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Monday, June 2 at 1 p.m. ET

Remembering Yves Saint Laurent

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Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post Staff Writer, Robin Givhan was online Monday, June 2 at 1 p.m. ET to take questions about the impact of legendary French clothing designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

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A transcript follows.

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Robin Givhan: Good afternoon! I'm happy to try and answer your questions about designer Yves Saint Laurent, who died yesterday, and his place in fashion history, culture, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: Monsieur Saint Laurent represented the essence of "the Parisian." Which French designer do you think, today, showcases that image the best? Or is that idea of " chic Parisian" outdated and passe?

Robin Givhan: Hi Washington,

I think there's still something to the idea of Paris chic, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify since so few of the big French houses are even helmed by French designers. Sonia Rykiel still strives to personify that sensibility. And I think when Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel isn't off on one of his aesthetic tangents, he achieves it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Maybe I'm just missing it, but what was his cause of death? 71 is not that old. Very sorry to hear of his passing.

washingtonpost.com: Designer Dressed the Modern Woman (Washington Post, June 2)

Robin Givhan: No, 71 is not that old. Designers Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld are all Saint Laurent contemporaries. Women's Wear Daily has reported that his death was due to a long struggle with brain cancer.

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Washington, D.C.: Robin, I love ya, but "the safari jacket and 'le smoking' -- a tuxedo" are standard parts of a woman's wardrobe? Hahaha...c'mon!

Robin Givhan: You don't have a safari jacket in your closet? The point is that those are all classic looks that are part of our fashion vocabulary. You can walk into Banana Republic on any given day and find a jacket that has been inspired by the safari look. And I'd argue that while you might not have an honest to goodness tuxedo in your closet, you have, on occasion relied on a snazzy black suit to get you through a cocktail party or a business dinner. That's all rooted in YSL's sensibility.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Robin. Liz Claiborne died almost this same time last year. How much influence did her and YSL have on each other, especially as it came to updating clothes designed for professional women? And, is there anyone left from their generation?

Robin Givhan: Liz was, I think, 78 and YSL was 71. Both of them saw themselves as empowering women and trying to address the real life needs of women. Liz was much more focused on the practical, on dressing women for work. YSL, despite his interest in reality-based style, was still a dreamer.

A long list of big name designers are in their 70s, give or take a few years: Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Armani.

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Arlington, Va.: Which contemporary designers did Yves Saint Laurent influence the most?

Robin Givhan: An easier question to answer would probably be which one or two DIDN'T he influence. Because YSL didn't just leave behind particular silhouettes but a way of looking at fashion and style, his influence is pretty broad. I'd argue that Tom Ford has been tremendously influenced by YSL in a lot of obvious ways. When he designed for Gucci, he drew on the YSL idea of gender-bending sexulity in many of those collections. Marc Jacobs has been influenced by him in the way that he embraces street culture and connects to the art world. But other designers have been influenced in less obvious ways. Yohji Yamamoto is constantly pushing and pulling against the traditions of Paris couture and the Parisian style that was established by YSL.

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Bethesda, Md.: Are there any significant cultural thresholds today's designers can strive to change in the same way Mr. Laurent fundamentally changed how women dress?

Robin Givhan: Hi Bethesda,

That's an interesting question. It seems that two of the biggest issues facing designers today is the way in which designer fashion is defined -- should the stuff from Target and haute couture be given equal weight? I think it would be interesting to see if a designer could build a glamorous reputation based solely on their work at the lower end of the price spectrum. There's also the issue of diversity in terms of the customer base. It will be interesting to see how the rise of China, India and Russia alters the fashion world and our aesthetic sensibilities.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Robin, love your writing.

Who are your Top 10 All-Time designers? And, if YSL doesn't make the list, where would you put him?

Robin Givhan: I love you back! My top 10 list of designers whose work fascinates me would be ever-changing depending on who was doing what. But at this very second? It would probably include: Alber Elbaz of Lanvin, Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Proenza Schouler, Miuccia Prada, Dries Van Noten, Marc Jacobs, Rei Kawakubo. That's off the top of my head. I couldn't give you an all -time best list...that's something I'd save for my death bed confession. YSL wouldn't make my list though because I think it should be reflective of my time covering fashion. By the time I came along, YSL was virtually retired and churning out not very interesting work.

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Washington, D.C.: Why would a man like YSL be so interested in designing women's clothes and how would he know all the intricate details about fit?

Robin Givhan: It takes a certain kind of detail oriented designer to create men's clothes. Women's clothes allow a designer to loose his creativity full throttle.

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Washington, D.C.: Who were the biggest influences on Yves? And what made him, compared to other designers, so capable of "thinking outside the box" in incorporating different elements in his designs, as you mentioned in your story.

Robin Givhan: YSL was particularly engaged by literature, theater and the visual arts. I think those elements allowed him to think broadly in terms of inspiration when he designed. Also, he was born in Algeria and adored Marrakesh (which I can't seem to spell) and had a home there. I think all of those things helped him to see fashion as something beyond the traditional.

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Washington, D.C.: Robin, any idea what YSL and his contemporaries think about the commercialization of fashion, a la red-carpet shows, "Project Runway," etc. Are they excited to see the field get that kind of exposure, or do they find it undignified?

Robin Givhan: I think it really depends on the designer. Certainly they all participate in the red carpet mania. They see it as a wonderful marketing opportunity and a chance for one of their runway confections to get a pubic outing. If not the red carpet, then where? A lot of designers are supportive of Project Runway. But every industry has its snobs so I'm sure there are some who find reality tv vulgar. But for fashion designers, in order to survive, they have to stay in touch with popular culture. Because of that, I think most of them would be cautious about their participation, for fear something might damage their image. But I think most of them would be open to discussing possibilities. Designers were initially hesitant to lend clothes to Patricia Field who costumed Sex and the City. Now they practically fling frocks at her.

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Anonymous: Were the Tom Ford designs for YSL too sexy ? Why did YSL dislike Ford ?

Robin Givhan: Mmm, speaking of vulgar... my understanding is that Ford and YSL (and his longtime, extremely vocal partner Pierre Berge) were not exactly simpatico. And yes, there was some sense that they found the hypersexuality of Ford's work to be on the verge of vulgar. But I suspect much of it had to do with personalities rather than aesthetics.

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Annapolis, Md.: Someone on the radio this morning said Saint-Laurent was pretty important to men's fashion, too, and argued that YSL made men fashion-conscious in a way they had not been before. I disagreed profoundly with the latter -- I think you'd have to give the Prince of Wales the credit for creating men's fashion awareness -- but I wasn't sure how much he had affected men's fashion. What do you think?

Robin Givhan: I would say that he had an impact on men's fashion, particularly in the way he marketed it. It was for his men's fragrance, for instance, that YSL posed naked. But I would say his impact on men's fashion pales in comparison to his women's work.

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Robles Junction, Ariz.: No question--just "thank you" for your wonderful appreciation of Saint-Laurent. He's the only designer who changed my life with his empowering clothes. Next to him, other designers are mere entertainment.

Robin Givhan: Thanks very much. I think YSL would be very happy he was able to affect your life in that way.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Robin, did Yves Saint Laurent suffer any fallout for being more open about his sexuality? And did his fellow designers appreciate him showing some leadership in that regard?

Robin Givhan: I'm sure there were some sort of negative repercussions, but none come to mind. As for the second part of your question, truthfuly, whenever I've talked to designers about the impact of YSL, or even their thoughts on him, none have referred to him as a kind of leader on the sexual freedom front. For them, it's more about the work. His personal life was so racked with angst and illness that it's hard to see him as taking much of a leadership role.

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Washington, D.C. : what about Jean Paul Gaultier?..he should be the new Designer for Saint Laurent.... he is so French....

Robin Givhan: For the moment, the house of Saint Laurent is in the hands of Stefano Pilati, who is Italian and he seems to be making some inroads in turning the label around. But it's not a position that I would relish. There's an awful lot of pressure in taking the reins of a house with that much history and that people hold in such awe.

Besides, between his own label and Hermes, I think Gaultier has his hands full.

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Annapolis, Md.: What happened to Berge? Second question: I am reading a biography of Coco Chanel -- now there's someone with some issues -- and she apparently didn't think highly of YSL. Do you know what his opinion was of Chanel? Did he respect her?

Robin Givhan: Pierre Berge remained close to YSL to the end. He was with him when he died. I unfortunately do not know how Chanel felt about YSL.

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Robin Givhan: Thanks to all for your questions!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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