When the couturier Christian Dior died suddenly of a heart attack at 57, a jittery, bespectacled Algerian-born 21-year-old had to put the Dior show together. He came up with the trapeze, a dress that by dint of its intricate silk, tulle and horsehair-hemmed organza underskirts seemed to float away from the body as if by magnetic force. It was a sensation. The fashion press, not given to understatement even in 1958, proclaimed, "Yves Saint Laurent has saved France." A new design legend had arrived.
He left last week, almost as abruptly, making the front pages again, even though his retirement had been foreshadowed for years. Longevity and consistency are qualities not usually admired in fashion circles. Fresh and new are the watchwords. And in the first two decades of his 46-year career, Saint Laurent, now 65, threw up plenty that was both. He made trousers and suits completely acceptable dress for women, night and day. He glamorized the pea coat, the leather biker jacket, the safari jacket and the peasant dress. He scandalized couture with transparent fabrics. His way with color was as improbable as it was unerring.
Saint Laurent, perennially melancholy, makes no secret of his dismay at the industry's reverence of marketing over craftsmanship. "I have nothing in common with this new world of fashion, which has been reduced to mere window dressing," he told Paris Match. "Elegance and beauty have been banished." But he and his business partner and sometime lover Pierre Berge are leaving a garden they helped plant. The 172 Rive Gauche boutiques they opened worldwide were the first to make French style available to the reasonably wealthy as well as the obscenely rich, and Saint Laurent lent his name to sunglasses, sheets, cigarettes--almost anything (although he did decline the YSL car tire). Reclusive in recent years, he was not always averse to publicity, posing naked for a perfume ad in 1971.
The Rive Gauche and cosmetics arms of Yves Saint Laurent were sold to Gucci in 1999. The designer has not embraced the collections of the label's new head man American Tom Ford, but the public has, and sales more than doubled the first year. Saint Laurent hung on to control of his first love, the couture house, which ran at a loss of $11 million a year. It will not continue beyond him. Couture has been pronounced dead many times before, but his departure may be the coup de grace. With an emphasis on the grace.