occupation (one Saint Laurent did not himself live through), while others felt it brought back the ugly utilitarianism of the time. The French newspaper France-Soir called the Spring 1971 collection "Un Grand Farce!".
During the 1960s and 1970s Saint Laurent was considered one of Paris's "jet set".. He was often seen at clubs in France and New York such as Regine's and Studio 54, and was known to be both a heavy drinker and a frequent user of cocaine.. When he was not actively supervising the preparation of a collection, though, he spent time at his second home in Marrakech, Morocco. In the late 1970s he also bought a home in Normandy, near the vacation home Marcel Proust visited as a child and wrote about in Remembrance of Things Past.
The pret-a-porter line became extremely popular with the public (if not with the critics), eventually earning many times more for Saint Laurent and Bergé than the haute couture line. However, Saint Laurent, whose health had been precarious for years, became erratic under the pressure of designing two haute couture and two pret-a-porter collections every year, turning more and more to alcohol and drugs. At some shows he could barely walk down the runway at the end of the show, having to be supported by models. After a disastrous 1987 pret-a-porter show in New York City which featured $100,000 jeweled casual jackets only days after the "Black Monday" stock market crash, he turned over the responsibility of the pret-a-porter line to his assistants. Although the line remained popular with his fans, it was soon dismissed as "boring" by the press.
In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to be honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition. In 2001, he was awarded the rank of Commander of the Légion d'Honneur by French president Jacques Chirac. He retired in 2002 and became increasingly reclusive, living at his homes in Normandy and Morocco with his pet French Bulldog Moujik.
He also created a foundation with Pierre Bergé in Paris to trace the history of the house of YSL, complete with 15,000 objects and 5,000 pieces of clothing.
Among his muses were Loulou de la Falaise, the daughter of a French marquis and an Anglo-Irish fashion model; Betty Catroux, the half-Brazilian daughter of an American diplomat and wife of a French decorator; Talitha Pol-Getty, who died of drug overdose in 1971; Catherine Deneuve, the French actress; Nicole Dorier, a top model of the House between 1978 and 1983 when she became one of the master's assistants dedicated to organizing his runway shows and then the "memory" of his house when it became a museum, the Guinean-born Senegalese supermodel Katoucha Niane, the daughter of writer Djibril Tamsir Niane; and supermodel Laetitia Casta, who was the bride in his shows from 1997 until 2002.
He died on June 1 2008 of brain cancer at his residence in Paris. According to The New York Times, a few days before he died, Saint Laurent and Bergé were joined in a same-sex civil union known as a "civil pact of solidarity" in France. He was also survived by his mother and sisters; his father had died in 1988.
Saint Laurent's body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco in a botanical garden that he often visited to find influence and refuge. His partner Bergé said during the funeral service: “But I also know that I will never forget what I owe you, and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms.”