Born in 1936, Yves Saint Laurent grew up in Oran, Algeria. At 17, he left for Paris where he showed his drawings to Michel de Brunhoff, director of Vogue, who published several of them immediately. Following a stint at fashion school, Saint Laurent was introduced to Christian Dior by de Brunhoff and he went on to work for Dior until his death in 1957.
After taking over as art director for Dior, Saint Laurent launched his first collection for the company, the Ligne Trapéze, that year. It was a resounding success the world over and won him a Neiman Marcus Oscar. In 1960, Saint Laurent created his revolutionary “Beat Look” collection which used couture techniques to refine streetstyle. However, his dramatic designs were too much for the house of Dior and a year later they lifted bars on his national service.
When he returned from service in 1962, Saint Laurent set up his own fashion house with Pierre Bergé and continued to rock the establishment. In 1966, he introduced le smoking, his legendary smoking suit, which prompted the consequent androgynous revolution. He is now credited with a range of other innovations including the reefer jacket (1962), the sheer blouse (1966), and the jumpsuit (1968), as well as ready-to-wear culture as a whole.
In October 1998, Yves Saint Laurent showed his last ready-to-wear collection for the Rive Gauche label he had founded more than 30 years before. But, according to a sorrowful spokeswoman, the 61-year old designer was simply too overwrought to take his final bow. US designer Alber Elbaz was hand-picked to succeed him, but found that his career there was swiftly terminated after the Italian fashion Gucci bought full control of the business at the end of 1999 and handed the reins to powerhouse designer Tom Ford. Yves Saint Laurent retained control of the haute couture business and continues to show in Paris each season. These days, the reach of the Saint Laurent empire he founded and sold on is vast: the company produces menswear, furs, jewellery, perfumes and a range of accessories, all of which are distributed worldwide.
During his career, Saint Laurent was arguably the industry’s greatest designer. Over the years, he received countless accolades: in 1985, he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by President François Mitterand; in 1995, he was promoted to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour, finally becoming a Commandeur six years later. His status as a national icon was also cemented when, at the final of the 1998 World Cup, near Paris, 300 models presented a retrospective of YSL creations, to celebrate the designer’s forty years in fashion, in front of 80,000 football fans and more than 170 international sports channels.
In January 2002, the 65-year-old designer announced his retirement. Paying tribute to his mentors, including Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli and Chanel, he revealed that his decision was based on a disgust with an industry that had become ruled more by commercial gain than art. “I have nothing in common with this new world of fashion, which has been reduced to mere window-dressing,” he said. “Elegance and beauty have been banished.” The news came just 16 days before he presented his final haute couture collection. In a fitting end to his 40-year career, the show constituted a thorough retrospective of his work: over an hour and a half long, it featured over 250 outfits, 40 of them new designs, and 100 models. A tearful Yves Saint Laurent took his final bow as his long-time muse, Catherine Deneuve, sang Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour.