Yves Saint Laurent: Famous Designer Dies at 71

June 2, 2008–Yves Saint Laurent, the internationally famous designer, who defined how modern women dress, died Sunday evening. He was 71. Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s business partner for four decades (and former romantic companion), said he had died at his Paris home following a long illness.

A towering figure of fashion, Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) was considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel and made Paris the world’s fashion capital. He was hailed as the most influential and enduring designer of his time.

From the first YSL tuxedo and his trim pantsuits to see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns, he created instant classics that remain stylish decades later.

Berge praised Saint Laurent as the man who marked “the second half of the 20th century” in fashion. “Chanel gave women freedom” in the first half, and Saint Laurent “gave them power,” he said on France-Info radio. Saint Laurent was a “true creator,” going beyond the aesthetic to make a social statement, Berge said. “In this sense he was a libertarian, an anarchist and he threw bombs at the legs of society. That’s how he transformed society and that’s how he transformed women.”

When Saint Laurent announced his retirement in 2002 at age 65 and the closure of his Parisian fashion house, it was mourned in the fashion world as the end of an era. His ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche, which was sold to Gucci in 1999, has boutiques around the world.

Saint Laurent was born August 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where his father worked as a shipping exec. He first emerged as a promising designer at 17, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design. In 1954, he enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but student life lasted only three months.

He was introduced to Christian Dior, then the greatest creator of his day, and Dior was so impressed with Saint Laurent’s talent that he hired him on the spot. When Dior died in 1957, Saint Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at 21. The next year, his first solo collection for Dior–the “trapeze” line–launched Saint Laurent’s stardom. The trapeze dress was a hit, and a breath of fresh air after years of constructed clothing, tight waists and girdles.

In 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted into military service, an experience that shattered the delicate designer; by the end of the year, he was given medical discharge for depression. In 1962, Saint Laurent opened his own haute couture fashion house with Berge. The pair later started a chain of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutiques. Life Magazine hailed his first line under his label as the best collection of suits since Chanel.

Saint Laurent’s gift to fashion was that he empowered women after Chanel had freed them.
Nowhere was his gift more evident than the valedictory fashion show that marked his retirement in 2002.

Forty years of fashion were paraded in a 300-piece retrospective that blurred time boundaries, mixing his creations of yesterday and today in one stunning tribute to the endurance of YSL’s style.

He also designed costumes for theater and film. His “smoking,” or tuxedo jacket, of 1966 remade the tux as a high fashion statement for both sexes. It remained the designer’s trademark item and was updated yearly until he retired.

Other creations reflected the 1960s Beatnik chic, a black leather jacket and knit turtleneck with high boots and sleek pantsuits that underlined Saint Laurent’s statement on sexual equality. He showed that women could wear “men’s clothes,” which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity. Saint Laurent felt “fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves.”

Some of his revolutionary style was met with resistance. There are famous stories of women wearing Saint Laurent pantsuits who were turned away from hotels and restaurants in London and New York.

One scandal centered on the designer himself, when he posed nude and floppy-haired for a photographer in 1971, wearing only his trademark thick black glasses, to promote his perfume.

In 1983, the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a show to his work, the first ever to a living designer. Subsequent shows at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and in Beijing made him a French national treasure, and he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 1985.

In 1999, Saint Laurent sold the rights of his label to Gucci Group NV, ceding control of his Rive Gauche collection, fragrances, cosmetics and accessories for US$70 million cash and royalties.

Industry insiders cited friction between Saint Laurent and Gucci’s creative director Tom Ford as a likely factor in the fashion guru’s decision to retire three years later. Ford stepped down in 2003.

When he bowed out of fashion in 2002, Saint Laurent spoke of his battles with depression, drugs and loneliness.