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French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent pioneered “cross-design” in fashion, taking inspiration from street trends to modernize haute couture.
Saint Laurent was the first to launch a ready-to-wear label, YSL Rive Gauche Prêt-à-Porter. He was the first couturier to open boutiques for both men and women. Using traditional menswear fabrics and designs for women, Saint Laurent also literally cross-dressed, giving men and women alike chic pant suits, elegant tuxedo jackets and urban safari gear. By blurring gender-specific design, he empowered individual style while creating a scissor-sharp fashion aesthetic of sensual ease and beauty. Many of his designs are today considered timeless classics.
Born to French parents in Oran, Algeria, in 1936, Saint Laurent went to Paris at age 17 to study fashion at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Just two years later, in 1955, his remarkable sketches were shown to Christian Dior, then the world’s reigning couturier, who hired him immediately.
Surprisingly soon thereafter, Dior publicly chose Saint Laurent as his successor, which sadly proved prescient when the fashion legend died unexpectedly, in 1957. A mere slip of a youth, the 21-year-old Saint Laurent was nevertheless up to the challenge. He shook the traditional couture clientele to its core with youthful silhouettes and styles like the A-line trapeze dress that hung with seeming effortlessness from the shoulders, the antithesis of the pinched waists and molded skirts that had been all the rage after the deprivations of World War II.
After a mandated spell in the torturous French military, Saint Laurent suffered a nervous breakdown and was dismissed by Dior in 1962. Out of the ashes rose the Age of Yves. With Pierre Bergé, his then-lover who became his lifelong business partner and friend, the designer founded Yves Saint Laurent YSL to encompass prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear. In 1966, they opened the first YSL Rive Gauche women’s boutique in Paris, followed soon thereafter by YSL Rive Gauche for men. Saint Laurent had given birth to a global brand.
His revolutionary Mondrian mini dress from 1965 is a core element of his fashion biography. It is a prime example of how Saint Laurent, an avid art lover and collector, looked to painters, from Goya to Picasso, Ingres to Matisse, for inspiration.
With its pure lines and hues, Mondrian’s ground-breaking 1935 color-block painting Composition C transmutes beautifully into a dress that is highly valued by collectors of contemporary fashion and widely copied commercially to this day. The design is the epitome of Saint Laurent’s aesthetic, requiring a meticulous hand piecing of each color block so that, despite the body’s curves, the visual plain is as flat as a canvas when the garment is worn. Mondrian’s purity met its match in Saint Laurent.
In Yves Saint Laurent: The Impossible Collection (Assouline, 2020), the Mondrian dress is shown worn on the cover of Paris Vogue, as well as on British Sudanese model Alek Wek in a photographic trifold by Christoph Sillem from 1998. Saint Laurent consistently used Black models, like Mounia, Iman and Naomi Campbell, and he drew endless inspiration from different ethnicities and cultures, in no small part because of his Algerian roots.