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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Yves Saint Laurent Remembered

D. Matthews recalls a lifelong infatuation...

Like countless other “sensitive” American boys, I spent my youth avoiding football games, physical labor and math. Dusty rural boredom was my lot, typical male gender expectations my daily torture. I wanted something else from life, but had no idea what it was.

Until I found Yves.

I was 11 when I first heard of him. I don't remember how, but I know the world changed the moment it happened, and it would never look the same again. Yves Saint Laurent would become my education, my hero and, for the next decade, the best friend I never met.

He fascinated me for the way he seemed to live at the very heights of civilized Parisian life. He and his friends were so sophisticated. He seemed to embody his influences—they became him. He absorbed Picasso, Proust, Cocteau. He contained it all. He was Ludwig of Bavaria. He was Catherine Deneuve. He was Ingres. When he drew a dress inspired by Vermeer, Vermeer suddenly seemed to live again.

For several years I studied Saint Laurent almost every day, in one way or another. I was all about Yves, all the time. I wrote to him and dreamed of a response, which never came. I called Helene de Ludinghausen, directrice of couture, from my little home in rural Northern California and begged for copies of show videos, but was turned down (granted, it was pre-Internet, pre-Fashion TV, and the images were tightly guarded to prevent people from copying his designs.) A former model of his kept me enthralled by descriptions of his atelier. I bought Vogue patterns of his designs and taught myself to sew. In French class I took the name “Yves,” and was astonished when everyone laughed, thinking it was a woman’s name. For me there was no Eve, there was only Yves. Only Yves.

My master plan was to attend the Chambre Syndicale, get a job at YSL, become his protégé and eventually take over at Dior, as he had. The typical dream of so many aspiring fashion designers, right? Alas, it was not to be.

My favorite collection of his—everyone has a favorite—was the spring '90 couture, shown in January of that year, just a month after leaving Paris' Clinique Labrouste (there, reportedly, to recuperate from a broken arm.) He seemed reborn, and he had lost 35 pounds. He described himself as a new person emerging from “six years of hell.” Women’s Wear Daily photographed him in his Rue de Babylone apartment in front of a stunning new purchase: a tapestry called “The Adoration,” by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The collection was a vibrant homage to his major influences, with dresses directly referencing Silvana Mangano, Rita Hayworth, Maria Callas and Marilyn Monroe. My favorite was the short, spunky, black minidress he designed for Zizi Jeanmaire, who was seated in the audience. At the end of the show Paloma Picasso and Nan Kempner had tears streaming down their faces.

It was an exciting collection for an exciting, transitional moment—the beginning of the end of the 20th Century. Ivana Trump, newly divorced from The Donald, wore a piece from the collection in her “revenge makeover” photo shoot for Vogue. The dress, inspired by Balenciaga, was cut to capture the air and float ever so lightly around the body. This was Saint Laurent pulling back the curtains and letting in the sunshine.

But illness and addiction were too much for him. This last great burst of energy and clarity would soon dissipate. His collections of 1990, including the gorgeously dramatic work he unveiled in July of that year, would mark his last really important contributions to fashion.

So what are we left with, now that he is gone? Clothing, sketches, runway images? All of those are very important, and we should be so grateful to Pierre Bergé for safeguarding all of it and more at their Foundation. But for me, the importance of all that is how it leads to Yves himself. The only Yves.

Questing, uneasy, he tried to find his way in life through the study of art and creation of beauty. We don’t know whether he ever healed whatever troubled him. But it seems his journey did transform, for the good, the lives of all who truly cared. Through his art we witnessed life uplifted by the flight of a taffeta ruffle, the seductive slip of bias satin—always created from the heart.

—D. Matthews

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