The late, great Yves Saint Laurent revolutionised the fashion landscape – almost from the moment he entered it. Chosen to succeed Dior as head of the French fashion house at the tender age of 21, Laurent put out a collection that a year later saved the company from financial ruin. It wasn’t long before he and partner Pierre Bergé launched his eponymous label. To call YSL a tastemaker would be an understatement: he can be credited with the popularisation of everything from thigh-high boots to ready-to-wear lines by a couturier. Although the firm has gone through a series of makeovers in recent years, it’s safe to say that as a fashion icon, Yves Saint Laurent’s rebellious nature is still key in each season’s designs
The history of an icon
From an early age Laurent revealed a natural flair when it came to fashion. Spending his youth creating clothing for his mother and sisters, Laurent’s transition into the industry was smooth. After a meeting with Michel de Brunhoff of Vogue Paris, he relocated to Paris and was admitted to the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. His work drew rapid attention. It was here that Yves Saint Laurent was introduced to Christian Dior. “Dior fascinated me," Saint Laurent recollected at a later time. "I couldn't speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art.”
From the launch of his label in 1962, the fashion designer distinguished himself by creating modern classics. By embracing contrast – the masculine and the feminine, the classic and the modern – he created sharp, sophisticated pieces that are still relevant today. His indomitable vision brought the world the women’s Le Smoking suit, the safari jacket and the Mondrian shift. Constantly looking South and East for inspiration, YSL presented modern takes on Mongols, traditional North Africans and Russian nobility. He designed conical bras made from shells and moulded metal body masks worn over silk skirts long before Gaultier and Issey Miyake. To this day, vintage YSL jackets are considered the height of sophistication, and his designs are often cited as influence: Rochas dresses on the AW16 catwalks were heavily reminiscent of Laurent’s 70s velvet jackets, while Burberry men's jackets took more than a little inspiration from the iconic safari styles Laurent sent out decades earlier.
A man and his muses
Over the years, Laurent collected a dazzling retinue of famous personalities and style icons. He and Catherine Deneuve worked together many times – most famously for Belle de Jour (1966), when he outfitted Deneuve's character Séverine Serizy. Many of YSL’s female entourage had an androgynous likeness to himself: the tall Betty Catroux was often described as his ‘twin sister’, and was even a muse to Laurent’s successor, Tom Ford.
Former Creative Director Hedi Slimane also gathered devout followers and friends. Immersed in the rock scene, Slimane cast the likes of Sky Ferreira and Kim Gordon in his grittier Saint Laurent ads. Considered by many to have single-handedly revived grunge, Slimane unsurprisingly found a favourite in Courtney Love. The poster girl for vintage slips and smeared lipstick, Love was photographed for the Saint Laurent Music Project campaign. Slimane chose the tattooed Freja Beha Erichsen to front his new-and-improved Saint Laurent womenswear. With fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent’s penchant for androgyny firmly in mind, Slimane photographed tomboy Erichsen with eyes hidden by a long blonde fringe à la Catroux. In contrast, his final Saint Laurent menswear catwalk took inspiration from another icon: Kurt Cobain was brought to life by the models on his SS16 walk.
A modern couturier
Tom Ford brought his distinctive allure to Yves Saint Laurent while Stefano Pilati added a refined, modern edge. Slimane’s appointment in 2012 caused friction – it wasn’t long before he dropped the Yves and embraced an alternative aesthetic. However, his Fall collection in 2016 gave more than just a nod to Laurent with a show-stopping heart-shaped ‘chubby’. As early as 1970, the designer had used the heart as his motif in New Year's cards and outerwear. A faux ruby charm, created to give Victoire Doutreleau good luck at one of his shows, became a signature piece around the neck of models wearing his favourite look.
Early this year it was announced that the former Creative Director of Versus, Anthony Vaccarello, would succeed Slimane. The Belgian-Italian designer is different to his predecessor, who seemed to seek out the high-profile dissension his direction generated. Vaccarello’s output has been pointedly feminine thus far: cross-body cut-aways and sky-high splits define his dresses As per the unspoken rule of YSL, the designer is drawn to work with striking women. Gisele Bündchen, Jennifer Lopez and Anja Rubik have all walked the red carpet in his work.
The history of YSL has been a chequered one – from scandals and prohibited outfits (women were banned from wearing the infamous trouser suit in the 1960s), to Slimane's controversial name change. As the original ‘bad boy’ of fashion – move aside Galliano – Laurent encouraged rebellious, out-of-the-box thinking. He transformed Dior’s ‘New Look’, introduced masculine silhouettes into women’s wardrobes and offered “dressing as a way of life”. With Tom Ford we were treated to a sultry aesthetic, while Slimane brought a grungier edge to the brand; with Vaccarello, who knows? Thus far, whoever heads the iconic fashion house adheres to Laurent’s mantra:
"I am no longer concerned with sensation and innovation, but with the perfection of my style.”