Yves Saint Laurent

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Sunday November 9, 2008
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Yves Saint Laurent, the boy wonder who became chief designer for Christian Dior at the tender age of 21, brought us the safari jacket, the lady's tuxedo preferably worn bare-breasted, the pea coat and culottes. But it was his introduction of the pantsuit that's perhaps his single greatest contribution to Western Civilization, in that it ushered out the era of the skirt, garter belts and hose. For that singular achievement alone - you have to wonder if Hilary would have lasted as long if she had to campaign in heels and a power suit - he deserves a retrospective, and now he has one. Yves Saint Laurent - he would love the simplicity of the title - which originated in Montreal, is at the de Young through March 1, 2009. It covers 40 years of his output, from his early creations through his last runway show in 2002. In June, the master style-maker succumbed to brain cancer.

On view are over 120 exquisitely constructed, predominantly evening and cocktail ensembles made of fabrications to die for. Embracing art, performance, music and literature, there's an abundance of black, and colorful sequined jackets and outfits that pay tribute to artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Cocteau, Mondrian and, yes, Proust. A delightfully pagan bridal gown is perfect for the marriage of a wood nymph with a trust fund, though calling it a gown is an overstatement: it's actually a pink-and-green printed organza bra and panties with rosettes and a train. A stiff breeze or inclement weather would prove catastrophic for a stunner like the elegant, racy little embroidered lace gown. Black and off the shoulder, the dress is slit all the way up one side and held together only with two pink, strategically placed bows. Casual wear is in less supply but, hey, some of us wouldn't mind slipping on that pair of olive satin pants and running out for groceries.

The orthodoxy is that Saint Laurent blurred lines between masculine and feminine, and liberated women from the encumbrance of the tailored suit. In the heady days of the 1960s, he gave women emblems of male power, but if he was transgressive, it manifested as subdued, controlled intensity rather than let's-burn-the-house-down wildness; his designs are certainly beautiful and daring in a certain context, but not intoxicated by the rapture of youth. With the exception of harem-girl outfits, transparent blouses and a dose of bare midriff, his oeuvre is richly detailed, understated elegance, which suited his well-heeled, socialite/celebrity clients who needed to be tall and, in Tom Wolfe's inimitable words, "starved to perfection" to carry them off. (Nan Kempner, whose wardrobe was showcased last year, was a YSL junkie.) The living, breathing embodiment of his ideal is human "x-ray" Betty, Saint Laurent's muse, model and whatever, who was here for the gala opening. Tall and painfully slim with a mop of platinum hair and dressed in the YSL uniform of black leather jacket, jeans and shades, she's his female doppelganger and a testament to his narcissism.

Glamour vamp

Born in Oran, Algeria, the young Saint Laurent dreamed of designing stage costumes, and his passion for theatricality and vampy Hollywood glamour surfaced throughout his career. (He made clothes for Jane Fonda, Catherine Deneuve and Zizi Jeanmaire, among others.) The Spanish-infused "Shakespeare" gown, emblematic of this propensity for drama, is a beauty, as is one with a black velvet bodice set off by vermillion satin sleeves and full skirt. At 17, Saint Laurent moved to Paris, where he caught the eye of Christian Dior, who hired him as his assistant. When Dior died, Saint Laurent, 21, became the salon's chief designer, and from there, it was a straight shot to the stratosphere.

Elegantly presented, the show's lighting is so low it's difficult to read the sparse text that's available. There's not much insight into process, but a group of sketches for the collection are works of art. It's too bad there aren't more.

"YSL" is part of the de Young's commitment to the presentation of costuming as art, a direction that has provoked criticism from some quarters. How visitors respond to this latest venture is contingent on their attitude toward high fashion. The clothing speaks to another world of fundraisers, galas, high society and deep pockets; a tough sell in a global recession, but the fantasy is either a palliative to hard times or an irritating reminder of relative penury.

The show suffers in comparison with the Vivienne Westwood blowout, which set a high standard. Westwood worked her way up from the punk-obsessed, London street-kids who lined up outside her boutique, while Saint Laurent, by virtue of price and clientele, catered to the upper classes. Kinky and freaky, Westwood had a wider appeal that attracted teenagers and 20-somethings who, unless they're fashion students, aren't likely to thrill to "YSL"'s sublime tailoring and evening wear.

Surrounded by Saint Laurent's tastefulness and cool restraint, it's a struggle to suppress the urge to yell "fire," simply to turn up the heat. One of Westwood's sassy rubber-bondage outfits would be just the thing.

For more information: (415) 750-3600 or www.deyoungmuseum.org.

Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.