Yves St Laurent with a first-class stamp

YSL's couture classic, le smoking, is now available for under pounds 300. Ian Philips reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You're only 30 once, so you may as well celebrate in style. And the French-based mail-order catalogue, La Redoute, has decided to mark its 30th birthday with more style than most. The punky, flame-haired British model Sibyl Buck graces the cover of their latest catalogue, and inside, that most stylish of outfits -Yves Saint Laurent's smoking (or female dinner suit) - has been brought to mass distribution for the first time.

Also celebrating its 30th birthday this year, the smoking was created for the maestro's spring/summer 1966 collection. Since then, no Saint Laurent show has been complete without one. No self-respecting Parisian's wardrobe is complete without one, either. Fans include fashion icons such as Catherine Deneuve and Paloma Picasso. The former Saint Laurent muse LouLou de la Falaise wears the dinner trousers with pullovers during the day and Fergie is the proud owner of a made-to-measure suit.

In black grain de poudre with satin lapels and pockets, an haute couture smoking will set you back up to pounds 14,000. However, La Redoute's version could be yours for pounds 270. "The only difference is that the cloth is lighter than usual", insists Maime Arnodin, who is responsible for bringing the smoking to the catalogue.

Maime Arnodin, a warm and feisty 79-year-old, has been making her mark on the fashion world for more than 40 years. It was she who termed the phrase "pret-a-porter" when editor of Vogue's sister publication, Jardin des Modes, in the Fifties. In the Sixties, she brought sportswear to France; and in 1977, she and her long-time partner, the late Denise Fayolle, introduced the first designer into the pages of a mail-order catalogue.

"Sonia Rykiel was always complaining that people copied her. So we said, instead of complaining, copy yourself by making a more affordable outfit and sell it in Les Trois Suisses catalogue."

The likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaia followed, but when Maime and Denise left Les Trois Suisses in 1987, so did the designers.

In 1992, they started working for La Redoute and decided to have a guest designer every season. Issey Miyake created one of his lightweight wind coats for the catalogue and Karl Lagerfeld offered a black-and-white swimming suit. But still Yves Saint Laurent continued to elude them. "I had been trying to get Yves Saint Laurent into the catalogue for four or five years before succeeding," she says.

It was not the maestro himself who was against the idea. "Yves Saint Laurent has always been in favour of mass distribution," she insists. "He once said that he regretted not having invented jeans." Instead, it was the manufacturer who initially opposed the project. "He's still not very happy today. I think he still doesn't really know why he accepted," she chuckles.

For Arnodin, the smoking is "the symbol of feminine elegance". She admits to having three of them tucked away in her closet. "A smoking never goes out of fashion," she says. "When you have one you can accept any invitation."

How does she plan to better the Saint Laurent smoking for La Redoute next season? She admits to being at a bit of a loss. "It's not easy to follow the king of fashion and such a symbolic piece of clothing, but I've started to make some contacts." We'll just have to wait for the next catalogue in February to see what she has up her designer sleeve.

The La Redoute YSL smoking suit: tuxedo, pounds 180, trousers, pounds 90, waistcoat, pounds 65, skirt, pounds 80. Available in sizes 8-20. Freephone 0500 777 777.

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