Master bows out with a lesson in simple dignity

By Susannah Frankel
Wednesday 23 January 2002 01:00

The huge impact that Yves Saint Laurent made on French culture was proved last night when his swan-song haute couture collection shown to the privileged few at the Pompidou Centre was also aired live to the Parisian public on two screens that flanked either side of the landmark.

The master of French fashion would not have been disappointed by the crowds that gathered round as guests filed in, all waiting to take in many of the greatest pieces of his archive, worn by models for the last time before Saint Laurent's retirement.

Here was the famous wedding coat embroidered with the words Love Me Forever Or Never, there was the famous Le Smoking Tuxedo, first shown in 1966, borrowed from menswear and designed to free women from the overtly feminine evening dress.

Here was the African collection ­ Saint Laurent originally showed it on black models and was the first fashion designer to do so ­ rubbing shoulders with the iris jacket, inspired by Van Gogh's great painting and, as fashion legend has it, made out of more than 170,000 beads.

If ever a reminder was needed that every day in the life of a modern woman and her wardrobe is touched by this designer, this was it ­ from the gleaning crocodile leather jackets inspired by the Beat movement to the suede tunic and thigh-high boots, from the feathered, black chiffon evening dress to the strong-shouldered trouser suit. These and more have become so much part of our dress code that it would be all too easy to take them for granted, but it should be remembered that Saint Laurent gave them to us first.

Above all, given that today's fashion industry has become a gratuitous flesh bearing, celebrity courting, marketing machine, this was a lesson in dignity. There was no show-stopping hair and make-up, no look-at-me must-have accessories, this was simply all about clothes, some of the most beautifully made and elegant clothes the world has seen.

Far from wishing to exploit women better to promote his own ego, Saint Laurent's motive is to serve them, to show off his client to her best possible advantage, be she thin or not too thin, tall or small, black or white. It says something about our celebrity-saturated times that such a purist stance is as radical now as the designer's establishment of so many fashion favourites in the Sixties and Seventies was then.

As the clothes reflected the greatest moments of past decades, so did the parade of models: Jerry Hall and Mounia from the Seventies; Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Carla Bruni from the Eighties; and Trish Goff, Jodie Kidd and Alek Wek from the Nineties. Neither these woman nor the clothes will ever been seen together on the same stage again.

Saint Laurent first announced at a press conference two weeks ago that this show would be his last. His long-time business partner and former lover, Pierre Berge, attributed the designer's retirement at least in part to a disenchantment with the contemporary fashion industry as a whole.

"He [Saint Laurent] no longer feels at ease in a world where people use women instead of serving them,'' Berge said. "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 was more diplomatic. "I tell myself that I created the wardrobe of the contemporary woman, that I participated in the transformation of my times," he said.

His final offering, shown exactly 40 years after his first, went to prove once again that this is the case. As the designer stepped out to take his final bows, serenaded by his great friend Catherine Deneuve singing the French love song "Ma Plus Belle Rencontre C'est Toi", there was barely a dry eye in the house. That was, in the end, only fitting.

Of all the designers working over the past 100 years, Yves Saint Laurent has been the most important, the most consistently influential. Despite notoriously fragile health, battles with drug and alcohol dependency and huge nervous instability, he has continued to enthral his audience.

The 20th century belonged to Yves Saint Laurent. The 21st will be a far less beautiful place without him.

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