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Sarkozy leads global tributes to Saint Laurent

President Nicolas Sarkozy was joined by fashion giants from around the globe yesterday in paying tribute to the iconic French designer, Yves Saint Laurent, who has died aged 71.

Saint Laurent, a reclusive, troubled and lonely figure in his final years, was the first fashion designer to take account of the more independent lifestyle and greater career ambitions of women from the 1960s.

His life-long associate, and former lover, Pierre Bergé said yesterday: "[Coco] Chanel gave women freedom (in the 1920s and 1930s). Yves gave them power ... he was a libertarian, an anarchist who threw bombs at the legs of society."

M. Sarkozy said the world had lost "one of the great names of fashion, the first man to elevate haute couture to an art form."

The fashion designer, Tommy Hilfiger, said Saint Laurent was a "creative genius who changed the world of fashion forever".

Yves Saint Laurent was the last of the French pioneers, including Chanel and Christian Dior, who established Paris as the fashion capital of the world. His death late on Sunday night, after a long struggle against brain cancer, has plunged France into a kind of unofficial national morning.

Five television channels altered their scheduling last night to run tributes. The conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, devoted its front page to a near-royal treatment of his demise. The headline was: "The death of Yves Saint Laurent, the world's greatest fashion designer." Most of the rest of the page was occupied by a portrait of a young "YSL" in his distinctive outsized glasses.

Saint Laurent – who was born in Oran in Algeria as Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent on 1 August, 1936 – produced his first collection for Christian Dior at the age of 18. He started his own fashion house at the age of 21. That followed a brief, disastrous spell as an army conscript in which he was driven to a nervous breakdown after being mercilessly bullied because of his sexuality

A shy, self-effacing man, his gangling, startled look became part of his mystique. He caused scandal by posing naked – looking gangly and startled – for a perfume advert in 1971.

He was the first haute couturier to embrace the trouser suit, the leather jacket, the safari suit, the see-through blouse and, most famously of all, the dinner jacket for women.

He once said that "fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves."

However, he scorned the over-elaborate, "dressing up" side of fashion. He said: "To be beautiful all that a woman needs is a black jumper, a black skirt and a man that she loves on her arm." He also said that his greatest regret was not to have invented jeans.

After running into financial troubles, he sold his business to the luxury chain store group, PPR, in 1999. He then retired, emerging briefly to produce a lifetime retrospective show in 2002.

In retirement, he is said to have been increasingly depressive. "I've known fear and terrible solitude," he said. "I've known tranquilisers and drugs, those phoney friends. I've known the prison of depression and nursing homes. I've emerged from all this, dazzled but sober."

Of some of his successors, he said: "I've always been dead against the fantasies of those who try to satisfy their own ego through fashion. I've always wanted to serve women ... to accompany them in the great liberation movement."

His funeral will take place on Friday at the Saint-Roch church in Paris.