January 1 1980


January 1 1980



Three-year-old Yves, the future in his eyes (far left), with his devoted mother, Left, below: At twenty-one, Yves on the balcony of the House of Dior, after his triumphant first collection, 1958. Near left: Saint Laurent at home today with a Ptolemaic Egyptian coffin, one of the art treasures in his Paris apartment. Above: 1974 YSL ballet costume, one of his witty theatrical fantasies for Zizi Jeanmaire. Picture credits on page 208.

“Yves Saint Laurent made Paris worthwhile”— that was the consensus of those who saw the other spring ready-to-wear openings. Saint Laurent showed them a smashing collection that was fresh and boldly noticeable for its wit. His latest clothes again confirmed Saint Laurent as the most interesting designer of our time. Here, an inside look at his career, his life.


like a nobleman in by-gone times, Yves Saint Laurent

lives by a motto. Tout ...

Terriblement! You can anglicize that as “Everything ... All the Way!” keeping in mind that a note of suffering gets lost in the translation,

as it never does in his life. Saint Laurent reminds you that the line comes from Apollinaire, but he seems all the same to have been born with it stuck in his head. Pierre Bergé, who has shared his life and his career as a business alter-ego, likes to repeat that Saint Laurent was also “born with a nervous breakdown.”

In the two decades this forty-three-year-old has carried celebrity on his stooped shoulders like an orphan bearing his brother, you might have expected him to have fallen prostrate at any rise in the road. He and his talent prevail, terribly strong. At what seemed the height of his career, about five years ago, the specter of middle age, his difficulty at intimacy with others, and above all, the engulfing hardship of his work began to drive him wild. His life became littered with scandal. Stories of drugs, drink, depression.


Small, private, the world of Yves Saint Laurent centers on the team of women who work with him and friends who nourish his insatiable interest in the arts. Surrounding himself with beautiful things, Yves stays inside his Left Bank duplex, says he gets his inspiration by “opening the windows for a whiff of what's coming.” Working in theater and ballet provides his realm for fantasy.

He passed through it all, and out of it all. I have a pained memory of his trembling as we rode an elevator together toward his Fall 1976 Rive Gauche collection. But when I spoke to him recently, he was sitting, serene as a lazy successful younger son, in his Marrakesh villa.

Saint Laurent has been experiencing psychotherap. Let's hope it won't make him turn his back on that exterior madness of having to prove four times a year, with his couture and Rive Gauche collections, that he is still called “the king of fashion.” No kingdom has ever asked such painful rites of a ruler. Painful and hypocritical—because no one beyond an editor looking for one day's minor headline, or a fashion writer traveling on expenses, sincerely hungers for big news in fashion four times a year. Saint Laurent's great gift, as Geraldine Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, once put it “is that he's clairvoyant. He senses what women will want and does it in ways they never dreamed of.” And sometimes women want designers to leave their wardrobes pretty much alone. Some of his most appropriate collections, in my mind, have been called his dullest. On the other hand, he's never fallen prey to the doctrinaire or bigoted self-righteousness that ossified the careers of Chanel and Balenciaga, great as they were.

“Chanel found perfection and stayed with it,” Saint Laurent once told me, with defensive admiration. And sometimes, railing against the fashion of the latest generation of French designers (“fit for three queens who go to discothèques”) or against the street, he sounds like Chanel herself, hissing at the world while she clutched your hand on the steps of the Ritz, after dinner, afraid to be alone in her bedroom the rest of the night.

But Saint Laurent can talk like that while his mind keeps cruising, looking for the crossroads where the mood of the world at large meets the theatrics of his imagination. Those encounters are his best collections.

Loulou Klossowski, who works alongside Saint Laurent, provoking his fantasy and creating his accessories, says: “We tango between seasons when you wonder whether anyone needs more than a black skirt and a sweater and some jewelry and the times when you want everything to be like a devastating feast—wild, gay, spirited.”

This expanding and contracting of Saint Laurent's imagination, the seeming manic-depressiveness of his talent, is paradoxically the exercise that has built his lasting strength. Anthony Burgess once wrote about one of YSL's most flamboyant collections: “Nobody has to swallow the whole rich draft, nobody could. But you can sip, you can make your own mild cocktail of the ingredients.” The ingredients are the essential Saint Laurent shapes, the proof of his intelligence about anatomy, and about usefulness in clothes—his blousons, his tunics, his blazers, suits, and knockabout raincoats, patiently revised season after season. His dull collections are like stockpiles of essentials in times of famine.

After all, he is not the king of fashion. Who really wants a king these days, to lead women from one crazy height to another? For Bergé, “Yves doesn't even propose fashion, he draws conclusions.” For me, he's been the one couturier who has managed to live on in the castle of the dead kings and queens as fashion's strange and wise master of revels.

“Yves,” says Bergé again, “is someone with exceptional intelligence practicing the trade of an imbecile.” Saint Laurent has more esteem than that for his work. He calls it “a minor art.”

You needn't believe that all other clothing designers are imbeciles to understand that not everyone creates dresses for the same reasons.

There are a handful of talented young designers in New York with a marketing sense beyond comparison, and the future may well be theirs. They design beautiful passe-partout clothes with no obvious caste stamp to them, for women who want to look seductive yet decent and fresh, and who prefer to express themselves in other ways than through their wardrobes. These women buy clothes to live in and to invest in, and they rarely listen with more than one ear to fashion dictates. Calvin Klein will never be a king of fashion, but he's probably its current president, or acting chairman, something like that.


Saint Laurent showed, in July 1979, an autumn couture collection drawing its major themes from the works of Picasso, whose massive exhibition opened later in Paris's Grand Palais and drew those who came in October to view Saint Laurent's spring and summer 1980 ready-to-wear. From that collection, tricolor pattern of classic sweater shape (right, with Zouave pants) recalls Picasso's harlequins.

In Europe the new generation is up to something quite different. Judging by the number of designs in their press shows that ever get manufactured (precious few), they are not doing clothes to dress anyone but their friends the mannequins. They are wholesaling “news” for the press to retail. News in the form of comic-strip outfits or “retro” costumes. There are flashes of beauty and sometimes of genius in a Claude Montana or a Thierry Mugler collection, but the thrust is toward notoriety. Notoriety leads to licensing agreements, particularly that purported pot of gold, a perfume license. These are the children of Pierre Cardin, a very elegant couturier to begin with, who seems to have lost interest in the minor art of clothing a long time ago and used his collections to express an oddly charismatic personality. The personality, in the abstract, is a profitable signature.

Yet there are also some designers still interested in elegance, as we've interpreted the quality, visually, since businessmen came to power in the nineteenth century. In France, the Finest example of that sane Apollonian charm is the gift of Hubert de Givenchy. In America, you get some of the same spirit in the clothes of Geoffrey Beene.

In the context of these various currents, Yves Saint Laurent's talent stands out by its depth and its completeness.

Shy as he is, Saint Laurent is still as motivated by fame and fortune as anybody else. “I came to Paris determined to burst out on the world, one way or another,” he confessed, looking back from the splendor of Marrakesh at the lanky boy from Oran, Algeria, who won first prize in a dress-designing contest at the age of seventeen, in 1954.

At the same time, Saint Laurent is driven by a blighted passion for women, a passion that expresses itself in embellishment and that censors any “look” in which a woman would not be sensual and seductive. He likes women, who, like his mother, have strong features: Loulou Klossowski, Paloma Picasso, Betty Catroux.

A kind of love play goes on when Saint Laurent works on a mannequin. “He flirts,” says Anne-Marie Muñoz-Yague, his chief technical assistant (directrice du studio), who has worked with him since his debut at Dior. “And when he's had a woman in his hands,” she adds, “she leaves looking as beautiful as she has it in her to look.”

Like Givenchy, Saint Laurent has an immense power to flatter. Yet while Givenchy is a master of elegance, Saint Laurent is the only contemporary designer with eloquence. His women are not just well-dressed, they are heroines. His collections suggest stories.

There are two origins to the narrative richness of Saint Laurent's art. One is a lonely man's escape into theater, the other is a lonely and shy man's blocked attraction to the crowd. When Saint Laurent periodically says he detests the street, his reasons are esthetic, never moral or social. “I'd really love to be like everyone else,” he says, with complicated sincerity. I've known him to run from strangers, but as far as I know, he's never snubbed anyone.

He owes his success, the full flowering of his talent, to the street and he knows it.

Saint Laurent came to power in fashion during the ‘sixties, when the class-compartmentalized and ethnic dialects of dress had begun to merge feverishly. Fashion had burst out onto a sort of worldwide citizen's band: everybody's clothes were calling out—proclaiming values, politics, foisting dreams and invitations. Chanel and Balenciaga turned their backs on all that and died disgusted. Givenchy kept his cheer and kept on dressing his monied clients. André Courrèges bravely created an original style that reinvented the mood. Somewhere between Barbie and Buck Rogers, Courrèges’ idea of a woman seemed just right, for about two years. But Saint Laurent's eclectic, empirical desire to transform the street's own ideas into something similar, better, touched by genius proved the triumphant form of modernism.

“I never go out much,” Saint Laurent likes to repeat, “but I just have to open my window to get a whiff of what's coming.” He had that whiff as early as his first collection, when he succeeded Christian Dior at Dior, for the spring of 1958. He got rid of the inner construction into which Dior had molded his idle women and created a “trapeze” that hung free from the shoulders. A year later, he made the common middy-blouse high fashion. In 1960, he de-mystified furs, mixing them with humble knits. For the winter of 1962, in his second collection at his own house, he taught the fashion world that smocks and pea jackets could be the height of chic. Next came his motorcycle jackets. Later, men's suits for women, safari jackets ...

But as the ‘sixties began to fizzle, the street began to peter out of ideas for Saint Laurent; and the theater, his other inspiration, began to dominate his mind. Times were turning sad, other designers were getting away from them by going “retro.” Saint Laurent marked the turning of the decade by taking us on an escape to China. Soon there would be Russians, heroines out of Proust, Grand Opera, North

Africa, and finally, in 1979, a full-blown version, in clothes, of the most talent-filled years of the century, the time of Picasso and Diaghilev. Not in “retro” clothes of the period, but in original costumes that honored, with wit and irony, a sensibility we'd lost.

Theatrics have been in Saint Laurent since his childhood. Lucienne Saint Laurent, his mother, recalls Yves's “Illustre Théâtre,” a cardboard stage he'd set up for cardboard players, in a spare room of their house. “Yves would perform the plays of Moliere or Giraudoux, doing all the costumes and all the sets; and then he'd take each role, talking and singing.” His two younger sisters and the servants were invited to the performances, but his parents were never allowed to come.

Saint Laurent also showed a precocious talent for painting and drawing. “Yves has been scribbling since the age of three,” his mother adds. Her apartment is filled with his pictures, which are repeated sentimental portrayals of a mother and her children.

The love between Saint Laurent and his mother has obviously been something enormous in his life. “I love my daughters, of course,” concedes Madame Saint Laurent, “but for Yves there's always been something very strong and very special.”

To round out this Proustian situation, you might expect a stern, insensitive father. But Jules Charles Saint Laurent, now seventy and living in Monte Carlo, where he administers the Rive Gauche boutique, comes across as a gentle man. “Yves was never influenced by anyone,” says Saint Laurent père. “I'd say it was his mother who was influenced by him. As for me, I've always believed that a child should be allowed to do what he wants in life. What matters is that he wants to do something.”

If Saint Laurent had the kind of father he'd like to forget, you could never learn that from his expression as he talks, his distant stare, the way he likes to cross his arms and holds his hands at his neck—all unconscious mimicry of the gestures of Jules Charles Saint Laurent.

Jules Charles Mathieu Saint Laurent had a prosperous insurance agency and a film distribution company in Oran until he had to abandon it all after Algeria became independent in 1962. The family, which had lived in Alsace since Louis Quinze, moved to Oran in 1872, after Alsace had gone to the Germans as war booty. Yves's great-great uncle, whose portrait and desk ornament the designer's small office, was the Baron Mathieu de Mauvières, ennobled by Napoleon I after he'd served as notary to the Emperor and had married him to Josephine.

Yves Saint Laurent's early years were made miserable by the tough, macho-minded sons of Spanish colons who were his schoolmates; but his upper-bourgeois home was a haven of delight. He was the idol of his mother, his father's pride, and his sisters’ boss. All his life he would assume that being both protected and looked up to was his natural way of relating to other people.

Alexandre, the emperor of hairdressers, calls Saint Laurent “a born star ... a person who gets special treatment without asking for it.” “The most striking thing about the boy when he first came to Dior,” recalls Anne-Marie Muñoz, “was his authority. He breathed authority and a need for protection at the same time.” Luckily, Saint Laurent would always be able to draw the protection his authority needed. Without certain other names—those of Pierre Bergé, Suzanne Luling, Mack Robinson, and Richard Salomon, among them— the name Saint Laurent would probably not be what it is in fashion today.

Yves Saint Laurent officially entered the world of fashion in 1952 at the age of fifteen, when one of the sketches he'd mailed off took second prize in a contest for promising new stylists, run by the International Wool Secretariat. A year and a half later, Yves was in Paris. He had his baccalaureate degree behind him, he had taken first prize with a cocktail dress in the 1954 Wool Secretariat contest, and was anxious, he says, “to burst out into the world.” His mother found him lodgings with the widow of a general; and Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of French Vogue and a friend of the family, saw to it that young Saint Laurent attended the sewing and cutting school of the French couture's trade association.

Saint Laurent left the couture school after three months. Brunhoff was unhappy that he'd wanted to leave; but when Saint Laurent showed him some drawings that looked astoundingly like the “A-Line” collection Christian Dior had just designed, Brunhoff urged Dior to meet Saint Laurent. Almost immediately, Saint Laurent became Dior's close creative assistant, then his dauphin.

Raymonde Zehnacker recalls:

“Just after Monsieur Dior showed his last collection, he said, ‘Raymonde, I'd like to tell the press that thirty-five of those models were completely designed by Yves Saint Laurent.’ He never found the right moment to make the announcement.” Soon after, Dior was dead, from a stroke.

Yves Saint Laurent, who'd been in the house two years, was named by Marcel Boussac, the crusty owner of the house, as chief designer. The first collection Saint Laurent did at Dior was a smashing success. Yves did five more collections and then, in October, 1960, was swept off into the army.

When Saint Laurent returned to civilian life after a nervous breakdown in the barracks, his job had been filled by Marc Bohan, who had designed the Dior London collections. Boussac offered Saint Laurent a year's trip around the world, after which he'd get his job back. Saint Laurent was impatient. Jacques Rouët, director of Dior, wanted Boussac to create a new house for Yves Saint Laurent. Boussac said no. It all ended up in lawsuits. Saint Laurent came away with a free hand but no job.

By this time, Saint Laurent's protective presence was Pierre Bergé, the small, feisty, and intellectual son of a schoolteacher and of a brilliant functionary in the French Ministry of Finance. They'd become friends shortly after Dior's death, after meeting on a weekend at painter Bernard Buffet's château.

Bergé stood by Saint Laurent through all the anguish of the lawsuits and set about finding someone other than Boussac to found the house of Saint Laurent. Suzanne Luling, a childhood friend of Dior and sales directress of the house, had a cousin who had a friend in Switzerland investing money for rich Americans. Through Luling, Bergé encountered J. Mack Robinson, who'd made a fortune at car financing in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1961, Robinson established Yves Saint Laurent as a couturier, in a small town house in Paris.

In 1967, when Robinson sold out to Charles of the Ritz (later Lanvin-Charles of the Ritz), he had, by Bergé's account, made no profit at all from Yves Saint Laurent.

“I told him it would take ten years for us to become profitable,” Bergé recalls, “and I was right, to the year.”

In 1971, the year the house came out ahead, Richard Salomon, owner of LanvinCharles of the Ritz, sold his company to the giant Squibb pharmaceutical group. On retiring, Salomon made a parting paternal gesture to Yves Saint Laurent. He set up a deal whereby Saint Laurent and Bergé could buy themselves free of Squibb by first renouncing all claims, beyond consultant fees, to Saint Laurent scents and cosmetics.

In 1972, Yves Saint Laurent's revenues fell to the break-even point, but the house was free of outside ownership. Squibb was pleased to be rid of a troublesome property. Bergé, who had refused all but a handful of licensing agreements, now began to capitalize in earnest on the name he and Saint Laurent had built over the years.

Bergé hit pay dirt in 1974, after Maurice Bidermann, who made and distributed Pierre Cardin menswear for America, stopped working with Cardin. Bidermann took on the Yves Saint Laurent label instead, and his established system sold about $50 million worth, wholesale, of Yves Saint Laurent suits and blazers that year. Meanwhile other deals were cooking. Now Bidermann does about $70 million a year in wholesaling American YSL menswear; and Bergé, with a total of about $200 million in wholesale goods— clothes, accessories, shoes, luggage—bearing the Saint Laurent label, collects net royalties that can be estimated at about $18 million. Shortly after they became independent of Squibb, Saint Laurent and Bergé sold the shares they'd held in the Rive Gauche manufacturing and distributing company and placed their bets entirely on couture sales and royalties. It's a bet they seem to have won.

YSL's clothes turn women into heroines

In 1974, the YSL couture house moved into a big Second Empire mansion on the avenue Marceau. (And, under Bergé's management, nothing is ever allowed to slip; wherever the opening, Bergé insists that the collections be shown on time and that the room be comfortable for clients and press and not be overrun by the uninvited.) Saint Laurent and Bergé live in baronial splendor, in a Left Bank two-story apartment with a garden, in a house in Marrakesh, a nineteenth-century castle in Deauville. Bergé has a Rolls, a helicopter, and a Learjet. Their houses are crammed with extraordinary objects and paintings: a Picasso, some Légers, and a Goya, among others.

Yves Saint Laurent obviously feels an emotional need to surround himself with beautiful things, and he likes to travel comfortably; but not all his tastes are luxurious. He could eat club sandwiches seven days a week. His car is a 1972 Volkswagen convertible (with special chocolate-colored leather upholstery).

Most of the time he is driven around in Bergé's company Peugeot, not for the sake of pomp but for safety. He tends to be absentminded about things like red lights.

Socially, Saint Laurent rarely sees people outside his long-established set of friends. It includes Charlotte Aillaud, wife of the architect Emile Aillaud; François-Marie Banier, a writer; François Catroux, the decorator, and his wife, Betty. They are people at the perimeter of the Jet Set but with a serious interest in the arts.

The core of Saint Laurent's coterie is made up of people who work with him: Loulou Klossowski, Anne-Marie Muñoz, Clara Saint, who handles publicity for the Rive Gauche line and Marina Schiano, a vice president of Yves Saint Laurent, Inc.

Saint Laurent is the first to tell you that his work depends on a team. There are six people who help in the studio, the most important of whom are Klossowski and Muñoz. Loulou de la Falaise, married to Thaddéo Klossowski, a writer, first came into Saint Laurent's life in 1969, on the arm of Fernando Sanchez, now a New York designer, who's been a friend of Saint Laurent since their couture school days. Loulou swept Saint Laurent's imagination with a hippie breeziness that immediately showed up in his collections. In 1971, Saint Laurent invited her to work beside him.

Saint Laurent still does all the sketching for his couture and women's Rive Gauche collections. Sometimes he comes in with a whole collection already drawn; but, just as often, he begins by talking with the people in the studio about the collection, exchanging ideas, and, as they talk, Saint Laurent begins to draw. From the drawings, he moves on to working on the live mannequins, perfecting the cut of the models executed for him under Muñoz's direction.

He seems now in full possession of his craft, at ease with his talent, and resigned to the tortures of his schedules.

“It's terrible to create something—a collection—and then have it disappear from sight, leaving you with just some photos,” he says, “but I've found myself in my craft . . . and I know now that being master of it is all the proof of success I need.”

Somehow he has managed, over his career, to do costumes for twenty-eight revues, plays, ballets, and films; and he's designed the sets for four of Roland Petit's dance productions. He'll likely do more things for the stage. Yet now he talks about the theater and the writing he began about five years ago as hobbies. “Things to fill up my old age,” he says.

“He'll probably wind up writing, like some old monk somewhere,” Klossowski says.

Possibly. But in the meantime, we may expect some more dazzling major performances of Y ves Saint Laurent's minor art.


Page 148, inset: Dalmas-Sipa. Page 149, photograph: Alexander Liberman; sketch: Yves Saint Laurent. Pages 150-151: 1. Harry Benson; 2. Patrice Habans; 3. Reginald Gray; 4. Reginald Gray; 5. Robin Platzer; 6. Horst; 7. Yves Saint Laurent; 8. Horst; 9. Horst; 10. Alain Figuié; 11. Andrè Perlstein-Le Point; 12. Michel Petit; 13. Reginald Gray. Page 152: Eve Arnold-Magnum. Page 153: Patrick Demarchelier. Page 154, top left: Penn. Page 155: Helmut Newton.

Diagram, above, pages 150-151