There are few designers, alive or dead, who have had a greater influence on fashion than Yves Saint Laurent. In the 1960s, he blurred gender lines by crafting pantsuits and tuxedos for women at a time when such notions were considered revolutionary and subversive. He popularized the safari jacket. He took inspiration from the street, the nightclubs and popular culture — injecting youth and a subversive spontaneity into fashion. And he helped set the industry on a more democratic trajectory by opening his Rive Gauche boutique in Paris, which was devoted to more accessible ready-to-wear, while his colleagues were focused only on rarefied and expensive haute couture.
Because of Saint Laurent’s accomplishments, there has been no shortage of films, books or exhibitions examining life details as varied as his professional beginnings as an assistant to Christian Dior and his obsessive devotion to his French bulldog, Moujik. Indeed, in 1983, only 25 years into a career that lasted almost 50, the designer was the subject of a celebrated retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1998, Saint Laurent mounted a massive fashion show at the Stade de France for the final of the World Cup soccer tournament in front of a television audience estimated at more than 1 billion.
What is left to be revealed? Who is left to inform of his greatness?
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is betting there remains something to say and people who are willing to listen.
The retrospective “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style,” at the Richmond museum through Aug. 27, moves briskly from the designer’s birth in Algeria in 1936 to his early success in a Paris design competition, to his rise at Dior and the critical acclaim for his first collection, in which he introduced Dior customers to the trapeze dress and its easy, swinging silhouette. The exhibition zips along to the launch of Saint Laurent’s signature brand with his business and life partner, Pierre Bergé. It highlights his professional revelations, such as when he turned to a workaday peacoat as inspiration for a dress. And it celebrates his personal mythmaking — his partying through the night with friends such as model Betty Catroux and his posing nude in advertisements for his perfume.
Because this show was organized by the Seattle Art Museum in partnership with Paris’s Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, it benefits from an archive that is arguably unmatched by any design house. It also had the stature and connections to draw from private collections.
All the professional hits are here: a Mondrian dress with its geometric blocks of color, the slick black trench coat worn by Catherine Deneuve in the film “Belle du Jour,” the early pantsuits. Glass cases practically burst with Saint Laurent’s costume jewelry. And in one long gallery, his late-career frocks form a rainbow of satin and taffeta, including a particularly glorious pumpkin-colored evening cloak — a style that made a generation of socialites swoon.
There are a lot of beautiful clothes here, and some carry great appeal to contemporary eyes. There are myriad opportunities for a visitor to murmur, “I’d wear that.” Or, “I own a jacket like that.”
For many, that visual pleasure and self-congratulatory familiarity will be enough. “The most popular exhibits now are fashion and jewelry,” says Barry Shifman, the museum’s curator of decorative arts after 1890. The VMFA hopes to attract 100,000 visitors to the Saint Laurent show, he says.
The newfound allure of fashion for museums can be traced, in large measure, to 2011’s record-breaking “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That show was not only the museum’s most successful fashion exhibition to date, but it also ranked among the 10 most-visited exhibitions in general — right up there with the Mona Lisa, Picasso and Jeff Koons. (The McQueen record was later shattered by “China Through the Looking Glass” in 2015.)
At their best, these exhibitions connect fashion’s creativity, auteurship and technique to the broader world. The story of a garment can push visitors to reconsider their own definition of beauty and their assumptions about gender. It can highlight the emotional urgency of self-creation, the universality of humanity and the power of the exceptional.
Countless intellectual debates and visceral urges can blossom from something as familiar and relatable as a dress or a coat.
But it’s often that very familiarity that makes fashion exhibitions especially challenging and that can render them banal. It’s difficult for most women today to imagine a time when wearing trousers was scandalous. The late New York socialite Nan Kempner, whose own wardrobe was the subject of an exhibition at the Met, recalled being stopped at the entrance to a fancy New York restaurant because she was wearing pants. “I had to drop my pants and go in in a tunic, and this was the early ’60s,” she told The Washington Post.
For a designer at Saint Laurent’s lofty perch to champion not just trousers, but also a tuxedo in lieu of an evening gown, was jaw dropping. That’s hard to absorb now, when leggings count as pants.
“The Perfection of Style” does not engage the viewer in a conversation about social taboos or cultural barriers. It mentions Saint Laurent’s groundbreaking use of black models on the runway but doesn’t connect that decision to his work as a whole. Did that choice reflect his affection for North Africa, particularly Morocco, where he spent considerable private time? Did it flow from his interest in modern art, in African art? Was it simply a matter of aesthetics — his favoring the contrast of sun-drenched colors on darker skin?
A gallery dedicated to “The Genders” is home to a selection of pantsuits, a tuxedo dress and evening pants. One of contemporary fashion’s current obsessions is the gender line — blurring it, erasing it. Saint Laurent, who died at 71 in 2008, is quoted as having said that women should accept men’s femininity and that men should concede some of their virility to women. It would be worthwhile for this exhibition to consider Saint Laurent’s role in today’s lively conversation. And as today’s runways honor the quotidian, did Saint Laurent’s elevation of peacoats and sailor sweaters lead us to Vetements’s DHL T-shirt?
The exhibition doesn’t pose questions to be wrestled with. It doesn’t require you to think. And it doesn’t allow Saint Laurent’s work to engage with the rest of the fashion world, let alone the creative world. It simply tells you that Saint Laurent, the man, was great. To make that case, there are examples of the paper dolls he created in his youth. There are swatches of fabric and sketches that date to 1962, as well as press clippings, photographs and video clips. In saving every bit of ephemera from the beginning of their company, the designer and Bergé were either extraordinarily prescient or incredibly egotistical. Probably a bit of both.
Saint Laurent’s stature as a designer is evident. This exhibition reconfirms it. His continued relevance, however, is more elusive.