Yves Saint Laurent at the Petit Palais

I had already been to the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective when it opened in March, but craving another look, I strolled over to the Petit Palais expecting to be ushered straight in. An hour and a half later I was still in the queue. It is a testament to both the wonderful curation of the exhibition and the enduring popularity of the designer that four months after the opening, you have to wait. And it’s worth it.

Saint Laurent’s transformation of women’s clothing is accepted and well documented. But this retrospective presents it in a new context. It is showcased alongside another metamorphosis, Saint-Laurent’s own. The texts that accompany the exhibition begin with a revealing description of Saint Laurent’s childhood: a shy boy brought up in Algeria, he escaped his loneliness by creating an imaginary Parisian fashion-house. In a few short years, his make-believe had become fixed firmly in reality. At just 21, he was named as Christian Dior’s successor.

Saint-Laurent transformed Dior’s styles from those inspired by the 19th century corset, into the groundbreaking “Trapeze collection”. Perfectly portraying this revolutionary collection are rows of mannequins standing strong in tailored sharp lines. Even a soft pink grain de poudre short suit, complete with bow and boating hat, manages to look empowering. Yet Yves was still seen as shy, reserved, despite being the young man who freed the swaddled bodies of women with the first jumpsuit, trouser suit, and of course the first ‘smoking’.

Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition is the photographs that show how Saint-Laurent turned his taciturn reputation on its head without uttering a word. Exhibited for the first time are 14 portraits of Yves taken by Jeanloup Sieff in 1971. These pictures ripped apart his public persona, and no wonder. A confident, smiling man sits naked but for glasses, and as YSL himself put it, in an almost “biblical” staging.  Indeed, the beard and flowing locks of Saint-Laurent are reminiscent of Christ, a fitting, playful and mischievous statement for the saviour of women’s fashion.

Two years after his death, Yves Saint-Laurent’s influence is still monumental, something I couldn’t quite fathom until I found myself admiring a mannequin’s patterned silk trousers, almost identical to the ones I was wearing. Admittedly I was not dressed in anything similar to the other half of the outfit, a top made entirely from stones and exposing more than it covered, but I was also wearing a blazer, a piece introduced and feminised by YSL back in the 60s. I am the girl who does not spend money on clothes, and yet when I woke up and dressed that morning, little did I know that it was Yves Saint-Laurent who had chosen what I was going to wear.


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