YSL turns his back on fashion after 40 years at the haute of couture

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With much dignity, and considerable courage, the famously reclusive Yves Saint Laurent, 65, appeared in person yesterday to announce his retirement.

For years, the notoriously fragile designer has been fiercely protected from the press, refusing to give face-to-face interviews or be photographed, but he sat in front of a roomful of reporters at his Paris headquarters.

Reading from a piece of paper, head bowed, dressed in black and visibly moved, he said he would be bidding "adieu" to fashion. And so the world's last great couturier steps down, ending a stellar career of more than 40 years.

"I tell myself that I created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman, that I participated in the transformation of my times," Saint Laurent said. "For a long time now, I have believed 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, I have chosen today to bid adieu to the profession that I have loved so much. My next fashion show, held on January 22, will be my last."

It is no secret that Saint Laurent has battled with ill-health and depression for many years. "I was born with a nervous depression," he told the French daily Le Figaro in 1991 after a stint in rehabilitation. Yesterday, he attributed his success at least in part to that same frailty.

Finally he thanked Francois Pinault, whose Artemis holding company presides over Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, for "allowing him to harmoniously put a full-stop to this marvellous adventure and for believing, as I do, that the haute couture of this house should stop with my departure".

The designer departed immediately after reading the statement, leaving his long-time business partner and former lover, Pierre Berge, to answer any questions. It was, of course, Berge who memorably once said when his friend was at his lowest ebb: "When the time comes, I will decide, without hesitation to close down the couture house.

"I must do that for Yves. It would be a nonsense to carry on without him. Look at Chanel without Madamoiselle Chanel, and Dior without Christian Dior. It is more than nonsense. It has no integrity, it is a sham." He appears to have been true to his word.

But, according to Berge, Saint Laurent appears to be retiring in part because he is uncomfortable with the direction the fashion world is taking. "He no longer feels at ease in a world where people use women instead of serving them," he said. Alluding to Saint Laurent's status at the top of the fashion industry tree, he added: "We have entered the era of marketing at the expense of creativity. It's not much fun playing a tennis match when you are all alone."

It's no secret that all has not been well at the house of Yves Saint Laurent for some time. Despite critical acclaim for every recent collection, speculation that he would finally retire because of ill health has persisted for the past 10 years.

In 1998, when Saint Laurent gave up the ready-to-wear arm of his label, Berge said that the designer did not feel part of "the circus" fashion had become. In 1999, the YSL Group was bought by Gucci, leaving Saint Laurent in charge only of haute couture, in which every garment is hand-crafted and sells for tens of thousands of pounds.

The battle lines were drawn last year when Gucci's creative director, Tom Ford, announced that he would no longer require the services of one of Saint Laurent's appointees, Hedi Slimane, as designer of YSL Rive Gauche menswear, and that he would henceforth be designing the collection himself. Slimane wasted no time moving across to the arch-rival house Christian Dior, owned by LVMH. Saint Laurent pointedly took pride of place at the unveiling of Slimane's Dior Homme collection but failed to attend Ford's debut YSL Rive Gauche menswear collection.

All of this, however, should not now be allowed to detract from Yves Saint Laurent's position as perhaps the most important designer of the 20th century. Born Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent on 1 August 1936 in Oran, Algeria, he was plagued with neuroses from an early age, taunted by his classmates, he says, for his homosexuality. But this fragility furnished him with an unswerving ambition to succeed. "I told myself repeatedly, 'One day you will be famous'," he has said. "My name will be written in fiery letters on the Champs-Elysées."

Fame wasn't long coming. At 17, he won a prize in a competition for the International Wool Secretariat for a little black cocktail dress. Not long after that he was introduced to Christian Dior, then at the height of his fame in the heyday of the New Look.

When Dior died suddenly, less than two years later, Saint Laurent, aged only 21, found himself presiding over France's most high-profile fashion house. He was, and remains, the world's youngest couturier. His first collection for Dior, featuring "trapeze line" dresses –- fitted to the waist then short and flared – earned him headlines that were hysterical even by fashion standards. "Saint Laurent has saved France" they bellowed.

In 1962, Saint Laurent, in partnership with Berge, set up his own house and, since that time, has been almost singlehandedly responsible for the reinvention of the modern woman's wardrobe.

It is testimony to Yves Saint Laurent's enduring status as the world's most famous fashion designer that in 1999, the French government stamped the last franc coins minted before the introduction of the euro with his image. Small wonder, then, that despite the designer's own misgivings over the monster designer fashion has by now become, fashion responded yesterday only by paying him tribute.

The last word goes to Alexander McQueen, the young British designer who sold a 51 per cent stake in his business to Gucci just over a year ago and who is at the forefront of contemporary fashion today. Speaking from his London office, McQueen said simply: "Long live the king."