Going Out in Style
In fact he began a revolution. Catering to jet-setters and socialites including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Catherine Deneuve, Saint Laurent pioneered styles that trickled down, through his less expensive ready-to-wear line as well as knockoffs, into every female closet: pantsuits and peasant blouses, safari jackets and see-through shirts. Today any woman who has ever stood tall in a power suit has Saint Laurent to thank. Says designer Diane Von Furstenberg, a friend and client: "His influence in fashion will never die."
His day-to-day involvement with design, however, had been on the wane for years. Brokered by French tycoon Francois Pinault, the Gucci Group bought most of the house of Yves Saint Laurent for about $1 billion in 1999. Under the terms of the deal, Saint Laurent—who had already handed over the reins of the ready-to-wear line to designer Alber Elbaz in 1998—continued to work on the haute couture. That was a money-losing enterprise serving the pampered few willing to pay as much as $20,000 for a custom-fitted, hand-sewn garment, and with the couturier's retirement, it will close. "I'll have to go naked!" New York socialite Nan Kempner, a regular customer, told a reporter after she heard the news.
In recent months, as Gucci creative director Tom Ford began overhauling the YSL image, Saint Laurent and his longtime business partner and former lover Pierre Bergé subtly suggested displeasure. "I think it must have been very hard for Yves to see Tom take up the mantle with such success," Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour said. Bergé, however, denied that the departure reflected any conflict. "Haute couture is made to go with a certain lifestyle," he said. "This lifestyle no longer exists. We are in the era of jeans and Nikes."
Saint Laurent grew up in an era of white tie and ballgowns. The oldest of three children of a prominent French family living in Oran, Algeria—his father, Charles, who died in 1988, managed a chain of movie theaters—Saint Laurent developed his sense of style watching his homemaker mother, Lucienne, now 85, primp for evenings out. When he was 4, she once recalled, he was already telling her, "No, I don't like you in that." At 18, he won a prestigious Parisian fashion design contest, which led to a job as an assistant to renowned couturier Christian Dior. When Dior died of heart failure in 1957, Saint Laurent, then 21, made headlines when he was tapped to replace him.
After six collections for Dior, Saint Laurent was dismissed in 1960 after suffering a breakdown during his compulsory stint in the military. But that only set the stage for his greatest triumphs with his own couture house, which he and Bergé launched in 1962 with the financial backing of an American businessman. Says Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute: "He had his finger on the pulse of culture at a moment where it was transforming."
Indeed, the late '60s and '70s were all about Yves: his creation of the first tuxedo for women, the first unisex fragrance (Eau Libre), the first ready-to-wear boutique opened by a couturier. "He not only put women in the uniform," says designer Oscar de la Renta, "he gave it a sense of fantasy and femininity." He dressed Catherine Deneuve in military-style outfits for the 1967 film Belle de Jour. And when Bianca and Mick Jagger wed in 1971, she wore a white YSL pantsuit. His one regret, the couturier once said, was that he didn't invent jeans.
Saint Laurent also became one of the first celebrity designers, running in the same circles as the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. But his increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs was an open secret among the fashion set, and in 1977 there was even talk that he had died.
By 1990 Saint Laurent, who has struggled with depression, had endured multiple stays at hospitals, receiving treatment for exhaustion. Painfully shy, with a psyche as delicate as the lace on one of his couture gowns—he was "born with a nervous breakdown," Bergé once said—Saint Laurent seemed more reluctant each time he made the traditional walk down the runway at the end of his show. His later collections, too, looked like retreads, though polished ones. The retirement, insiders say, was long expected. "He's not sad, he's happy," says Betty Catroux, a Saint Laurent muse since they met at a nightclub in 1967. "He'll finally have time for himself, to really live."
For Saint Laurent, whose health has visibly improved in recent years, that means shuttling between his palatial apartment in Paris, a villa in Morocco and a chateau in Normandy, France—and, friends suggest, perhaps a new career in writing or painting. But first there's his last couture show in Paris on Jan. 22. The presentation will include iconic pieces from the past. "I am naive enough to believe," Saint Laurent said, "that they are able to resist the attacks of time and that they still have their place in today's world." It will be, in every sense, a celebration. "It lasted 40 years for us," said Bergé, "and it was formidable."
Julie K.L. Dam
Cathy Nolan in Paris and Rachel Felder in New York City