Rediscovering Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008 at age 71, is considered one of the greatest fashion designers in history and arguably the most influential one of the second half of the twentieth century. He also transcended fashion as an artist, stimulated by his entourage, backed by the French establishment, and encouraged by his lifelong partner Pierre Bergé as well as his influential circle of artist friends, which included a young Andy Warhol.


Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech. Photo / PR office.


Fifteen years after the haute couture house closed its doors, two museums opened in October to celebrate the praised French fashion designer’s life and present a comprehensive retrospective of his work. While one is in Paris and the other Marrakech, Morocco, both museums will showcase original design sketches, timeless pieces from his many collections, house garments, original photographs from Saint Laurent’s shows and life, as well as YSL paraphernalia selected from Fondation Pierre Bergé’s exclusive and rich collection.

The museum in Paris is located at the address of the work studio Saint Laurent used for 30 years, 5 Avenue Marceau. The building, which has also operated as Fondation Pierre Bergé’s headquarters since 2004, has been converted into an exhibition space housing designs, accessories, sketches, photographs, and videos. So as to allow visitors to get an insight of the French couturier’s creative process, the legendary studio where the he worked is opened to the public, as are the former salons of haute couture.


Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Photo / PR office.


The opening of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris coincided with the inauguration of the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech, which was built from the ground up adjacent to the Jardin Majorelle and the Berber Museum. Slickly enough, the address for the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is on Rue Yves Saint Laurent. And to think – it has nothing to do with branding as much as it does how much the he was admired and respected. Designed by French Studio KO, the museum provides a space for permanent and temporary exhibitions of Saint Laurent’s work, alongside a library, a book store, an auditorium, and, of course, a café restaurant.

When visiting these museums, it is apparent that much was done to respect what the demanding designer would have wanted. Great care was also placed in making it a timeless, elegant, and thorough ode to a man who changed the fashion world one sketch at a time, starting at age 21 when he became a head designer of the House of Dior. Much of what’s displayed in these museums hints at many of his traits and gives an insight as to who he was, both as man and as a designer.


Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Photo / PR office.


Yves Saint Laurent, the business mogul

Some of the museum’s gallery displays are devoted to Saint Laurent’s most emblematic designs, such as the tuxedo, the safari jacket, the jumpsuit, and the trench coat. These models embody the couturier’s quintessential style: timeless and inspired from masculine codes without comprising the femininity of the lines. The designer sought to transcend the provisional and transitory nature of fashion. It is widely recognized that one of his great contributions to fashion was designing styles that became timeless. What is not necessarily known is that the French visionary is also credited for pioneering – or at the very least for commercializing – “prêt-à-porter,” more commonly known as “ready-to-wear.” Although today it’s in no way regarded as exciting or exceptional, ready-to-wear clothing was truly a revolutionary concept 60 years ago. By shifting some of his focus away from Haute Couture, investing his talent to produce ready-to-wear lines in limited numbers, and creating an alternative for factory clothing (which was generally associated with poor design and quality), Saint Laurent set the foundation for what became mass luxury’s 21st century global market. In 1967, encouraged by his equally luminary companion and business partner Pierre Bergé, the designer ultimately opened a boutique exclusively dedicated to “prêt-à-porter” called Rive Gauche. One of his first customers was Catherine Deneuve.


Traveling without moving

According to Bergé, Saint Laurent wasn’t all that interested in travel, which is quite surprising considering how exotic the designer’s personal style was and how worldly many of his collections felt. When looking at most of his designs, one could in fact assume the complete opposite: that he was a tireless traveler. Of course, it didn’t help that he didn’t like traveling by plane and favored slower forms of transportation; but as it turns out, other than “commuting” between France and Morocco, Saint Laurent wasn’t much of a traveler at all. It’s extraordinary, then, to think he discovered the world not through physical journeys, but through a variety of sources like art, literature, theater, and music. It’s nothing short of fascinating to consider that in order to design dresses that were inspired by Africa, China, Spain, India, or Russia, the French couturier reimagined these cultures into his creations by drawing on the shapes, colors, textures, and fabrics from these distant places – without being there and without internet! By perusing the books, the photography collection, sketches, and personal archives presented in both museums, one gets a glimpse as to how Saint Laurent sought inspiration. The exhibition “L’Asie rêvée d’Yves Saint Laurent” (Yves Saint Laurent’s Imaginary Asia) at the Paris museum, for instance, brings together approximately fifty designs accompanied by original sketches and Asian objects offering insight into the creative process behind the clothing while also creating a visual link with their sources.


Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Photo / PR office.


Bringing fashion and art together

The couple was known for their love of fine art and they built up a considerable collection covering a wide range of periods and styles. Art had an important influence on Saint Laurent’s work and resulted in some of his most groundbreaking creations. In that way, he was among the first fashion designers to borrow liberally from artists such as Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, or Pablo Picasso. The 1965 Mondrian collection – and more precisely the iconic A-line shift “Mondrian Dress,” which became an instant pop icon – is particularly renowned, and with reason. Design-wise, the convergence of fashion and art in these dresses was revolutionary. The collection reflected the fashionable Western silhouettes while embodying the significance of modernity and Mondrian’s work, which the French couturier admired. “Mondrian is purity and one can go no further in purity in painting. This is a purity that joins with that of the Bauhaus. The masterpiece of the twentieth century is a Mondrian,” said Saint Laurent of the artist. Interesting however to note that the couturier’s adoption of Mondrian’s motif had such an impact that although the painting referenced – “Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue” – was created during the 1930s, it is now often anachronistically associated to the “the swinging sixties.”


Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Photo / PR office.


From day one, archived greatness

It is impressive how much has been preserved since the designer founded his own fashion house Yves Saint Laurent YSL back in the early 60s. Haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing and accessories, preparatory sketches for the collections, relevant documents, even drawings and objects related to Saint Laurent’s body of work: all in display at these two museums, and most of it in near perfect condition. Again, nothing we owe to fortunate circumstances, but rather to Saint Laurent’s almost uncanny foresight and unflinching attention to detail. Almost immediately after parting with Dior, the designer began to chronicle his own progression as if aware of the impact it might have for generations to come. Starting from 1962, for instance, from every collection he would keep a selection of prototypes, versions of models designed by him and executed in the ateliers according to his direct instructions. By the late seventies, the process of conservation became even more methodical, with specific denominations – such as “M” and later “Musée” – becoming part of the ateliers’ specification sheets. The French designer was a prolific draftsman, known at times to produce hundreds of drawings for a single collection. Thanks to the systemic conservation started in the 60s, The Fondation now holds almost all of these drawings, in addition to preparatory sketches charting his creative progress. Alongside these sketches, visitors of either museum will also have a chance to examine numerous drawings, posters, and collages Saint Laurent produced for music hall, theater, ballet, and cinema.


Discover the latest collections by Saint Laurent here.