Yves Saint-Laurent, acknowledged as YSL, is an iconic name in fashion recognised by near enough everybody. He is regarded highly in fashion and within France but for what, exactly? In short, he was an innovative thinker who revolutionised women’s fashion by utilising the designs from men’s clothing, which he noticed made them notably more confident than women: his approach was to dress women in men’s clothing, that had been designed for women. He empowered women to be the equals of men, whilst making designer fashion accessible to everyone with the rise of ready-to-wear.
Born in French Algeria, on the North coast of Africa, Saint-Laurent took an early interest in fashion by creating paper dolls and designing dresses for his mother and two sisters. After leaving school, he enrolled in Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris and was shortly taken under Dior’s tutelage having gained great attention for his sketches. It is interesting to note Saint-Laurent’s female influences, as he was constantly surrounded by women and spent most of his earlier years designing womenswear.
Having proceeded to make a name for himself whilst working with Dior, upon the latter’s sudden death, Saint-Laurent was left as head designer of Dior aged just 21. Saint-Laurent’s first collection for Dior was a huge success and his spring collection of 1958 is said to have saved Dior from financial ruin. However, his following fall collection was not well received and prompted a series of downfalls in Saint-Laurent’s life. Behind the glitz and glamour of
the designer’s life, France was at war with Algeria and conscription was imminent for Saint-Laurent. Lasting only 20 days in the military, the psychological effects and stress of hazing saw him immediately admitted to hospital. From there he heard the devastating news that he had been fired from Dior, which only worsened his condition. As a result, he was transferred to another hospital where he was treated with large doses of sedatives, psychoactive drugs and electroshock therapy: something which he believes greatly influenced his mental problems and addictions later in life.
Despite his prior traumatic experiences, in 1961, Saint-Laurent and his then-partner Pierre Bergé set up the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent YSL. With funding from millionaire J. Mack Robinson, the company was a success from the start.
YSL’s first collection in 1962 saw the introduction of the pea-coat, that freed the female form with its wide shape, most unlike the sculpted and constricting fashion designed for women previously. Saint-Laurent was heavily influenced by menswear for his female collection and in particular, by men’s uniforms. Worn as a thick overcoat for sailors, the shape of the peacoat offered a comfortable and loose-fitting alternative for women whilst accentuating the female form. Similarly, Saint-Laurent was influenced by the trench coats worn by British officers during WWI for his introduction of the coat in 1962: shorter than the traditional length and accompanied by a belt, the coat accentuated a women’s waist and highlighted her curves.
Saint-Laurent was constantly inspired by other cultures and different men’s uniforms, which resulted in many of the iconic designs he is known for today. In 1966, YSL released one of its most renowned pieces: ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo. Much like with many of his designs, they were not exact copies of its male origin but rather were adapted to fit, accentuate and liberate the female body. Following this, Saint-Laurent proceeded to release the first; pantsuit (1967), Safari Jacket (1968) and jumpsuit (1968), all inspired by men’s military uniforms. He was also notably recognised for being inspired by China, having never visited it. It was this lack of personal experience that allowed Saint-Laurent to ‘fantasise’ and create designs no one had previously considered.
Saint-Laurent’s other radical development was to become the first couturier to open a ready-to-wear boutique under his name, in 1967. Haute couture was becoming passé as women wanted the independence to dress themselves in stylish yet affordable clothing. Ready-to-wear empowered women through the liberation of restrictive clothing and reflected the social revolt of the 1960’s.
Yves Saint Laurent inspired change and created timeless pieces that were both elegant yet revolutionary: he not only was one of very few designers that liberated women but he was also a real forerunning to today’s trend for dismantling gender from fashion.