Ten years ago now, I met the famously reclusive designer Yves Saint Laurent. If his unwillingness to step into the media spotlight was ever attributable to arrogance on his part, this occurrence suggested quite the opposite. I had just started out as a fashion editor, and had commissioned a profile of the couturier. He wanted to thank me face-to-face for the result, I was told by the quietly officious and fiercely loyal entourage that always surrounded him.
And so I arrived at the very grand corner building at 5 Avenue Marceau, Saint Laurent's imposing Paris headquarters throughout most of his career, and was duly ushered up the marble staircase and into the small, red-velvet-lined room where he created many of the most inspiring and influential styles of the 20th century.
The room was empty and silent when I arrived until, after several moments, the master himself appeared from an annexe and shuffled forward to take my hand. Under his arm was his tiny lap-dog – Saint Laurent always had one of these at his side and the most famous, Moujik, was captured by Andy Warhol. Saint Laurent mumbled his gratitude to me, struggling to form the words, and I looked up into his large and poignantly expressive face, almost – and uncharacteristically – unable to fight back my tears at this surprisingly modest gesture. Unusually tall but unmistakably frail, his presence was a touching mix of the hugely powerful and the painfully shy and the meeting was remarkable if only for the fact that it was difficult to know which of us was more overwhelmed – and this despite the fact that this was, fairly obviously, a momentous occasion in a fledgling fashion journalist's career.
Several years later, in January 2002, I attended Yves Saint Laurent's swan-song retrospective collection staged at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, during which it immediately became clear that I was by no means the only person to be moved by this man and his work. As if to emphasise the huge impact Saint Laurent has made on French culture, two screens were erected outside on the gallery's forecourt and the Parisian public gathered round to watch the proceedings broadcast live.
Inside, after the requisite wait, the lights came up and out came, one after another, some of the most remarkable pieces the fashion world has ever witnessed. Here was the wedding coat embroidered with the words Love Me Forever Or Never, an emancipated alternative to the traditional overblown white gown if ever there was one. There was the famous "Le Smoking" tuxedo, first shown in 1966, borrowed from menswear and, similarly, designed to free women from the constraints of overtly feminine eveningwear.
The African collection, originally shown on black models – Saint Laurent was among the first to do this, too – was all present and correct as was the "Iris" jacket, inspired by Van Gogh's great painting and, as fashion folklore has it, made using more than 17,000 beads all painstakingly hand-sewn on to its shimmering surface by some of the most gifted craftspeople in the world.
The wealth of highly cultured, immaculately proportioned and finely coloured clothing on display served as a reminder that there is not a day in the life of any modern woman reaching into her wardrobe that isn't influenced in some way by this designer. The gleaming crocodile biker jackets and skinny black turtleneck sweaters inspired by the Beat generation; the boxy suede tunics; the tulip skirts; the thigh-high boots; the black chiffon blouse trimmed with ostrich feathers; the strong-shouldered trouser suit worn with a raspberry-pink pussybow blouse, and chic leather gloves in just the same shade. These and more have gone on to become so much part of our dress code that it would be all too easy to take them for granted and forget the man behind their creation.
Above all, given the pyrotechnic, celebrity-courting marketing machine the fashion industry has now become, this was a lesson in dignity and in the ability of a designer to suspend his ego and dress women in an appropriate and aesthetically pleasing way. There was no show-stopping hair and make-up, no attention-grabbing "must-have" accessories. This was, quite simply, all about clothes – the most beautifully made and tirelessly elegant clothes imaginable.
It is small wonder that, at a press conference two weeks before that final show, Saint Laurent's long-term business partner and former lover Pierre Bergé stated: "He [Saint Laurent] no longer feels at ease in a world where people use women instead of serving them. We have entered the era of marketing at the expense of creativity. It's not much fun playing a tennis match when you are alone." Saint Laurent himself was less pointed. "I tell myself that I created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman, that I participated in the transformation of my times," he said. He is, of course, not the only designer to have made such a claim. In his case, however, more perhaps than any other, it is entirely justified.
This final collection, shown exactly 40 years after he set up under his own name, proved this to the be the case. By the time the designer stepped out to take his bows, serenaded by his old friend the actress Catherine Deneuve (dressed by Saint Laurent for the 1967 Luis Bunuel classic Belle de Jour), singing the line from the old French love song "ma plus belle histoire d'amour, c'est vous", there was not a dry eye in the house.
To say that this was the end of an era would be something of an understatement and, more even than the sheer perfection of the clothes, there was something about the spirit and presence of Saint Laurent that touched the hearts of all those present and continues to do so to this day. After all, the designer's creative prowess cost him dear. It was no secret that Yves Saint Laurent had struggled with habitual drug and alcohol abuse and depression almost from the day he started work.
Yves-Henri-Donat-Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria, to middle-class parents. His father, Charles, owned a chain of cinemas. His mother, Lucienne, was a diminutive beauty and socialite who doted on her precious son. "I can still see my mother," Saint Laurent once wrote, "about to leave for a ball, come to kiss me good night, wearing a long dress of white tulle with pear-shaped white sequins."
Although his home life was peaceful, Saint Laurent was easily destabilised, neurotic even, and this aspect of his character was exacerbated by the cruel taunts from his classmates at school. Long after, the designer maintained that he was bullied as a result of his homosexuality, although it is safe to assume that there was rather more to set him apart from his contemporaries than simply that. "My classmates could see I was not similar," he said on the subject. "So they made me their scapegoat. They hit me or locked me in the toilets. During the break, I would take refuge in the chapel or I would arrange to stay alone in the classroom."
If the mental breakdowns and lapses into substance abuse that plagued the designer throughout his adult life had their roots in his childhood, any persecution also furnished him with an unswerving ambition to succeed – thereby proving his enemies wrong:
"I told myself, repeatedly, 'One day you will be famous.'"
On his ninth birthday, Saint Laurent remembered, "I had just blown out the candles on the cake when, with a second gulp of breath, I hurled my secret wish across a table surrounded by my loving relatives: 'My name will be written in fiery letters on the Champs Elysées.'"
These turned out to be prophetic words indeed.
At only 17, Yves Saint Laurent won a prize in a competition for the International Wool Secreteriat; his winning entry was a little black cocktail dress. Not long afterwards, the then editor of French Vogue introduced him to Christian Dior, then at the height of his fame. The couturier offered the teenager a job. Dior, it has always been said, had complete confidence in his young protégé and was always happy to give credit to his input.
It was, by all accounts, a young Yves Saint Laurent, not Dior himself, who designed the dress worn in Avedon's Dovima with the Elephants, the seminal fashion photograph of 1955. Less than two years after that picture was taken, Dior died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Saint Laurent, aged only 21, presiding over France's most high-profile fashion house, still at that point basking in the glory of the nostalgically romantic New Look.
The young couturier rose effortlessly to this onerous task not, as a lesser talent might have done, by continuing to uphold the values of his predecessor, but by transforming them. His first collection of "trapeze-line" dresses which, with their light and youthful silhouette, were a million miles away from the predominantly Belle Epoque line that the house stood for until that time, led an unusually hysterical French press to announce the following morning: "Saint Laurent has saved France".
In 1960, Saint Laurent was drafted into the army. He reacted by promptly having a nervous breakdown. The aforementioned Bergé, who had only recently met the designer, visited him dutifully in hospital, and so began an enduring personal and business relationship.
By 1961 the two were living together. Bergé sued Dior for breach of contract when the house refused to reinstate the designer following his illness and set up Yves Saint Laurent with the proceeds. Bergé continued to provide the business back up and supported his friend both emotionally and professionally throughout his career and long after their romantic partnership had ended. More than a few designers have since stated that, in order to succeed, every young designer needs a Pierre Bergé by their side. "Of course, those designers are quite wrong when they say they need me," he has said in return. "What they need is to be Yves Saint Laurent."
Over the 40 years that followed, Saint Laurent gave the world all the aforementioned wardrobe staples as well as the most intricate and perfectly restrained haute couture collections for a more rarefied client. Often dubbed the first named designer to democratise fashion, in 1966 he opened the first of a chain of Rive Gauche boutiques, responding to a new and less flagrantly elitist political climate.
Before Yves Saint Laurent, French designer fashion was only about haute couture – hand-made, exorbitantly priced one-offs that would only ever be worn by the privileged few – or cheap copies cobbled together by faceless pattern cutters and machinists. Responding to the surge in youth culture, Saint Laurent changed all this for ever, and throughout the Seventies and Eighties he was the designer favoured by the beautiful people in Europe and beyond. Bianca Jagger, Talitha Getty and Marianne Faithfull all wore Saint Laurent, paying biannual visits to his fearsomely glamorous boutiques, staffed by equally formidable vendeuses.
In 1999, Yves Saint Laurent sold the rights to the Rive Gauche label, as well as the beauty arm of the brand to the Gucci Group for $70m cash and royalties. Significantly, Yves Saint Laurent haute couture was never part of that deal. The unveiling of these twice-yearly collections was to remain a safe haven, away from the media circus that now surrounds the international shows, right up until Saint Laurent retired. Held in the Hotel Intercontinental, guests took their seats on rows of tiny gilded chairs and were asked to turn their mobile phones off before the proceedings started, s'il vous plaît. It is true that in Yves Saint Laurent's final years, there was nothing much new, but each and every time he appeared at the end of the catwalk with a blushing model in the final bridal gown, the entire fashion establishment never failed to rise to its feet in applause.
In the latter years of his life, Saint Laurent never spoke to the press. He did, on the odd occasion, respond to faxed questions, however. In 2000 I was told that I could send him a few of these but not to expect much back. The designer's answers were originally published in the style magazine, Dazed & Confused.
Saint Laurent said that his most cherished design was "the smoking, because it gave freedom to women. It also gave women the confidence to feel beautiful". He said that the most exciting thing in contemporary fashion was the fact that there are "no more rules, the freedom of dressing, the beauty of mixing vintage clothes with a pair of jeans that I love".
When asked whether the haute couture was the most prized side of his work he had this to say. "Yes, it is. I am very happy to design haute couture. It's a love story between couture and me".
The most exciting time of his life, he stated, was "my first show in 1962, rue Spontini and when I was honoured to be asked by Diana Vreeland to set up an exhibition of my work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1983". What makes you most happy?, I asked. "To come every day to 5 Avenue Marceau, all the people there are like my children; seeing Cubist paintings at the Beaubourg makes me very happy and also old films."
And finally: "Do you have any regrets?" "Not to have invented denim," came the reply.
In a suitably lavish tome published to celebrate Yves Saint Laurent's 40th anniversary in fashion, the late photographer Helmut Newton sums up his friend and close collaborator, thus: "Yves Saint Laurent has inspired my best fashion photos. The 'Le Smoking, rue Aubriot', in Paris; the man on his knees rolling down the stocking of a woman in a tailored suit at the Trocadero, a colour photo for French Vogue of all the mannequins in the couture salon; a series of couples in tailored suits kissing each other... I like the ambiguous side of his fashion for the 'grande bourgeoisie'. There are so few people with whom I feel completely in accord. And he, he is so touching, so fragile."
In the end, it is just that fusion of strength and sensitivity, of pioneering and ceaseless creativity and delicacy that will go down in history as characterising both the work and the personality of Yves Saint Laurent, the greatest couturier of the latter part of the 20th century by far.
The famous five – his greatest looks
The Mondrian dress (1965)
The first of many flirtations with fine art, these brightly coloured, minimally cut, ultra-short dresses, inspired by the late work of Piet Mondrian, again met with rapturous reviews. Later, Saint Laurent went on to reference everyone from Van Gogh to Picasso. He was always a keen collector and sponsor of contemporary painting. In the same year, the couturier designed Catherine Deneuve's wardrobe for the Luis Buñuel classic, Belle de Jour.
Scandal ensued when Yves Saint Laurent sent out a model bare breasted in a transparent, ostrich-feather-trimmed blouse – this was, surprisingly, the first time in fashion history such immodesty had occurred.
Le Smoking (1966)
Although Saint Laurent was not the first designer to put women into trousers, he did reinvent the man's tuxedo, putting it on the couture catwalk as an androgynous alternative to overtly feminine and frothy eveningwear for the first time. In 1969, he followed this with a trouser suit for daywear. "Le Smoking" remained an integral part of all Saint Laurent's ready-to-wear and haute couture collections until his retirement. It was most famously photographed by Helmut Newton in a dimly lit Paris alleyway in 1975.
Love Me Forever Or Never (1970)
Tradition decrees that "the bride" is the last outfit on to the catwalk at all haute-couture collections – an anachronistic flourish that continues, for the most part, to this day. In 1970, Saint Laurent sent his bride out in a velvet coat appliquéd with Love Me Forever Or Never – quite a move away fromthe usual white-meringue dresses.
Inspired by the great explorers, the designer took the safari suit – in khaki and with patch pockets – and transformed it into a chic urban uniform. Again, it was to appear in various forms on his runway throughout his career.