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The incredible rise of Yves Saint Laurent

On January 29, 1962, a milestone in fashion history was set: Yves Saint Laurent presents the first collection under his name. To mark the 60th anniversary, six Paris museums are now honoring him with exhibitions.

Already two hours before the start of the defile, the streets around Rue Spontini are jammed. Long lines form in front of number 30. Celebrities like the writer Françoise Sagan and the dancer Zizi Jeanmaire make their way to the front row.

From this January 29, 1962, many expect great things. At 10:30 a.m., Yves Saint Laurent, the prodigy of the Paris fashion world, would present the first designs of his couture house.

The reviews of his debut, however, were mixed. The big one came later: Yves Saint Laurent invented the tuxedo for women, popularized the safari style, paved the way for the nude look with transparent fabrics, and translated the works of great artists such as Mondrian and Picasso into clothing. It will shape the way women dress.

Big shoes to fill at the age of 21

Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint Laurent, his full name, was born on August 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria. Already as a child he examines the clothes of his mother and aunts, he loves Bücher and the theater, draws. It is also an escape from reality. His classmates tease and tease him. They realize what Yves Saint Laurent also realizes early on: he is homosexual.

In 1953 he took part in a renowned design competition, won third place, moved to Paris and in 1955 became an assistant to the most famous couturier of the time: Christian Dior. He recognized and encouraged the talent. And so, at just 21 years of age, Yves Saint Laurent was appointed Dior’s successor after his death in 1957.

Inspiration for life

The flight of fancy ends abruptly when he is drafted into military service in 1960. The designer breaks down under the hardships of barracks life, is sent to a mental hospital, and is sedated with medication. And he loses his job at Dior.

By this time, he already had a man by his side who would support Saint Laurent’s fragile nature and give structure to his creative genius for decades to come: Pierre Bergé, life and business partner in one. That the designer überhaupt can open his own couture house, he owes – Bergé acquires üvia an investor the start-up capital.

Against taboos, for diversity

But the status of haute couture is already in flux. Pop art, Beatles mania, Swinging London: In the 1960s, young people were hungry for something new. In fashion, too. Elitist tailoring was seen as decadent. Saint Laurent adapted and opened the first Rive Gauche boutique in Paris in 1966. Under this name he had launched a line of high-end ready-to-wear, the Prêt-à-Porter. He later penetrated the mass market by granting licenses. Even at the textile giant C&A, there are products with the famous logo "YSL" in the 1980s.

Time and again, Saint Laurent also breaks social taboos, for example, advertising naked for one of his perfumes and working with black models even before anyone thought about diversity.

Wild Nächte

His lifestyle is as legendary as his fashion. He consumes drugs and alcohol, celebrates wild parties. We were like horrible and spoiled children who only thought of themselves and their fun,” recalls Betty Catroux in 2020 in an interview for Die Welt. The model was one of the designer’s muses, along with Loulou de la Falaise and actress Catherine Deneuve.

The consequences of such excesses: Anxiety, breakdowns. But his fans remain loyal to him, even when his collections are no longer brilliant. One of the keys to Saint Laurent’s commercial success was to create clothes that women liked to wear,” writes Alice Rawsthorn in her 1996 biography of Yves Saint Laurent. "He did not dress his clients like objects of pleasure. "

"Basically, I have remained a child"

On January 22, 2002, Yves Saint Laurent retired from the fashion world with a retrospective show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Other designers such as Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane will design under his name in the future. Since 2016, the creative director of the label is Anthony Vaccarello.

I have remained a child at heart, which is why I have always been able to surprise myself and others,” said Yves Saint Laurent in an interview with the U.S. magazine Talk in 2000, finding a formula for his success. On June 1, 2008, he passes away at the age of 71.

The importance of his work is now demonstrated by the exhibition project "Yves Saint Laurent aux musées". Six Parisian museums, including the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée du Louvre, are devoting themselves to the work of the great couturier until May 15.


– with material from dpa