How Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion

As a new retrospective opens, we take a closer look at the late designer’s lasting legacy

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YSL’s controversial SS71 collection
YSL’s controversial SS71 collectionVia pinterest.com

You might think it ain’t Laurent without Paris, but from tomorrow the most iconic garments of Yves Saint Laurent’s career will be on display in the grand surrounds of the Bowes Museum, County Durham. A collaboration between the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent and the museum, the retrospective will be the first to honour the late designer on British soil. As Hedi Slimane’s youthquake continues to transform house codes, the exhibition comes as a timely reminder that the YSL girl has been shaking up institutional Paris ever since the designer’s first collections under his own label in the ’60s. Before the exhibition opens this weekend, here’s just five reasons why a dip into the YSL archives is more relevant than ever.

HIS TAKE ON ANDROGYNY STARTED A REVOLUTION

When Saint Laurent debuted Le Smoking in 1966 – a menswear-inspired tuxedo, tailored for women – it became an instant classic for women who wanted to appear equal parts glamorous and strong. Entering the cultural consciousness at a time when many second-wave feminists avoided discussing fashion directly, it radicalised eveningwear and irrevocably transformed the way women dressed. Made iconic by famous devotees like Nan Kempner, Betty Catroux and Bianca Jagger, the look told the world that if women are ever going to wear the trousers, they should be able to wear them to their wedding day and Studio 54 alike.

HE MADE ART AND FASHION COLLIDE

While mining one another’s inspirations is now par for the course in the fashion and contemporary art worlds, Saint Laurent was among the first to tap the gallery for the runway. Sending out clothing inspired by Andy Warhol, Van Gogh and Georges Braque in the ’60s and ’70s, his 1965 Mondrian collection is the most enduring collaboration: containing six shift dresses in homage to Piet Mondrian, the colourful designs punctuated the modernist spirit of an entire generation.

HE FREED THE NIPPLE BEFORE INSTAGRAM WAS A THING

The on-going fight to #freethenipple on present-day social media reveals the trailblazing nature of Saint Laurent’s taste for sheer throughout his design career. Rebelling in a different way in the era of the miniskirt, Saint Laurent’s models would always go braless under sheer organza blouses and couture gowns with a feathered trim. And much like today’s campaign, the decision was less about pleasing the onlooker, and more about asserting equality between the sexes.

HE CHAMPIONED DIVERSITY IN FASHION

In a fashion industry where white-washing is still an issue, it’s worth revisiting the designer who went against the grain with his focus on diverse casting in the ’60s and ’70s. Saint Laurent made major strides in diversity that are still being felt today, tapping black models like Iman, Rebecca Ayoko and Katoucha Niane for his muses over the years. Queen Naomi herself – who just this week spoke out against industry racism – even credited the designer with giving her her first Vogue cover. As she said on news of his death in 2008, “He has done so much for people of colour.”

HE STARRED IN HIS OWN CAMPAIGNS

Today, you’re increasingly likely to see a designer star in his or her own campaign – or, in the case of Donatella for Givenchy, another label’s campaign altogether. But several decades before Marc Jacobs’ beefed up body illustrated the benefits of nude self-promotion, Yves Saint Laurent’s (slightly less oiled) physique broke new ground in fragrance advertising in 1971. Photographed by Jeanloup Sieff, the black and white image for YSL Pour Homme was hardly published anywhere at the time – though it would come to resonate with the gay community in later years.

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