From Paper Dolls to the Runway: Yves St. Laurent

July 20, 2017

That YSL is literally branded into our collective logo lexicon is no accident. The two-dimensional mix of serif, san serif, italic and Roman fonts was designed by Adolphe Cassandre to express ambiguity and surrealism. For four decades, the monogram has made an imprint. In partnership with the Seattle Art Museum, Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style, arrives at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for a Moulin Rouge of fashion, film, photography and flourish. Laurent started at the House of Dior at the age of 18, and found his life’s work. “When Christian Dior died, the chance to create my own collections pushed me to set aside my projects to work in the theater. At the age of 21, I entered a kind of fortress of celebrity that was to become the trap of my life. My love for the theater would never leave, but in the meantime, Dior had taught me to love something other than fashion and design: the fundamental nobility of the couturier’s profession. I believe that a creator who is not also a couturier, and has not learned the most subtle secrets of the actual creation of his models is like a sculptor who gives his sketches to another.” Subsumed as he was in this kind of ideal, he was able to incorporate individuality, whether the carte blanche of the street, the emergence of female power, or sexual freedom. He was responsible for Naomi Campbell becoming the first black model on the cover of Vogue. This sheltered young man who embraced the world once wrote, “I love the rigor, the simplicity and the beauty of the classical. But my imagination, my gifts for invention, sometimes lead me towards the baroque, towards strangeness. It’s the secret of my youth, this absolute eclecticism that governs my life. I think… that is the goal of life; I shall continue to see the world with the eyes of a child.” I spoke with Curator of Decorative Arts, Barry Shipman, about the show at VMFA.

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Gwynned Vitello: Beginning with his exotic French name and birthplace of Algeria, Yves Saint Laurent has always evoked a kind of intrigue. He seemed very passionate, not about prettiness, but about beauty as an ideal. I don’t know if it’s the right word, but how did his early life contribute to this obsession?
Barry Shifman: He was born in Oran, Algeria when it was a French colony and he always responded to the color and clothing of North Africa and, in fact, drew his collections when he was at his summer home in Marrakech. He was also the first designer to feature black models on the runway.

Describe the “Paper Doll Couture House” and how it shows his very early interest in fashion design.
The exhibit opens with the paper dolls, a collection of 30 to 40, about 8” to 10” tall, which he made as a young teenager. Pouring over his mother’s fashion magazines, he used the silhouettes of famous models of the time, cut out the shapes, and mixed and matched them with dresses and accessories from his own drawn designs. He had invitations made and his sisters played the parts of clients. This love of theater and make believe translated into his entire career. He loved imagining costumes and designed for theater, ballet and film, most memorably Belle de Jour.

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You must have his collection boards on display.
The second gallery is like a long runway and gives a big overview of his designs, which started in the late 1950s. A collection board functions like a storyboard and can be a collage of images, words and objects that a designer collects to use as reference. In this case, there is one for spring and one for fall.    

What do we know about his process? Was the studio a riot of activity, and were some design phases more solitary for him?
There is a whole gallery, The Alchemy of Style, devoted to this, all about his process. There are photos, video and mannequins, which illustrate his methods, beginning with his watercolor ideas and “toiles” (we call them muslins), which are the forms ateliers use to create the first draft of a garment. We show sections on beading, printed fabric and hat forms, all leading to the finished product. Women like Catherine Deneuve and Betty Catroux we among his muses, but he drew most of his collections alone in Marrakech where he vacationed. He lived in Paris early on and partied hard in the 1970s, so he did feel a need to be solitary, to recharge.

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With the exhibit being organized by the Seattle Art Museum in partnership with the Paris-based Foundation Pierre Berge, is it presented differently in your space? How do you think lighting, mannequins and other set designs contribute, especially to this show?
There are about 105 garments in the show, and the differences are mainly in the arrangement of the floor plans. We both worked with the same French firm and used elegant Sleppi mannequins from Germany, which are unique, even in their hand gestures. The last gallery is called the Explosion of Color. It’s my favorite, and we were able to present it so you see the entire sight line. Fifty or sixty grand dresses are arranged by color, each fully accessorized with shoes, hats and YSL costume jewelry; and behind each are hundreds of floor-to-ceiling swatches. It starts with a tableau of black dresses, following groupings in gold and gold threaded, then yellows, greens, purples and reds, ending in white. On 16” and 20” risers, the effect is like a runway show, and the cumulative effect truly is an explosion of color.

Given his reputation as the father of modernity in fashion, what do you think are his best examples of breaking new ground?
His first creations for Dior were the Trapeze Collection, which broke away from the austerity and construction of couture. In establishing prêt-à-porter, he was the first Haute Couturier to create a ready-to-wear line, which was revolutionary at the time. He was the first to incorporate men’s fashion for women, his pinstriped pantsuit and the smoking tuxedo, for example, not to mention the safari jacket and peacoat. In fact, designs like his black crocodile biker jacket and ’40’s gangster looks, which were considered too avant garde for the typical Dior customer, led to his undoing at the fashion house.

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I know he bought an enormous amount of art, and thinking of his Mondrian dresses, he was clearly influenced by other artists.
He was inspired by everything! As well as the Mondrian, there are dresses influenced by Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Tom Wesselmann and African art. There is also a printed, pleated gown that looks to Greek antiquity. He and his partner, Pierre Berge, were constantly buying art, Old Master drawings, bronzes, paintings, sculptures and furniture.

Considering everything we’ve talked about, it would seem unnecessary to have to answer the question about fashion’s place in a museum, but it’s still a topic of debate. Give me your take.
I totally understand the hierarchy of genres, that if something is functional, or even decorative, it is not given the same consideration as, say, painting or sculpture. When you see this collection, you can see that it’s art, in this case, textiles. If it’s art, who cares about the materials? As long as it’s creative and excellent, I’m all for it!

Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style is on view at the VMFA in Richmond Virginia through August 27, 2017.