Yves Saint Laurent: Un Prodige
On January 30, 1958, a series of trapezoidal dresses marched down a runway in Paris. Narrow at the shoulders and flaring from the body, instead of conventionally nipping in at the waist, the architectural pieces with their unusual proportions heralded a new and daring era of fashion—an era spearheaded by a young, bespectacled designer. Yves Saint Laurent unveiled his “Trapeze” line, his first independent collection for the Dior house, to instant success. Praised as innovative and credited with saving the fashion house after the death of its couturier, the runway show was the first of many to display the 22-year-old’s pioneering style. It also marked the initial meeting between the designer and Pierre Bergé. Soon after, the two would become both business and romantic partners, together creating one of the most exalted fashion houses in history. The WILD recently sat down with Bergé to discuss his partner and their brand—a legacy that still breathes with every swish of a trench coat, shuffle of a pantsuit, and stride of knee-high boots.
Although their exchange at the 1958 show was brief, an intimate dinner, organized by Marie-Louise Bousquet, then the Paris editor of Harper’s Bazaar, brought the pair together again. “I remember very well that during the dinner I noticed Yves was very shy but also very determined,” Bergé said. “He knew what he wanted. Absolutely. But he wasn’t pretentious. Absolutely not. He was a natural. He knew where he was going.”
That strong sense of intuition nestled deep in Saint Laurent since childhood. Although confronted with challenges, he fostered an unceasing ambition to be a couturier. Born in Oran, Algeria in 1936, he was raised in an affectionate and affluent household. Despite this happy upbringing, he faced mockery and intimidation from classmates.
“I went to Algeria for the first time in my life this year,” Bergé said. “For the first time, I saw how cruel it was in the schools. I can imagine how difficult it must have been for him to live in Algeria at that time. I understand the relations with his schoolmates weren’t very easy because he was gay. And you know, in an interview with Le Figaro he once said, ‘To be gay in Algeria is like being a murderer.’” However, instead of conceding to the taunts, Saint Laurent turned to the arts, finding solace in drawing, writing, theater, and fashion. At 17, he moved unaccompanied to Paris to formally study his interests but ended up leaving the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale, an acclaimed design school, after a short stint. He then began decorating Christian Dior’s store, more interested in engaging first-hand with the industry.
“[School] was simply not for him,” Bergé said. “For him, it was more important to learn and to be next to Christian Dior. He was determined and knew where he wanted to go.”
Having found in the House of Dior a different—and more appropriate—type of instructional institution, Saint Laurent quickly
moved to sketching and designing for the brand. His artistry, initially a means of escape from schoolyard gibes, had grown into a source of self-empowerment—the fashion director was impressed. It didn’t take long for Dior to hire the young man as his sole assistant.
The death of Dior in 1957 from a heart attack, however, thrust Saint Laurent into the forefront of the industry. At the age of 21, he succeeded the doyen of French haute couture. “You have to imagine the context,” Bergé said. “When Christian Dior died, one of the most important questions in France was, What happens now? It was the most important haute couture house in Paris.”
The response arrived two months later in the form of a parade of trapezoidal dresses. The following morning, newspaper headlines professed that Yves Saint Laurent had “saved France” with his rejuvenating designs. “He never had a break,” Bergé said of the designer’s first few years at the helm. “It was a big responsibility for a very young age…Fashion is a very difficult job…It is not easy at all.”
But Saint Laurent proved himself well, stunning the fashion capital. Though barely in his twenties, he was not callow; experience and dedication to his craft was always evident in his fresh, polished designs. Yet within a handful of seasons at the Dior house, his innovations came to shock and upset the grandes dames who failed to find elegance in his bold and youthful statements. His Beat collection, which introduced young, street style-inspired looks to the realm of haute couture, especially incensed the heads of the Dior house. Shaken by Saint Laurent’s radical taste, they arranged for him to return to Algeria to serve in the ongoing war spurred by colonial resistance against France. It was a duty previously waived because 2,000 jobs had relied on the 24-year- old’s direction. Unbeknownst to him, Saint Laurent’s relocation also marked his dismissal from the brand.
Bergé, with whom Saint Laurent had fostered a deep relationship over the years, steered him back into the industry. Saint Laurent had returned to Paris shortly after his departure, having suffered a breakdown during his service. When Bergé visited the designer at the hospital, he told him, “My dear Yves, you have been let go from the House of Christian Dior.”
“He looked at me,” Bergé said, “and after a couple of minutes he said, ‘We have a decision to make, you and I, to create a couture house with the name Yves Saint Laurent.’ It was a new era for him and I…It was the beginning of a wonderful adventure. We were young and in love. It was a wonderful time.”
As head of his own fashion house in only his mid-twenties, Saint Laurent strove to revolutionize the wardrobes of women with clothing that empowered the wearer, much as fashion had bolstered his confidence as a child. He colored the runway with a collection of bold dresses inspired by Piet
Mondrian’s striking geometric paintings; he elevated military uniforms to the realm of couture with “La Saharienne;” he introduced the iconic “Le Smoking,” the tuxedo suit for women, in a show peppered with models wearing fedoras and ties. Fashion publications around the world raced to keep up with the young visionary who impressed—and shocked—with his trailblazing collections that asserted a candid and unflinching perspective.
“I can say that he was not an easy guy,” Bergé said. “Not at all. At times it was very difficult to live with him. It was difficult to manage him. But he was a genius, and in a way, it was wonderful. He changed the world.”
In a bold gesture that captured the young and willful zeitgeist of the 1960s, Saint Laurent further transformed the fashion industry with his concept of prêt-à-porter designs. His Rive Gauche boutique, which opened in 1966 and swiftly expanded to locations around the world, displayed his luxury ready-to-wear pieces: from over-the- knee skirts to sheer blouses to trenchcoats, his collections democratized high fashion, bringing it to the everyday woman.
The designer, who passed away in 2008, devoted over four decades of his life to building and maintaining a fashion empire that grew to consume him. “If I could start over, I’d be a beatnik,” Saint Laurent confessed in the documentary YSL: His Life and Times. “I missed out on my youth, I’m sad to say.” His portfolio of collections, however, knows neither regret nor sorrow. He spurred an evolution in the fashion industry, leaving a timeless sartorial influence. In the work of countless contemporary designers, in the wardrobe of nearly every woman, Yves Saint Laurent remains.
“No doubt that everything he did was to change the perspective of the fashion world,” Bergé said. “Look outside: the women all over owe something to Yves.”