By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008
Often, when a fashion designer dies and his life's work is assessed, some insistent hyperbole is necessary before the death matters to anyone beyond his loyal band of ladies who spend their time dashing between luncheons and charity balls. Most modern women are not going to weep at the passing of a fashion designer whose heyday was some 30 years ago.
But this time, it's Yves Saint Laurent who has died. He passed away yesterday evening, at age 71, at his Paris home. And no exaggeration is required to explain the impact he has had on modern fashion. In the 1960s and '70s, when he was at the height of his influence, he brought popular culture, a mannish swagger, sexual power and ethnic awareness to fashion. He gave women a wardrobe that spoke of confidence and authority. He didn't give them armor for the boardroom as much as he gave them the sartorial equivalent of chutzpah, tough talk and bawdiness. He gave dames and broads their costumes.
Saint Laurent elevated youth culture and street style by equating it with the confections whipped up in a fancy atelier. And most important, he began fashion's steady march toward democracy and the dissolution of the industry's stultifying hierarchy.
Because of Saint Laurent, women's closets are filled with now-classic garments that have become the backbone of a wardrobe. Items such as the safari jacket and "le smoking" -- a tuxedo -- have become such standard parts of a woman's everyday life that it is difficult to remember a time when they did not exist. Avant-garde designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto have been influenced by Saint Laurent and the way in which he feminized menswear. Halston drew upon the sexual ease in a Saint Laurent garment.
While designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel championed the notion of women in trousers, it was Saint Laurent who sold the public on the idea. Saint Laurent put women in pants. It's as simple and as influential as that. Without him, how would our mind's eye see the authoritative ease expressed by Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton? That accomplishment alone would have been enough to secure him a place in history.
But Saint Laurent was not merely a part of fashion history, he was instrumental in writing the vast majority of it. He popularized the bohemian-chic sensibility that later went on to define the hippie aesthetic and its many artsy, grungy, hipster derivations. He welcomed so-called exotic and unorthodox influences into his work, such as the traditional prints of Africa and the folkloric costumes of Russia. He forged a relationship between fashion and the art world, most dynamically with his Mondrian dress of 1965. Without Saint Laurent, there would arguably be no Marc Jacobs, so greatly influenced by the work of Takashi Murakami, Stephen Sprouse and Richard Prince.
"Most people are lucky if they can do one thing, if they can make one major contribution," fashion historian Valerie Steele said last night. Saint Laurent's contributions could fill volumes.
But for all of his iconographic designs, for all the designers he influenced, his most enduring contributions have more to do with the way he transformed how our culture consumes fashion. He began his career in haute couture, taking over the famed French fashion house of Christian Dior in 1958. He was hailed as a prodigy then, as an enfant terrible as mischievous, rebellious and reckless as designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are considered today.
He founded his own house in 1962 with partner Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent had a temperament as fragile as a hothouse flower and always seemed just on the verge of nervous collapse. He seemed burdened by creativity and overwhelmed by his success and responsibilities, even as he moved among a hard-partying crowd and appeared in his own advertisements (even posing naked to promote one of his fragrances).
He was one of fashion's first personalities to be defined as much by his own sexuality and extracurricular activities as by his work. He preceded Tom Ford and Calvin Klein in the transformation of fashion marketing into light porn.
In 1966, when he launched his Rive Gauche collection -- a ready-to-wear line -- he welcomed an entirely new stratum of society into the world of designer clothes. With that decision, he began the trickle-down effect in which designer fashion continues to become ever more accessible, so that now a shopper can go into Target and find a frock that has a designer aesthetic.
There was something profoundly democratic in the work of one of the fashion industry's most rarefied designers. He found inspiration in cultures that were not part of cafe society. And he celebrated the beauty of women who continue to struggle to find acceptance within fashion's narrowly defined aesthetics.
Those who worry about the lack of diversity in the fashion industry in 2008 can look back fondly to the 1970s, when Saint Laurent regularly used black models on his runway -- not as gimmicks in a collection that had been inspired by Africa but as representations of a kind of beauty he considered as valid and as enticing as any other.
Saint Laurent retired from ready-to-wear in 1998 and a few years later closed his couture house. By then, the Saint Laurent name was still a celebrated one within the industry and cause for young designers to swoon. They studied his work with the kind of attention that movie directors give to old Fellini, Kurosawa or Scorsese. But among the public, the name was equated with stodgy sharp-shouldered blazers, ostentatious colors and the frilly confections that defined mother-of-the-bride style.
A long line of designers have tried to reinvent his style and revive the Saint Laurent label for the 21st century. Alber Elbaz made a valiant effort, turning to such signature clothes from the archive as knickers. When Gucci Group bought the label in 1999, Tom Ford recut the tuxedo and resurrected both the African sensibility and the Asian fascination. He also gave a nod to the house's history of sexual provocation with a collection of see-through frocks that revealed the models' nipples, tinted blue. And now designer Stefano Pilati helms the house. He has turned his attention to the brand's famed tailoring and its historical emphasis on dramatic silhouettes. None of them, though, has been able to restore the house to its acclaimed position within the culture, and so far, none has been able to make it profitable.
Sell enough handbags and the money will come. But it's a rare feat when a designer can leave a legacy that not only changed fashion but transformed the way in which we see ourselves. It may not be enough to make a woman weep, but it certainly is enough to make her smile.