Yves Saint Laurent Au Petit Palais

Growing up, my mother’s signature fragrance was Opium by Yves Saint Laurent. Perhaps seeing the YSL logo on that amber-colored bottle and smelling its feminine scent so often as a child is the reason that the name Yves Saint Laurent has been etched into my childhood memories as being associated with beauty, femininity and power.

The Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective opened in Paris on March 11th, at the Petit Palais, under the patronage of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, First Lady of France. The opening was held on the same day as the YSL women’s ready-to-wear show during Paris Fashion Week.

The concept of the exhibit is to showcase the 40+ years of ingenious creativity that Yves Saint Laurent put forth – under the House of Dior as well as his own label. The YSL Retrospective displays about 307 haute couture and pret-a-porter (ready-to-wear pieces) that have been preserved in immaculate condition by the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, and also donated by patrons such as Jane Birkin, Marie Hélène de Rothschild, and others. Visitors are guided from room to room aided by narratives inscribed on the walls along with videos, photographs and other displays. Entry into the Petit Palais is well controlled, with guards only allowing twenty visitors at a time so as to offer a pleasurable experience by avoiding overcrowding inside.

Upon entering the exhibit, guests are greeted by a brief bio of Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent, who beat fellow contestant Karl Lagerfeld at a design competition at the age of 17 and was then hired to work under Christian Dior. At age 21, he was appointed by Christian Dior himself to succeed him as the head designer of the House of Dior. During his short two-year stint at Dior, he shocked the public when he created the iconic black crocodile leather jacket, inspired by beatnik culture. Viewing the actual jacket at the exhibit, without any barriers, so that one can see the still present glistening of the crocodile leather is quite something! The famous Trapeze collection (the trapeze dress had narrow shoulders and a flared skirt) was also created during his time at Dior.

In 1960, at the young age of 24, Yves Saint Laurent partnered with his lover, Pierre Bergé to open his own fashion house.  Several revolutionary designs were created by Saint Laurent, most of which are still very current today: safari jackets, over-the-knee boots, slim-cut pants, and of course, the incredibly sexy Le Smoking women’s suit.

It is said that Coco Chanel gave women freedom, but Yves Saint Laurent gave them power. Borrowing elements from menswear for the feminine figure, he created the first women’s suit, used sailor-inspired themes, created the first jumpsuit and introduced Bermuda shorts for women, all of which are featured at the exhibit.

The most mindblowing room at the Petit Palais, however, is the large one that features a multitude of gems from the haute couture collection – gowns featuring elaborate gold beadwork, beautiful silks, necklines and silhouettes that make one wish for a ball to attend! Incidentally named “The Last Ball,” this room represents Saint Laurent and Bergé’s prediction of the slow demise of haute couture after World War II as “the great parties and costume balls of the elite” slowly decreased in number. It is important to note that the YSL house was one of the first to democratize fashion by introducing ready-to-wear (this Rive Gauche line is run today under YSL creative director Stefano Pilati).

This room also features the Le Smoking suit along with several of the 236 variations of this theme, including dresses, boleros, trench coats, bush jackets and jumpsuits. The grain-de-poudre (a lightweight wool) silhouette is a staple in most women’s wardrobes today.

There is one room dedicated to Saint Laurent’s inspirations – this room also features a video of a young Saint Laurent creating sketches of dresses with a quick hand, fitting models and playing with fabric, all the while wearing a white sports jacket that looks like a clinical lab coat. His inspirations included India (costumes of Maharajahs), Africa (wilderness), Spain (cigar factory girls), China (which led to the release of the Opium fragrance), Russia (Ballet Russe) and the clothing of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. He also created collections inspired by artists, including the famous Piet Mondrian shift dress. Several pieces can be seen at the Petit Palais including the Bambara Art, New Wave and Claude Lalanne sculpture-inspired pieces. Other artist inspirations include Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollianire and Vincent Van Gogh.

He had two workshops (Ateliers Fleur and Atelier Failleurs). He also had a “mental studio,” where his fantômes esthétiques (aesthetic ghosts) lived. His muses and patrons included the Baroness Rothschild, Princess Grace of Monaco, Elsa Schiaparelli, model Betty Catroux, former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, model Loulou de la Falaise, and of course, his favorite, iconic French actress and close friend, Catherine Deneuve.

Kept behind a glass case, the exhibit also features Le Coeur, a piece of jewelry designed by Saint Laurent representing a human heart with 3 chambers, built with rubies, pearls, diamonds and more. During each of his fashion shows, the model wearing his favorite ensemble wears it on the runway.

Towards the end of his career, Yves Saint Laurent created “Color Collisions,” bold combinations of bright colors, inspired by Morocco: black/blue, pink/orange, yellow/pink. A room with walls covered by hundreds upon hundreds of his fabric and color swatches discusses his last collection that featured chiffon dresses in these bold colors.

Finally, at the end of the exhibit, one can view the video of Yves Saint Laurent’s last show held in January 2002, showing his last collection as well as a retrospective of models wearing 300+ highlight pieces from over the decades. The designer’s love of dressing women is more than evident in this video, although he said, “The most beautiful clothes that can dress a woman are the arms of the man she loves.”

At the press conference upon his retirement, he said, “ The most beautiful paradises are the ones we have lost.” He died on June 1st, 2008 at age 71, at his home in Paris; his ashes were scattered in the Marjorelle gardens (which he owns) in Marrakech.

The exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris runs until August 11, 2010 and is a must-see if you are a fan of Yves Saint Laurent, or a lover of fashion in general. The gift shop offers postcards, bookmarks, pins, scarves and a giant Retrospective collector’s item book for sale.