As the obituaries and retrospectives of Yves St. Laurent roll in, many are turning to New York Times fashion editor Cathy Horyn’s December 2000 article The Yves of Destruction for a less worshipful glimpse of his life. There are the 2 films by David Teboul, great documentaries, following the life and times of YSL, both sort of hagiographic. I found “5 Ave. Marceau”, the film on his last collection, particularly sad to watch.
My grandmother canceled her subscription to Vogue after St.Laurent took over Dior and the world of fashion changed with the advent of the trapeze and Balenciaga’s saque dress. I was very young. As many young children do, I took on the likes and dislikes of my elders, so I, too, thought the new silhouettes to be unflattering. That didn’t stop me from making doll clothes that followed the look of the times. It was only Barbie and her fashion model wardrobe with the exaggerated curves that changed my output into more shapely clothing.
Eventually I did graduate to making people sized clothing, and started down my path to making my own patterns, eventually studying Haute Couture draping in Paris. My path to the world of fashion design ran right thru Yves St. Laurent’s Paris of excess and fantasy.
I was a lowly design student, an impoverished American living in an 8th floor walk-up maid’s quarters. Occasionally I did get an invitation, a dinner, a night out on the town, but mainly I worked non-stop sewing tiny stitches by hand and learning the underlying theory of the application of cloth to the body that draping is. My Paris was of poverty stricken mended stockings, sandwiches bought at the bakery and eaten on the street because it was half the price of sitting and eating at a café.
I absorbed the St. Laurent esthetic from the streets, the shops, the magazines of Paris. Walking to the Bank of America on the Place Vendome every week to withdraw my $25 a week to live on, I passed some of the greatest design houses and jewelers. As a treat, sometimes we would take our coffee sitting in a sunny spot of the Café de la Paix, next to the Opera, then walk back to the Ecole des Cadres Couture for another grueling afternoon under the Prussian discipline of Mademoiselle Gogel, only a few blocks away. The walking distance from the Opera to the school was not far, but the distance was far greater from that magical world of money and objets d’art, objets du desir, to the dusty upstairs rooms of the school.
So I learned, I learned couture sewing techniques, and draping techniques, technology of textile, and creation of collections the old school way. Then, when I was back in the USA and started working in the industry, I had a slightly different eye when looking at the Paris collections. For several years after I got back, St. Laurent continued to astonish and innovate.
I am not certain when I started to become disappointed, when I saw the continuous recycling of silhouette and pattern. I was angry and disillusioned with St. Laurent. I felt he threw his talent away, he continued to work while resting on his laurels, that there was nothing new. I could pinpoint the same sleeve, the same jacket pattern, drape of a skirt, over and over again, just re-fabricated in some other fabulous couture fabric, recombined with only a small change. This annoyed me. I expected more and better.
Now that a lot of water has flowed under my own bridge, I am less harsh. I feel some sympathy and understand better the ebb and flow of creativity. I salute the re-use of tried and true patterns, and the building of an oeuvre that is predicated on the success of earlier work.
St. Laurent had the opportunity to develop and continue to work with a fine atelier, to have the finest fabrics, and artisans to bring his ideas to life. It’s why I am sad. To whom much is given, much is expected.
Imagine if he had been able to maintain a vibrant connection to life and his work instead of withdrawing from the world, what more wonders would have come? The body of work he left behind, the new ways of piercing the world of not only fashion, but art and culture as well, is monumental.
I feel sad, angry, and disappointed. I can only hope that his legacy will not be picked apart and commercialized for the profit of the vultures that brought him to the soft prison he inhabited for his last years.