Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, known as Yves Saint Laurent (French pronunciation: [iv sɛ̃ lɔʁɑ̃], August 1, 1936 – June 1, 2008), was a French fashion designer, and is regarded as one of the greatest names in fashion history. In 1985, Caroline Rennolds Milbank wrote, “The most consistently celebrated and influential designer of the past twenty-five years, Yves Saint Laurent can be credited with both spurring the couture’s rise from its sixties ashes and with finally rendering ready-to-wear reputable.” He is also credited with having introduced the tuxedo suit for women and was known for his use of non-European cultural references, and non-white models.
Yves Henri Donat Matthieu-Saint-Laurent was born on 1 August 1936, in Oran, French Algeria, to Charles and Lucienne Andrée Mathieu-Saint-Laurent. He grew up in a villa by the Mediterranean with his two younger sisters, Michèle and Brigitte. Yves liked to create intricate paper dolls, and by his early teen years he was designing dresses for his mother and sisters. At the age of 18, Saint Laurent moved to Paris and enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, where his designs quickly gained notice. Michel De Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue, introduced Saint Laurent to designer Christian Dior, a giant in the fashion world. “Dior fascinated me,” Saint Laurent later recalled. “I couldn’t speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years I spent at by his side.” Under Dior’s tutelage, Saint Laurent’s style continued to mature and gain even more notice.
In 1953, Saint Laurent submitted three sketches to a contest for young fashion designers, organized by the International Wool Secretariat. He won first place and was invited to attend the awards ceremony in Paris, in December of that year. While he and his mother were in Paris, they met Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine. De Brunhoff, a considerate person known for encouraging new talent, was impressed by the sketches Saint Laurent brought with him and suggested he become a fashion designer. Saint Laurent would eventually consider a course of study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the council which regulates the haute couture industry and provides training to its employees. Saint Laurent followed his advice and, leaving Oran for Paris after graduation, began his studies there and eventually graduated as a star pupil. Later that same year, he entered the International Wool Secretariat competition again and won, beating out his friend Fernando Sánchez and young German student Karl Lagerfeld. Shortly after his win, he brought a number of sketches to de Brunhoff who recognized close similarities to sketches he had been shown that morning by Christian Dior. Knowing that Dior had created the sketches that morning and that the young man could not have seen them, de Brunhoff sent him to Dior, who hired him on the spot.
Although Dior recognized his talent immediately, Saint Laurent spent his first year at the House of Dior on mundane tasks, such as decorating the studio and designing accessories. Eventually, however, he was allowed to submit sketches for the couture collection; with every passing season, more of his sketches were accepted by Dior. In August 1957, Dior met with Saint Laurent’s mother to tell her that he had chosen Saint Laurent to succeed him as designer. His mother later said that she had been confused by the remark, as Dior was only 52 years old at the time. Both she and her son were surprised when in October of that year Dior died at a health spa in northern Italy of a massive heart attack.
In 1957, Saint Laurent found himself at age 21 the head designer of the House of Christian Dior S.A.. His spring 1958 collection almost certainly saved the enterprise from financial ruin; the straight line of his creations, a softer version of Dior’s New Look, catapulted him to international stardom with what would later be known as the “trapeze dress.” Others included in the collection were dresses with a narrow shoulder and flared gently at the bottom. At this time, he shortened his surname to Saint Laurent because the international press found his hyphenated triple name difficult to spell.
His fall 1958 collection was not greeted with the same level of approval as his first collection, and later collections for the House of Dior featuring hobble skirts and beatnik fashions were savaged by the press.
In 1959, he was chosen by Farah Diba, who was a student in Paris, to design her wedding dress for her marriage to the Shah of Iran.
In 1960, Saint Laurent found himself conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Alice Rawsthorn writes that there was speculation at the time that Marcel Boussac, the owner of the House of Dior and a powerful press baron, had put pressure on the government not to conscript Saint Laurent in 1958 and 1959 but reversed course and asked that the designer be conscripted after the disastrous 1960 season so that he could be replaced.
In 1983, Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to be honored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a solo exhibition. In 2001, he was awarded the rank of Commander of the Légion d’Honneur by French president Jacques Chirac. Saint Laurent retired in 2002 and became increasingly reclusive, living at his homes in Normandy and Morocco with his pet French Bulldog Moujik.
He also created a foundation with Bergé in Paris to trace the history of the house of YSL, complete with 15,000 objects and 5,000 pieces of clothing.
A favorite among his female clientele, Saint Laurent had numerous muses that inspired his work. Chief among these was Mounia – his oft used “bride” and ‘Porgy and Bess’ thematic Couture-garment model and frequent YSL cover-model in Women’s Wear Daily and French Vogue. Among his other muses were Loulou de la Falaise, the daughter of a French marquis and an Anglo-Irish fashion model; Somali supermodel Iman, whom he once described as his “dream woman”; Betty Catroux, the half-Brazilian daughter of an American diplomat and wife of a French decorator; French actress Catherine Deneuve; Dutch actress Talitha Pol-Getty; Nicole Dorier, a YSL top model in 1978–83, who became one of his assistants in organizing his runway shows and, later, the “memory” of his house when it became a museum; Guinean-born Senegalese supermodel Katoucha Niane; Togolese-born supermodel Rebecca Ayoko and supermodel Laetitia Casta, who was the bride in his shows in 1997–2002.
In 2007, he was awarded the rank of Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Saint Laurent died 1 June 2008 of brain cancer at his residence in Paris. According to The New York Times, a few days prior, he and Bergé had been joined in a same-sex civil union known as a Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) in France. When Saint Laurent was diagnosed with brain cancer, Bergé and the doctor mutually decided that it would be better for him to not know of his impending death. Bergé said, “I have the belief that Yves would not have been strong enough to accept that.” Saint Laurent was survived by his mother and sisters; his father had died in 1988.
Saint Laurent was given a Catholic funeral at St Roch Catholic Church in Paris. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in Marrakech, Morocco, in the Majorelle Garden, a residence and botanical garden that he owned with Bergé since 1980 and often visited to find inspiration and refuge. Bergé said at the funeral service: “But I also know that I will never forget what I owe you and that one day I will join you under the Moroccan palms” (translated from French).
The funeral attendants included Empress Farah Pahlavi, Madame Chirac, and President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni.Forbes rated Saint Laurent the top-earning dead celebrity in 2009.