Yves Saint Laurent: Eternal Style

"San Francisco is a Saint Laurent town," says Pierre Bergé who introduced the YSL retrospectve which is making its only US pitstop at the De Young Museum in San francisco.

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Original sketches with swatches. Evening Gowns and
Original sketches with swatches. Evening Gowns and Ensembles. Fall - Winter 1976. Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent.
Pierre Bergé, partner in both life and business of Yves Saint Laurent, introduced the late designer's retrospective at the De Young Museum by remarking "San Francisco is a Saint Laurent town." The traveling exhibit, with San Francisco as its only stop in the United States, is the first public showing of the famed designer's work since his death in June. The collection includes 130 articles of clothing on loan from Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, spanning 40 years of perhaps the most prolific fashion career of the 20th century. The exhibit is curated by Florence Muller, fashion historian and professor at the Institut Francais de la Mode a Paris, Dianne Charbonneau, curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Jill D'Alessandro, associate curator of textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Muller participated in a symposium with Hamish Bowles, European Editor-at-Large and Farid Cheroune, fashion historian and author, on the opening day, tracing the influences and impact of the Algerian-born designer. Bowles spoke of the revolutionary designs of the 1970s, embracing the hippy spirit that resonates with San Francisco's radical history. He noted the importance and enduring influence of Saint Laurent's training at the House of Christian Dior, after becoming a protégé at the tender age of 19 and taking on the head position after Dior's death just two years later. The trapeze dress, firmly planted at the beginning of the exhibit, references the looks he created at Dior. Though his career may have begun in the famed Parisian couture house, he embarked on building a unique place in fashion history. The establishment of his own label, later followed by Rive Gauche, ushered in pret-a-porter, or ready-to-wear, making stylish clothing readily available to the masses. "Fashion is not haute couture," he famously said.

Farid Cherounne, author of Smoking Forever, spoke of the enduring influence of the famous Le Smoking look of 1966. If Chanel gave women freedom, he said, "YSL gave them power." For the first time, a man's tuxedo was adopted for the female form. The exhibit shows several designs of the Le Smoking look, evocative of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Revolutionary they may be, but these clothes are timeless. "Le Smoking" continues to be an influence in women's fashion, and this silhouette appears again and again in the work of YSL.

The exhibition itself is appropriately divided into four themes, tracking the designers stylistic development and maturation. "Masterful Pencil Strokes" represent his skillful illustration and incredible attention to detail. Drawings done on graph paper are displayed on the walls of the museum, with swatches of fabric adorning their corners, bearing the signature of the designer. "The YSL Revolution" displays perhaps the most well known works: the safari outfit worn by Veruschka, a pea coat from 1996, several Le Smoking looks. These make up the oeuvre of a designer that continues to be a point of reference for fashion designers. Perhaps the most meaningful is the "Lyrical Sources" portion, which highlights Saint Laurent's love for art and literature and pays homage to Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh. He famously loved Proust, and designed the Mondrian dress that graced the pages of every major magazine in the 1960s.

"The Palette" shows a more playful side to the designer, embracing bright colors and fanciful journeys to far-away lands; tunics and African prints, bolero jackets and kimonos. The Ballets Russes collection of 1976, for example, was conceived without ever setting foot in Russia. Painfully shy, Saint Laurent did not travel often, but was able to evoke such exotic locations with the stroke of a pen. "I hate traveling. I exercise my imagination on the lands I do not know. That is how I take my most wonderful trips."

At the end of the exhibit, the gift store separates these clothes from a small white room. Three dresses stand in the middle, and a chronology of the designer's work is plastered on the wall. As you enter the room, the faint sound of that unmistakable French is audible. A distinctly gentle voice, belonging to a lithe and delicate frame, carefully answers each question of the Proust Questionnare. The museum had looped a tape recording of this interview for the occasion. Such an intimate space concludes the exhibit, providing insight into his character and private life in a way that perhaps no still or moving image can.

During the symposium, Muller spoke of the relevance of these clothes in the contemporary fashion world, and the impossible dream of designers to become the next Yves Saint Laurent. Marc Jacobs, Yohji Yamamoto, Alber Elbaz, Dries Van Noten and Jean Paul Gaultier are among those who take nods from the eponymous line. "Eternal Style" could not be a more appropriate sentiment for a designer whose revolutionary and skillful aesthetic cemented the cultural and social importance of fashion. As he once famously said, "Fashion passes, style remains."

Yves Saint Laurent at the De Young Museum, San Francisco on until 5th April 2009.
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