Yves Saint Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria. In 1953 a young Saint Laurent submitted three designs to a contest for young fashion designers. He won third place and was invited to attend the awards ceremony in Paris at the end of the year. While in Paris, he and his mother met Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of French Vogue, it was de Brunhoff who encouraged him undertake a career in fashion.
Following the advice of de Brunhoff, in 1954 Saint Laurent travelled to Paris to enrol at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture school where he graduated as star pupil. Later in the same year, Saint Laurent entered the International Wool Secretariat competition and won first prize with an asymmetrically draped, one-sleeved cocktail dress. Shortly after his win, he showed a number of his sketches to de Brunhoff who recognised the close similarities between them and some new sketches by Christian Dior. Knowing that the young designer could not possibly have seen Dior’s sketches before, he introduced him to Christian Dior who immediately engaged Saint Laurent as his first and what would be only assistant. Although Dior recognised Saint Laurent’s talent the young designer spent his first year on mundane tasks such as decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually he was able to submit a few sketches for the couture collection and as time passed more and more of his sketches were accepted.
When Dior died four year later Saint Laurent was named as the illustrious designer’s successor. At the tender age of 21 he found himself at the head of one of Paris’s most esteemed ateliers and his first collection for Spring 1958 was a great success, introducing a softer version of Dior’s New Look. However his following collections delved more and more into beatnik fashions and the press and Dior customers were not impressed.
Whilst on conscription to the French army in 1960 he received the news of his dismissal from Dior. Already in a fragile state, he was in a military hospital at the time, the shock of his dismissal caused deterioration in his condition. He was sent to another hospital where he was given large doses of sedatives, psychoactive drugs and electroshock therapy. He would later trace back both his mental problems and drug addictions to this troubling time. After his release he successfully sued Dior for breach of contract.
After an interval for recovery, Saint Laurent and his partner the industrialist Pierre Bergé started their own fashion house with funding from millionaire J. Mack Robinson. The couple split romantically in 1976 but remained business partners.
During the 1960s and 1970s Yves Saint Laurent popularised various fashion trends, including the beatnik look which had been so derided at Dior, safari jackets for both men and women, tight trouser suits and tall heeled thigh high boots. He also began normalising the idea of re-wearing silhouettes from the 1920s to the 1940s.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Saint Laurent was a member of the Jet Set. He was a regular at the world’s most famous clubs including Studio 54 and Regine’s and was known to be both a heavy drinker and a user of cocaine.
Saint Laurent was the first French couturier to release a full prêt-à-porter line. Although some point out that other ateliers were preparing their own ready-to-wear lines at the same time, Saint Laurent managed to announce his line first.
The prêt-à-porter Yves Saint Laurent collection proved extraordinarily popular with the public, although rather less so with the critics. The line would eventually earn much more income for Saint Laurent and Bergé than the haute couture line. Despite this success, Saint Laurent, whose health had been unstable for years, was adversely affected by the pressure of designing four collections a year. He began to turn more and more frequently to drink and drugs and at times had to be supported down the runway at the end of shows by his models. After a catastrophic 1987 prêt-à-porter show in New York which featured $100,000 jewelled jackets and was shown just days after the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash, Saint Laurent turned the design of his ready-to-wear line over to his assistants.
The tuxedo suit is possibly the most famous of the Yves Saint Laurent creations. One of his signature looks, Saint Laurent’s version for women was based on the notion that an emancipated woman was all the more feminine by her choice to wear men’s clothing. In the nineteenth century the tuxedo was the evening wear of choice, worn by gentlemen in smoking rooms to which women were forbidden entrance. In the mid 1960s, Saint Laurent presented his first le smoking ensemble, a Seville tuxedo suit with a lace blouse, the design would later be immortalised by Irving Penn. One of the first women to wear le smoking was Betty Catroux, one of Saint Laurent’s closest friends. She caused a local scandal when she arrived at the Paris Opera wearing the suit. Yves once said “If I had to choose one design out of everything I’ve done, it would undoubtedly be le smoking”. Modern Saint Laurent collections regularly include a reincarnation of the tuxedo suit envisioned by Stefano Pilati.
Decades before Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent clothing glamorised items taken from the male wardrobe for women, such as the blazer, the tuxedo, the trouser suit, safari jackets, pea-coats, flying suits and leather jackets. By feminising basic male derived shapes, Yves Saint Laurent set new standards for fashion. He produced a whole raft of elegant day clothes for women, including the shirt dress, which became the sophisticated woman’s staple in the 1970s. His sharply tailored suits became a viable and stylish alternative to frothy evening gowns.
A seasoned adaptor, Yves Saint Laurent referenced history, costume art and literature in his designs. A huge range of themes was incorporated into his work, from the ballet Russes to the writings of Marcel Proust and Shakespeare. Saint Laurent has also appropriated counterculture and ‘left bank’ influences. Beginning with his time at Dior these early collections introduced themes and styles that would reoccur throughout his long career, including leather jackets and fur coats with knitted sleeves.
Saint Laurent’s designs often contained no rigid shaping or overly elaborate cutting techniques, rather depending on a perfection of line and a masterful understanding of colour and the use of opulent materials. He worked personally with textile manufacturers and silk printers to produce vibrant fabric designs, often featuring clashing hot pinks, violets and sapphire blues. He is widely regarded as the supreme fashion colourist of the twentieth century.
The designer was a favourite among his female clientele and had numerous muses who inspired his work. Foremost amongst these was the Somali supermodel Iman who he once described as his “dream woman”. Other muses have included Catherine Deneuve and French supermodel Laetitia Casta who was the bride in his shows from 1997 to 2002.
Yves Saint Laurent died on 1st June 2008 of brain cancer. A few days before he died, Saint Laurent and Bergé were joined in a same-sex civil partnership.
Milan born Stefano Pilati had joined Yves Saint Laurent in 2000 and he was promoted to Head of Design for all YSL product lines in June 2002 and was appointed Creative Director two years later. Pilati had worked at Armani and Prada where in 1998 he was promoted to assistant designer of the Miu Miu line.
Pilati, like his illustrious predecessor was more interested in style than fashion.
Pilati gave eight years to the Creative Director position before presenting his final AW2012 YSL collection in February 2012. In a statement confirming his departure the house said Pilati had been "instrumental in the rebuilding and repositioning of an iconic French luxury brand" and "Under Stefano's guiding vision and artistic direction, the house has become a contemporary reference in high fashion."
Pilati was succeeded by Hedi Slimane, who led the menswear division of the label from 1997 to 2000 before taking over at Dior Homme. Slimane left fashion design behind when he left Dior in 2007 but remained throughout a firm favourite of both Yves himself and Pierre Bergé, whose lack of support towards Pilati was well known in the fashion industry. It was expected that Slimane's control would involve, "total creative responsibility for the brand image and all its collections".
On 21st June 2012 the fashion world learnt that Slimane was to change the name of Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent Paris as part of his makeover of the label. Slimane's first collection for the label - SS13 - was not greeted with universal praise by the fashion world.