French designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) revolutionized the fashion world with his groundbreaking designs over the course of a 44-year career. The following text is taken from a 1991 interview with Yves Saint Laurent by French publication Le Figaro: “Yves Saint Laurent: Thirty Years of Glory, Thirty Years of Angst” by Franz-Olivier Giesbert and Janie Samet.
LE FIGARO: After thirty years of fashion, are you aware that you have become a mythic figure of global proportion?
Yves Saint Laurent: No, I don’t think of myself as a mythic figure and I am still surprised when people recognize me in the street. I did feel that way a long time ago, but since I’ve been battling depression, especially these last two years, I really don’t feel it anymore. Perhaps I am a legend, one I’ve created through my work ever since that fateful day when Mr. Dior appointed me as his successor. From the moment I presented my first collection, the Trapeze line, I have lived in a constant state of anxiety.
After being hired on the spot to work for the House of Dior in 1955, Saint Laurent spent his formative years working under the iconic designer, who named Saint Laurent his successor. Following Dior’s sudden death in late 1957, Saint Laurent took over the house at the age of twenty-one. His spring 1958 line, which included the Trapeze dress, is credited with saving the firm at a critical moment.
A significant divergence from Christian Dior’s highly structured 1947 line, which came to be known as the “New Look,” Saint Laurent’s trapeze dress was revolutionary. Fitted at the shoulder but flared away from the body, the dress allowed unprecedented freedom of movement without sacrificing elegance. The dress shape has now become a staple in both haute couture and off-the-rack fashions.
As a teenager, Saint Laurent crafted eleven dolls of famous models cut from fashion magazines. Fashion shows for his sisters included programs with names of actual suppliers to the haute couture trade. He made more than four hundred outfits and one hundred miniature accessories between 1953 and 1955.
When did you first realize that fashion was all about style and that you were going to create the Saint Laurent style?
Right away. My very first collection included a navy blue pea jacket and a white sweater. Leather jackets with mink sleeves. Everyday clothes. Raincoats. Pantsuits. When I introduced the pantsuit for the working woman, it caused quite a stir in America. In New York’s famous 21 Club, a woman wearing pants and a tunic was turned away. To be admitted to the dining room, she had to check her pants in the coatroom and wear just the tunic—leaving her, in essence, in a mini dress.
For at least two centuries, an outerwear piece resembling the modern-day pea coat was a workhorse garment for men in the maritime industry, but it was Saint Laurent who first brought it to the runway in 1962. He opened the very first show of his own house (Spring–Summer 1962) by presenting a pea coat. That same year, he also introduced another classic item: the trench coat.
Originally designed for the 1966 Fall–Winter ready-to-wear collection, and featured in Luis Buñuel's 1967 movie Belle de jour, the belted slicker with wool sleeves conveys the duplicity in Catherine Deneuve’s character—the perfect French wife moonlighting as a prostitute—while maintaining an eternal femininity. The jacket embodies a contrast of materials and aesthetics held together in a dynamic tension that was a hallmark of Saint Laurent’s career.
SAINT LAURENT rive gauche FALL–WINTER 1966
Much like his pea coat, Saint Laurent’s tailored pantsuit, first introduced in the late 1960s, proved that menswear could effortlessly be adapted to the lifestyle of modern women. Saint Laurent’s blurring of gender codes made him the designer of the moment as traditional roles were being challenged throughout western society.
Why are pantsuits featured in every one of your collections?
Because extreme femininity and an androgynous appearance create a feeling of contrast and confusion. I introduced the Tuxedo in 1966, reissued it in 1981, and have kept it in my collections ever since—it’s a timeless design. I have friends who still wear their ten-year-old Tuxedos.
Do you believe you have a sixth sense and know instinctively how women want to dress?
Yes, I do, I have an instinct for fashion. But not right now. I have many sketches but that’s all. I know that inspiration will come, it always does. The work I do unconsciously is still churning. The fabrics are churning, as well as the colors, and everything is moving along unconsciously in my mind.
The design process began with Saint Laurent’s detailed and expressive sketches, which his staff of expert tailors and dressmakers would translate into three-dimensional form in white cotton. The subsequent selection of fabrics and embroidery was based on a relationship of trust between the designer and his suppliers, some of the most venerable manufacturers and craftsmen in Paris.
Saint Laurent adopted the idea of the collection board from Christian Dior’s working method. This board from the Fall-Winter 1965 collection provides the key to each garment including title, clothing category, season, and year, along with fabric swatches and names of the models who would wear the garments. The Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent has the collection boards from every collection produced by Saint Laurent.
One of Saint Laurent’s most famous contributions to the fashion world was the Mondrian dress in the Fall-Winter 1965 collection. Discovering the modern painter in a book given to him by his mother, Saint Laurent saw how the rhythm of color could be combined with a bold and forceful line. He incorporated this into a dress of thick wool jersey whose flat modernist design is animated and given volume by the female body.
Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, once noted that “fashion is not an art, but fashion needs an artist to exist.” Though the designer initially favored black, he was inspired by the colorful Pop art of the 1960s. In these designs, he incorporated bold hues and shapes, creating garments that helped define the spirit of the time.
Were there times when your famous sixth sense did not work?
Yes, in 1964, the models just did not inspire me. Choosing the right models is very important to me. I drape the fabric around them and, suddenly, an idea explodes. I don’t talk to them very much but I truly love them: and they are all in love with me.
Saint Laurent credited the models with inspiring him. Sometimes he skipped the sketch entirely and experimented with silhouettes by draping fabric directly onto the model. Victoire Doutreleau, who came with him from Christian Dior, was an early muse. His house models were notable for their ethnic diversity, beginning with Fidelia, the first black haute couture model, and continuing through Iman, Mounia, Tatiana, Kirat, and Naomi Campbell.
You attribute your success with the public to the fact that you have always had a love affair with the street. Yet you rarely go out. How can this “relationship” exist?
I don’t go out anymore. Perhaps I will again later on. I have been less in touch with the street scene since I’ve been having health problems.
Catapulted into the spotlight at a young age, Yves Saint Laurent was at the center of a lavish and wild social circle. The fashion scene of the 1960s and 70s was populated by international faces from art, music, and entertainment—Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Betty Catroux, Paul and Talitha Getty—and fueled by substances. A natural introvert, Yves Saint Laurent both courted fame and struggled with being idolized.
How has your career been affected by what you and Nietzsche call “aesthetic phantoms,” the artists whose works have nourished your imagination?
Movies and theater have influenced me enormously.
I was also very influenced by Matisse in my use of color. When I started out, I only believed in black and it took me a long time to get used to color. Today, I think I use color brilliantly. Picasso also influenced me tremendously.
Short Evening Ensemble, Inspired by Henri Matisse
A committed collector of the art that inspired and reflected his aesthetic, Saint Laurent developed numerous garments directly referencing the artists he admired. For his Fall-Winter 1981 haute couture collection, he combined Henri Matisse’s use of intense colors and simple lines to create “Blouse roumaine,” a direct reference to Matisse’s painting of the same name.
The sets, costume design, and monumental stage curtain created by Pablo Picasso for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1919, helped Yves Saint Laurent break through a creative block. The Fall-Winter 1979 haute couture collection was animated by Picasso’s harlequin patterns and dynamic construction.
Short Evening Ensemble, Homage to Pablo Picasso
Can a woman without great means still be elegant?
Absolutely. To look beautiful, all she needs is a black sweater, a black skirt, and a man she loves on her arm. Black is essential.
Could you live without haute couture?
Yes, I think so. If I did not have haute couture, I would adapt everything I know about it to ready-to-wear because they are two different professions. I could incorporate haute couture into ready-to-wear. And that day is coming. Haute couture will last as long as it can, but within ten years, it will no longer exist. Times change and you need to adapt.
SAINT LAURENT rive gauche, the brand’s ready-to-wear boutique, opened in 1966. This prêt-à-porter line made high-fashion garments—including the iconic Tuxedo—accessible to a much broader audience long before other French designers had ventured away from haute couture. It proved to be an extremely prescient decision; years later, essentially all of the major fashion houses would do the same.
When you showed dresses that revealed women’s breasts, was it to make people talk about you?
I did it because that fashion reflected the times. I created the first see-through dress in 1968. When my designs revealed a woman’s breasts like the Winged Victory, I was harshly criticized in America.
Do you consider fashion to be art, given that fashion depends on change and art is lasting?
Fashion doesn’t change though people will try to convince you otherwise. Like art, some designs are timeless—but only some.
In February 1992, you will be celebrating thirty years of couture. What does that mean to you?
An enormous amount of work and a great deal of love.
At his retrospective in 2002, Yves Saint Laurent was flanked by two of his muses, Laetitia Casta and Catherine Deneuve, his close friend since the 1960s. Many of his beloved models came out of retirement to honor and surround him at the event. To this day, Saint Laurent is hailed as one of the most influential designers in the world. The couture house was transformed into the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, aimed at preserving its unique heritage and organizing exhibitions.