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All About Yves

Culture Watch

By Charlotte Burns

No stranger to museums, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent was the first living couturier to be given a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983. Now, more than 30 years later, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) will pay homage to his enduring legacy with the exhibition “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style.”

Saint Laurent led an extraordinary life. Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1936, he was something of a prodigy who created garments for a child’s theater from his mother’s old clothes. After his father arranged for his sketches to be shown to the editor of French Vogue, he was enrolled at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris. He soon became an apprentice to Christian Dior, who anointed Saint Laurent the heir apparent. After Dior’s sudden death, his sensitive young successor was catapulted onto the fashion scene, producing his first Trapeze collection at age 21, achieving instant fame.

Unlike most wunderkinds, Saint Laurent maintained his position as a pioneer throughout the decades. He is credited with changing the way modern women dress, by introducing pants for both day and night, and clothing them in jackets like Le Smoking (the tuxedo). He was the first designer to create a ready-to-wear range, anticipating the shift from custom couture to casual wear. He also played a pivotal role in including women of color in his fashion shows.

In total, the exhibition will include around 100 garments created by Saint Laurent, “as well as lots of sketches and boards from every collection Yves produced,” says Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s deputy director for art who collaborated on the exhibition with the French fashion expert and curator Florence Müller. It will also include “ephemeral material, such as magazines, photography and excerpts from films and catwalk shows. We are also showing the paper dolls he made when he was a teenager—these amazing hand-colored creations—I think for the first time,” Ishikawa says.

The exhibition begins with a video of Saint Laurent’s final show—a greatest-hits parade culminating in the couturier standing at the end of the catwalk surrounded by swooning supermodels against a soundtrack of Édith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose.” From here, the opening gallery provides a mini-retrospective, charting his childhood creations through some of his pivotal professional phases such as the elegant Beatnik, or the celebrity couturier. One room is dedicated to gender and Saint Laurent’s fluid handling of it: “The changes he progressively introduced into the traditional representation of the feminine and masculine bodies and the codes of seduction stand at the origin of the profound changes in contemporary ways of dress,” says Müller.

Another gallery will focus on the atelier and the artistic process behind the construction of the garments. Saint Laurent “didn’t come from a tailoring or dressmaking background but from drawings, so he needed this army of magicians who could look at his 2D drawings—which were really good at communicating what he wanted to say—and make them into muslins,” Ishikawa says.

Another gallery focuses on Saint Laurent’s Pop period, and will include works from the museum’s collection, while another section deals with the designer’s virtuoso use of color. The final image in the exhibition is a brooding Saint Laurent, painted by Andy Warhol and taken from the collection of his partner, Pierre Bergé. It is a fitting close to this tribute to a designer who was also an artist, transcending fashion.

“The changes he progressively introduced stand at the origin of the profound changes in contemporary ways of dress.” —Florence Müller


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