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Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria to a wealthy family. Bullied as a child, he kept to himself, making his own little world. In his youth, he created an imaginary fashion house called Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent out of paper. He used models from his mother's fashion magazines, dressed them in his own designs and even had his sisters pose as clients. In his late teens, he began to question whether he wanted to be a couturier or a costume designer but ultimately decided he would pursue the path of a couturier, later fulfilling his desire to make costumes with France’s top film directors, actresses and ballet dancers.
By 1954, Saint Laurent had won three International Wool Secretariat Prize categories and, after catching the eye of Michel de Brunhoff, the editor of French Vogue, he was introduced to Christian Dior. Brunhoff insisted that Dior take on Saint Laurent as an assistant, a decision that quickly proved itself to be the right one. Saint Laurent immediately made a splash and when Dior suddenly died in 1957, it was the young assistant who took over the house. His first Dior collection was a success but the following collections were made with consumers far younger than Dior’s primary audience in mind. Sales plummeted and, as quickly as he ascended, Saint Laurent was let go by Dior. His humiliating termination from the company, along with the stress of being drafted by the French army, resulted in a nervous breakdown. The medication he received did little to counteract the illness and he was ultimately discharged.
It would take the conviction and determination of Saint Laurent’s romantic partner Pierre Bergé to restore glory to the designer’s name. Bergé previously made his former partner, Bernard Buffet, a star in Parisian art circles and he was sure he could resurrect Saint Laurent’s career. Bergé and Saint Laurent were able to recruit the head of Dior’s design studio, press officer and model mannequin to join them. They enlisted Cassandre, the renowned graphic designer, to design the logo and received financial backing from American entrepreneur J. Mack Robinson. By 1961, Saint Laurent had the fashion house he imagined as a child, only this time without ‘Mathieu’, making it Yves Saint Laurent.
While the bulk of his work at Dior was criticized for being too ready-to-wear in what was still a couture dominant industry, Saint Laurent made the world see things his way through his eponymous line. His series of woollen shifts, inspired by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, inspired countless imitators which in turn, generated tons of publicity for the new brand. At a time when women were becoming more independent than ever before, Saint Laurent became the brand synonymous with individuality. The trouser suit, the “Le Smoking” tuxedos, and the safari jacket were all adapted from traditionally masculine styles but Saint Laurent repurposed them to bring a previously unseen power to the woman’s wardrobe. Saint Laurent went on to design both couture and ready-to-wear collections for his namesake company to great heights until 1998 when Alber Elbaz briefly took over as the ready-to-wear designer, who was then replaced by Tom Ford in 1999. Saint Laurent continued to design the haute couture collection until 2002, when that side of the business closed down completely.
Stefano Pilati took over when Tom Ford left Yves Saint Laurent for Gucci in 2004 but the brand continued to suffer, capitalized by the founder’s death in 2008. It wasn’t until Hedi Slimane arrived in 2012 that the brand would have the influence it did in its early days.
It seems like everywhere he goes, Slimane brings with him two things: change and controversy. One of his first moves at Yves Saint Laurent was to drop “Yves” from the brands ready-to-wear line; a move that many deemed disrespectful. At Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane made arguably a bigger impact than any high fashion designer of the 2010s. The skinny jeans he introduced at Dior Homme carried over to much success and the collections he debuted at Saint Laurent were mostly well received. Some of his most popular pieces for men are the Wyatt Boot, the Teddy Jacket, the L01 Biker Jacket, which are all sought-after to this day. Slimane’s rockstar-inspired collections resulted in massive growth for Saint Laurent but in 2016, Slimane made his unexpected departure from the brand.
Following Slimane, Anthony Vaccarello took over and currently serves as the creative director of Saint Laurent. Vaccarello’s Saint Laurent differs slightly from Slimane’s but so far, it has been successful.
Is YSL and Saint Laurent the same?
Yes, it is the same brand. The name was changed in 2012 by the creative director at the time, Hedi Slimane.
How do you pronounce Saint Laurent?
The phonetic spelling is “San-Lou-Ron”