Yves Saint Laurent: the man Andy Warhol called ‘the most important French artist’
Offered at Christie’s this month is a collection of drawings and collages — from costume designs to personal greetings cards — by the French fashion legend, revealing his restless artistic vision
Yves Saint Laurent led a revolution in women’s fashion in the 1960s. His designs epitomised the liberal, carefree attitude of the modern age. ‘What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it,’ he famously said.
Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1936, Saint Laurent was a keenly intelligent child — pale, likeable and neurotic. He fell in love with fashion at an early age, dressing and accessorising paper dolls in outfits cut out from his mother’s magazines.
By his late teens, Saint Laurent was in Paris and a rising star of couture. After the sudden death of his mentor Christian Dior in 1957, he became the head of the illustrious fashion house at the age of just 21.
His brief tenure at Dior was characterised by a new, more relaxed style. Out went 1950s formality and in came simple silhouettes and A-line dresses — designs that could be danced in. Later, when he launched his own label, he created fashion that could be marched in.
It was, after all, the golden era of Yé-yé pop and student protests, and his clothes became the uniform of joyful bohemian dissent.
When the singer Françoise Hardy stepped out in his velvet tuxedo — nicknamed ‘Le Smoking’ — Saint Laurent’s name was made: it sold out overnight and has been imitated ever since.
As well as being a fashion innovator, the designer was a consummate aesthete, with a love of art, music and performance. Over the course of his radical career, he created costumes for theatre, ballet and film — most famously dressing the ravishing Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
A collection of original works by Saint Laurent will be offered in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online (5-19 October), including drawings for stage costumes and fashion designs, and a series of collages on the theme of love.
Together, they offer an intimate look at Saint Laurent’s creative process and showcase his talent as a graphic artist, revealing a restless soul in a continual state of renewal.
Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol
In 1970 Andy Warhol came to Paris to film L’Amour, his transgressive travel movie featuring, somewhat surprisingly, Karl Lagerfeld as a German aristocrat.
Warhol spent much of his time that autumn with Saint Laurent, whom he considered ‘the most important French artist’ — perhaps recognising their mutual desire to blur the boundaries between high and low culture.
He would go on to paint a series of portraits of Saint Laurent, who, when later asked to recall the experience, said he remembered him to be ‘a complete artist’ and also ‘a little bit crazy’.
After Warhol’s visit to Paris, Saint Laurent began making collages inspired by the word ‘love’, whose playful designs are reminiscent of the Pop artist’s bold, graphic style.
Saint Laurent used the designs for these collages as New Year greetings cards to send to friends and lovers, and continued to create a new ‘love’ card each year for the next 30 years. Later, the cards would be published in the form of a well-known poster.
Yves Saint Laurent and the theatre
Saint Laurent’s love affair with the stage began in childhood, when he built a little wooden theatre and designed costumes and sets inspired by Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
As a teenager he was taken to see Molière’s The School for Wives, later remarking, ‘I’ll never forget the emotions I felt at 13 watching the curtain rise on Christian Bérard’s admirable set.’
After moving to Paris in the mid-1950s, Saint Laurent met the famed choreographer Roland Petit. Petit asked Saint Laurent to design costumes for his wife Zizi Jeanmaire, who was performing in Cyrano de Bergerac. It was the beginning of a great friendship with the vivacious dancer, and an intense period of collaboration.
Petit would later remark that the young rebel had ‘an immediate and astounding sense of what a costume should be’.
Other commissions soon followed, including an opportunity to create the costumes for The Marriage of Figaro at the Odéon in 1964.
Acknowledging the profound influence theatre had on his designs, Saint Laurent said, ‘The theatre’s spell has appeared as a livelier, more radiant refuge than reality. As soon as I had a taste of it, I felt like I belonged to this great family of magicians and entertainers who, I hope, have acknowledged and adopted me.’
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Yves Saint Laurent and Rive Gauche
In 1961 Saint Laurent founded his own label, bringing an insouciant elegance to his clean, minimal designs. He sparked a trend for beatnik sweaters and black leather jackets, knee-high boots and jumpsuits — clothes to be worn in smoky jazz bars or on a carefree night-time stroll along the Champs-Elysées.
Five years later he launched his ready-to-wear collection, Rive Gauche, with outfits that, true to its name, reflected the casual street chic he observed on Paris’s Left Bank.
The designs were playful and witty, and Saint Laurent paid homage to his artistic heroes Piet Mondrian and Tom Wesselmann by printing their paintings on his shift dresses.
Saint Laurent, Marrakech and John Paul Getty Jr.
In 1966 the designer travelled to Morocco with his lover and business partner Pierre Bergé. It was the beginning of a fascination with the city of Marrakech that lasted for the rest of Saint Laurent’s life.
At the centre of the Marrakech scene was the American oil heir John Paul Getty Jr. and his wife Talitha, who welcomed the couple into their palace in the old city.
‘It was a lovely life,’ recalled Bergé of the parties and laid-back afternoons they spent there, in the company of rock stars and artists. Saint Laurent loved Talitha’s hippy aesthetic: ‘She was a completely free character, and that was very important.’
Saint Laurent and Bergé bought a small house in the medina, where the preternaturally shy designer could retire from public life and the pressures of fame.
Soon the colours and landscapes of Morocco began to infuse Saint Laurent’s designs. He reinterpreted the safari jacket for the modern woman, and made the kaftan fashionable again.