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Fashion Great
Saint Laurent Hangs Up Hat

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Yves Saint Laurent Yves will continue to design a haute couture collection. (Remy De La Mauviniere/AP)
The last of the great French fashion houses – those ateliers of craftsmanship, innovation and dreams – has handed over its legacy to a younger generation. Designer Yves Saint Laurent quietly announced Monday that he was relinquishing creative responsibilities for his ready-to-wear collection to 37-year-old designer Alber Elbaz.

Saint Laurent, 61, will continue to design the haute couture collection.

"He will continue to do what he likes best," says Christopher Girard, executive vice president of Yves Saint Laurent worldwide.

Saint Laurent is the last of a coterie of designers – including Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga – whose heyday came at a time when fashion dictates were anticipated and heeded. These designers could, with a single dynamic collection, dramatically alter the way a woman dressed.

Saint Laurent was only 21 when he was named head designer at Christian Dior following the death of the famed creator of the postwar New Look. His first collection for Dior, in 1958, was hailed by critics. The trapeze silhouette he introduced that season, with its narrow shoulders and wide, swinging hem, would go on to become a classic.

"If you looked at a lot of the clothes by Saint Laurent for Dior, they have the elegance and the traditional look of Dior, but they have a relaxed, almost easy feeling to them," says fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank. "He was working in the Dior vernacular but adding his own stamp to it."

A few years later, Saint Laurent established his own couture fashion house. With the founding of his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection, he expanded the possibilities for French design, making it available to the masses – or at least the well-to-do.

black crepe dress Yves Saint Lauren's 1998 black crepe dress won with much praise. (File Photo/Reuters)
Under his own name, he created trademarks that have become classics, Milbank says. Saint Laurent is credited with popularizing the pea coat, the Russian peasant look, the tuxedo dress, the safari shirt and le smoking – a feminine version of a man's smoking jacket.

He led the way in applying other forms of popular culture to fashion design with the creation of his graphic Mondrian dress in 1965. He titillated the public by posing nude in the early '70s for a fragrance ad. Designers from Gianni Versace to Ralph Lauren have benefited from the foundation laid by Saint Laurent.

Despite his semi-retirement, Saint Laurent maintains control of what are arguably the most exhilarating design responsibilities. Haute couture is that rarefied world of custom-made clothing in which designers are not constrained by issues of price, production or mass appeal. Instead, the creator works one-on-one with a client, fitting the ensemble to her exact proportions.

In the last few years, several prominent French fashion houses – including Christian Dior and Givenchy – have named new lead designers. But the newcomers have been chosen to lead the couture lines and the ready-to-wear collections. Such a change at the top of the fashion pyramid usually signals that a company is prepared to move in a new direction, Milbank says. In the French ateliers, changes typically begin in haute couture and eventually make their way to the ready-to-wear collection.

    1998 ready-to-wear Yves Saint Lauren's 1998 Fall Collection. (File Photo/Reuters)
The announced shift in design duties indicates that the look of the collection is unlikely to change dramatically. Still, it is through the more accessible ready-to-wear collection that the company dresses the broadest range of women. And for those customers, a part of fashion has now become history.

Saint Laurent's last ready-to-wear collection will be for spring '99. Elbaz will debut his work for the house with fall '99.

Elbaz has been creative director at Guy Laroche for two years. The designer was hired by that house to re-energize the name and to update the clothes. After a shaky start, Elbaz has done just that, eventually winning praise from both retailers and critics, in particular for his fall '98 collection.

Girard says that the company chose Elbaz as Saint Laurent's successor for reasons both practical and visceral. Both men were born in North Africa: Saint Laurent in Algeria, Elbaz in Morocco. Elbaz grew up in Israel and then worked for seven years as an assistant to American designer Geoffrey Beene.

Alber Elbaz Alber Elbaz, taking a bow in March after showing his collection for Guy Laroche. (Pierre Verdy/Agence France-Presse)
Elbaz understands the "American culture of marketing and merchandising," Girard says.

But perhaps most important to a company known for being imperious – declining to invite editors from major publications, starting fashion shows before many guests have arrived – is that Elbaz doesn't have a signature line. "He won't suffer from schizophrenia," Girard says. "He will have total freedom within our rules."

The rules are defined by the Saint Laurent legacy. "Fashion for Yves Saint Laurent is style, not gimmick, not theater," Girard says. The point "is to make women look beautiful and feel good."

Elbaz shares a similar viewpoint.

"I think more than anything else, I've done the same sort of work at Guy Laroche. I didn't come and change everything and turn the house upside-down," he said by phone from Paris. "I didn't become like a bad boy. I just continued with what the house has to offer. Respect for where you are is very important."

    1995-96 ready-to-wear Karen Mulder presents Yves Saint Lauren's 1995-96 Autumn-Winter Collection. (Jack Dabaghian/Reuters)
His tack at Guy Laroche has been to create elegant, youthful and eminently wearable clothes that can go from the runway to the wardrobe without so much as lowering a hemline or loosening a seam.

Elbaz's precise approach at Saint Laurent has not been discussed. In fact, he has yet to sit down with the company's namesake to discuss his exact role.

Saint Laurent's role in the company slowly has been shrinking. Recently, company president and Saint Laurent confidant Pierre Berge often has appeared far more in control of the company and its image than Saint Laurent, who for years has struggled with health problems that often had him teetering down the runway for his final bows. In 1993 the company was sold to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi for $650 million.

Still, the legacy that will officially rest with Elbaz when he joins the company on Nov. 1 is massive and very much alive. Over the years, Saint Laurent always has used the same familiar fashion vocabulary in his collections. He, for better and for worse, borrowed lavishly from his own archives. He is the quintessential designer of society women.

"He is my favorite, most adorable friend," says New York society grande dame Nan Kempner. "I've worn his clothes for 35 years, since the beginning, since the days when he was the designer at Dior."

"He was the first person to essentially put women in pants. He brought them into the public domain," Kempner says. "You couldn't wear them in a lot of places. You couldn't wear them at the Cote Basque [restaurant in New York]. I had to drop my pants and go in in a tunic, and this was the early '60s."

His clothes, she says, never seem to age. She recently wore a 10-year-old silk suit to a wedding. "Each collection becomes more perfect," she says. "He perfects his own look."

"What do they say? Apres moi . . . Quoi? Le deluge. I think it's very good to have someone trained to take over."

With his quieter schedule, Saint Laurent and his dog, Moujik, will divide their time among houses in Paris, Marrekesh and Tangier, Morocco. "A man who dreams," Girard says, can never have too much free time.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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