“Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know another's view of the universe.”
— Marcel Proust
There is no better quote to describe the Yves St. Laurent retrospective housed at the Denver Art Museum until July 8, 2012.
Upon entering the exhibit it’s as though one has crossed over into the looking glass of a genius, Yves St. Laurent. The tour begins with where it all began, Oran, Algeria, the year 1936. The world did not yet know of the visionary bestowed upon it.
Just to give a little background into the guided tour, as a young man, St. Laurent submitted 3 sketches to the International Wool Secretariat design competition for young fashion designers in 1953. Unparalleled, and later known for his incredible sketches, St. Laurent won the contest and Michel de Brunhoff, editor of French Vogue at the time, discovered the incomparable sketches, advising the young St. Laurent to move to Paris and attend the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. After a year’s time, St. Laurent entered the same competition beating out such competitors as Karl Lagerfeld and Fernando Sanchez. Shortly after winning the second competition, St. Laurent took a smattering of sketches to de Brunhoff. Eerily recognizing the similarities of another famed designer in the sketch patterns, de Brunhoff sent St. Laurent to Christian Dior who hired St. Laurent on the spot.
After a little history, the exhibit unfurls like a ballet, depicting the thought process of YSL. Imagine beginning to work in the House of Dior during 1955, only to take it over in two short years after the sudden death of Christian Dior. At age 21 St. Laurent was named head designer at the esteemed fashion house creating his first line of haute couture in 1958. Adorned with the new collection for Dior, the darkly lit mannequins almost come alive transcending the viewer to the time period when detail and perfection ordained La Vie Quotidienne. In 1960, for the Dior Haute Couture Collection, YSL took his first leap of faith creating a short daytime outfit: the jacket, black crocodile-embossed leather, trimmed with ranch mink, the skirt was black bouclé wool. Created to mimic the beatnik movement along with street gangs at the time, art of fashion imitated French life.
The guided tour continues through the replicated atelier of St. Laurent. Viewing notable sketches and learning of his creative process. He always needed live models as muses walking through the studio to finish each garment for fit and movement, “fashion comes and goes, style is eternal.”
From 1954-62 the French and Algerians were at war. It wasn’t until 1960 that St. Laurent was drafted into the army to fight on the side of the French. Fellow soldiers tortured him. Only lasting a short while in the service, the experience caused a nervous breakdown of which he later attributed his depression and drug use. The extent of St. Laurent’s treatment included electroshock therapy. During this period, the Dior fashion house fired YSL.
Upon returning to fashion in 1962, YSL broke tradition, partnering with Pierre Bergé. Together they created the three-letter iconic logo as Yves St. Laurent’s namesake, followed by years of unprecedented fashion. Beginning with the legendary navy peacoat, replicating the mariner, the subsequent room reflects the transformation from the typical fashion design of haute couture to what is now regarded as ready-to-wear, the democratization of fashion. Replete with pantsuits, jump suits and notable day time type outfits, Yves St. Laurent forever crossed the gender border by introducing men’s wear to women. Other key pieces to this room are the silk safari jackets, provocative lace front shirts, and thigh boots inspired by Robin Hood; all still current to today’s fashion.
Showcasing jaw-dropping couture, the next room evokes St. Laurent’s true sense of the female form. Always influenced by great literature and literary heroines such as Bovary, Kerenina, Proust, and La Traviata, YSL translated his artistic influences into fashion when he designed for his most famous muses. Worn by the likes of Diane Vreeland was a gold and black evening outfit and headpiece, followed by a Spanish Bullfighter ensemble adorned by Paloma Picasso, to Princess Grace who once touted an exquisite black cocktail dress with rose appliqué. However, paramount to all other muses was a white pantsuit once donned by the recently deceased Loulou de la Falaise. Finally the room exhibited the most unbelievable black sequined lace, asymmetrical evening gown tied together at the hip with two pink bows; made to order for Mouna Ayoub.
A significant woman in YSL’s life is the heaven sent Catherine Deneuve. She played a key role in branding YSL Rive Gauche, by attending the premier of the boutique opening in 1966. Rive Gauche, also known as the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris where the Université de la Sorbonne is located, and where the students who attend reside. The Pret á Porter line “Rive Gauche” portrayed the students bohemian vibe, or “Down with the haute, on with the streets.”
As “Belle de Jour” plays in the background starring Catherine Deneuve, the viewer walks into an unrivaled closet that would even turn Carrie Bradshaw green featuring the wardrobe worn by Deneuve in “Belle de Jour,” an epic tale of dichotomy.
Never shying away to controversy, Jeanloup Sieff photographed St. Laurent nude in an advertising campaign for his namesake’s male fragrance “Pour Homme.” In a series of never before seen outtakes the viewer is awakened to the male form, in particularly, feminine frame of St. Laurent. Released in Vogue during 1971, the campaign caused quite an uproar leading to other magazines requesting to run the ads for free.
From one scandal to another in the same room, and maybe defining the phrase all press is good press, YSL designed what was later regarded as the first retro vintage collection. The critics claimed that his 1971 couture collection was disrespectful replicating looks and styles worn during WWII. Quickly reworked into both ready to wear and couture YSL included velvet turbans, the incomparable green fox fur, tight jersey dresses, platforms, and a even a hint of the Dali inspired surrealism by embroidering a black velvet coat with colored sequin and paste-glass lips. After recreating this collection St. Laurent defined the modern fox fur chubby, a pattern still used today by designers, most famously, Michael Kors. The collection ultimately became a veritable success.
Next, St. Laurent’s designs take the viewer on a tour around the world. From Spain, China, India to his beloved Morocco, YSL incorporates the colors, textures, and silhouettes of each country representing an indigenous feeling to each garment. It felt like circumnavigating the globe in 180 seconds, tantalizing the senses. Although never traveling to some of the exotic places, YSL allows the viewer to “travel inside his mind,” again, fashion imitating life.
An entire display bridged the gap between fashion and art. YSL replicated paintings in wearable form by Picasso, Van Gogh, and most famously the ecru abstract wool jersey mini, a dedication to Piet Mondrian.
To finish the exhibition, the final room incorporated Yves St. Laurent’s biggest dichotomy, a wall spanning 40 years of “le smoking” tuxedoes which mirrored a red carpet of ball gowns. Typical to portraying masculinity and femininity as one, St. Laurent defines two distinct ways for women to dress when attending formal affairs, either dissent androgyny or a classically elegant.
Encapsulated behind glass, the heart of the exhibition appears before exiting. In 1962, YSL created a heart necklace, his favorite design, which was then worn along with his favorite piece of each collection at each show. Something not to be missed.
St. Laurent’s branded fashion eternally, and the relevancy of his clothing is still seen today not only on the streets, but on the runways of contemporary designers who incorporate his work into theirs. The exhibition is truly unbelievable, more than a retrospective, it’s a visual tour of a true artist’s mind who not only created, but embodied fashion, life and society.
“If you don’t have imagination, you don’t have anything.” YSL
His quotes were legendary, his imagination came to life, but Yves St. Laurent’s designs will live forever. Denver is exceptionally lucky to have the bragging rights to this truly remarkable retrospective.