7 major ways Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion forever
Yves Saint Laurent was described as many things during his lifetime—a genius, boy wonder, the Pied Piper of fashion—and a great deal more since he passed away on 1 June, 2008. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest designers of the 20th century.
“He was like Picasso,” said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology at the time of his death. “The way he kept transforming his style, yet each new one had an incredible impact on fashion.”
From his first collection at Christian Dior—aged only 21—to his empowering Le Smoking and sheer blouses, and his championing of diversity, Yves Saint Laurent was a true innovator of his time. So great was his impact that in 1983, at the age of 47, he became the first living designer to be recognised with a retrospective at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ahead of what would have been his 83rd birthday, on 1 August, looks at seven ways Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion forever.
Above: Yves Saint Laurent at his last-ever haute couture show in 2002. Image credit: Getty Images.
1. He changed the way women dressed
Before launching his own maison, Yves Saint Laurent worked for Christian Dior. The famed couturier hired him on the spot in 1955 after seeing his drawings. In 1957, when Monsieur Dior unexpectedly died of a heart attack, the then 21-year-old was named the brand’s creative director. His debut collection, spring 1958’s Trapeze line, was a runaway success. Met with a standing ovation at its presentation, it literally changed the course of fashion. Instead of Dior’s signature cinched waist, Saint Laurent created a lighter, more fluid silhouette with less fabric. This would be his first time transforming the contents of the modern woman’s wardrobe.
Above: Model wears the Trapeze dress from Yves Saint Laurent’s Dior collection in 1958. Image credit: Getty Images.
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2. He gave women the same clothes as men
Women had worn suits and trousers before Saint Laurent entered the fold, but as Pierre Bergé said in 2008: “Gabrielle Chanel gave women freedom. Yves Saint Laurent gave them power.” When he debuted Le Smoking in 1966, it was still controversial for women to wear trousers in public. American socialite Nan Kempner was famously turned away from Le Côte Basque in New York for wearing her YSL tuxedo suit. Le Smoking was, and is at its heart, a garment of rebellion, of androgyny and glamour, a challenge to the status quo. “I wanted women to have the same basic wardrobe as a man,” he told The Observer in 1977. “Blazer, trousers and suit. They’re so functional. I believed women wanted this and was right.” Early adopters included Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger.
Above: Model poses in pinstriped trouser suit by Yves Saint Laurent, known as the Le Smoking signature piece in 1966. Image credit: Getty Images.
3. He brought art and fashion together
The love affair between the art and fashion worlds is now commonplace, but Saint Laurent was among the first to put art on the runway—and take his designs into galleries, too. Vincent van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque’s work all featured in his designs. Most famous of all though was his 1965 Mondrian collection, which included six classic Sixties-style shift dresses in homage to the Dutch artist’s grid-like paintings and his modernist spirit.
Above: Model wears a dress inspired by the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian during Saint Laurent’s last-ever show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2002. Image credit: Getty Images.
4. He championed diversity
The fashion industry’s problem with race remains, but Saint Laurent was among the first designers to put women of colour on the runway. Iman, Rebecca Ayoko, Katoucha Niane and Dalma Callado were among his muses and regular models. “My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man,” Naomi Campbell said at the time of his death. “Because when I said to him ‘Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover’ and he was like ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did.”
Above: Yves Saint Laurent poses with models in 1984. Image credit: Getty Images.
5. He was his own campaign star
It is now quite common for designers to star in their own campaigns—sometimes they even feature in another label’s campaigns (remember Donatella for Givenchy?)—but in 1971 that certainly was not the case. Doing so naked? Even less so. But that’s what Saint Laurent did: posing in the nude for the advertisement of YSL Pour Homme, famously photographed by Jeanloup Sieff. The image was hardly published at the time, but resonates to this day.
Above: Model Danielle Sauvajeon wears Yves Saint Laurent in 1968. Image credit: Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.
6. He freed the nipple
In the late 1960s, at the height of the sexual revolution and rise of second-wave feminism, Saint Laurent incorporated sheer organza blouses and transparent tops into his collections as his own titillating homage to the spirit of the times. It wasn’t about exhibitionism, but rather asserting equality between the sexes. “[He] gave his pan-generational clients an unparalleled assurance and an insouciant panache—sex appeal without vulgarity,” notes US Vogue’s Hamish Bowles. It was risqué, but it also tapped into the new mood of sexual freedom. On the runway, his models would go braless, too.
Above: Model wears a see-through dress by Yves Saint Laurent in 1968. Image credit: Getty Images.
7. He popularised the idea of high fashion ready-to-wear
The ready-to-wear system is mainstream now, but in September 1966, Saint Laurent became the first couturier to open a ready-to-wear boutique under his name. The Rive Gauche boutique was situated in Paris’s Left Bank on 21 rue de Tournon. Rather than being a cheaper version of his couture designs, Saint Laurent used it as a testing ground for new ideas, creating completely separate collections. It was a great success and an important departure from the grand, gilded world of haute couture salons. He went on to open boutiques in New York in 1968 and London in 1969. That same year, he also opened a ready-to-wear store for men.
Above: Yves Saint Laurent outside his first-ever London Rive Gauche store with models Louise de La Falaise and Betty Catroux in 1969. Image credit: Getty Images.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced art into fashion with his Mondrian series. Image credits: Keystone-France/Gamma Rapho via Getty Images.
Yves Saint Laurent and models at an haute couture show in 1982. Image credit: Getty Images.
Yves Saint Laurent inside his ready-to-wear boutique on Bond Street in London in 1969. Image credit: Getty Images.
Yves Saint Laurent and a model as a ready-to-wear show in 1984. Image credit: Getty Images.
Bianca Jagger wears a YSL Le Smoking tuxedo in 1979. Image credit: Getty Images.
A model wears the Trapeze dress by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior in Vogue, 1958. Image credit: Henry Clarke/Condé Nast via Getty Images.