A dreamer and a visionary, an introvert and an exhibitionist, the enigmatic fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent had an extraordinary ability to empower women and capture the cultural zeitgeist, discovers Francesca Simpson.



Original sketches by Yves Saint Laurent. Image courtesy Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, Paris.



“My real talent is timing”, said the late, great Yves Saint Laurent. It’s an age-old adage, verging on the trite, but could timing possibly be Saint Laurent's ultimate gift? It’s not an unsupported theory after all; his partner in life and business, Pierre Bergé, would himself cite this briefest snippet of wisdom to be true, albeit surprising given the myriad other claimants to the myth and talent that is YSL.

Delve a little deeper and his seemingly modest assertion becomes more meaningful, revealing a skill that does begin to explain Saint Laurent's exuberantly successful career and enduring legacy. For his timing was impeccable. His ability to sense the mood of a moment, to capture a visceral sense of the now and translate that into a palate of challenging and provocative looks was shockingly prescient. His ability to channel the cultural zeitgeist was unrivalled, and to many will ever remain so. 

His bold intent – to empower, to celebrate, to shock whatever the decade, and whatever the “fashion” – melds effortlessly with the picture of YSL, the dreamer. From his earliest years in Algeria, a distant continent away from his yearned-for life in Paris, Saint Laurent never stopped dreaming. And, through this vision, he inspired the women he dressed and styled to dream with him, which many consider his ultimate gift.

French designer Stephan Janson, who spent time with Saint Laurent and continues to be deeply inspired by him, composes a more nuanced portrait of the man. It hints, in its contradictions, at a man with paradoxical character traits that engendered so much: he was shy yet provocative; discreet though somehow joyfully extrovert, and an exhibitionist. Underlying it all, was unbridled passion – the desire to empower and embolden the women he designed for. Never stuck in one particular ‘look’, he combined impeccable tailoring and sublimely contrasting color palettes with a sensuality that was both sexually liberating and distinctly avant-garde.


Yves Saint Laurent (Left) and Pierre Bergè (Right) © Vladimir Sichov


YSL claimed he discovered “color” in Marrakech - where he and Pierre Bergé spent much time, at their home, Villa Oasis, and Jardin Majorelle - in the '60s. No other fashion designer has so ably mixed, and boldly used, color: fuchsia and orange, purple and green, red and blue. Some of his collections were rigorously black or brown, others were an explosion of pattern, ornament and color, all anchored and tied together by an endless reference to (and personal knowledge of) a cultural mood, in the pre-cultural appropriation era he lived in.

 Runway images showing the many interpretations of the places and cultures YSL loved. Collage by Stephan Janson.

Timing may have been key, but indisputable talent and a willingness to shock and challenge are consistently evident in his oeuvre, be it in his couture or impeccably curated living spaces. Indeed, the residences he meticulously crafted with Bergé bear testament to the rigorous styling and refined taste that underpins every aspect of his career. A glimpse into their Paris apartment on the Rue de Babylone reveals serious connoisseurship, delightfully offset by an unashamedly romantic sense of the whimsical. So much pleasure, so much passion.


Yves Saint Laurent alongside sheep sculptures by François-Xavier Lalanne © Pierre Boulat


His inspiration was multifarious. A cultural polyglot, he incessantly sought fresh stimuli in an unceasing quest for perfection – be it in the light of his beloved gardens in Morocco or the great works of art he was inexorably drawn back to. For him, beauty was ubiquitous. His dream was to capture its very essence and diffuse it through his creations so that others could vicariously dream his dreams. In the troubled world of today it is no wonder that so many seek solace in the timeless creations of YSL, and that he continues to be universally celebrated.

So, whether you pay your respects through the sumptuous pages of Cabana’s YSL Lexicon: An ABC of the Fashion, Life, and Inspirations of Yves Saint Laurent, by stepping out in a glorious vintage piece or simply by raising a glass in his memory, Yves Saint Laurent is undeniably worthy of every accolade.


Model wears YSL; Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, Paris. 

YSL: In his own Words

"One day, my name will be written in flaming letters on the Champs-Elysées."

"What I want: to shock people, to force them to think. Young people have no memories."

"Elegance is a dress too dazzling to dare to wear it twice. I like eccentricity, everything that is fun, the unexpected."

"I chose this pant suit in my last collection; it is a real men’s suit to represent the women of the future. I think that in twenty years it will still be just right."

"Before, I used only dark tones. Then Morocco came along with its colors… those of the earth and the sand. But also those in the street: women in turquoise and mauve caftans… and the sky."


Original sketches by Yves Saint Laurent. Image courtesy Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, Paris.

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