Worn by Fame

Yves Saint Laurent changed women's fashion but the glory took a terrible toll on his fragile psyche.

I ran into Yves Saint Laurent on a Wednesday afternoon a couple of months ago at the Hotel George V having tea with a handsome young man. It was a rare sighting. Saint Laurent was wheelchair-bound by then and had become quite reclusive. He was terribly palsied-he could barely bring the petit fours to his mouth-but seemed in fine form nonetheless.


He was elegantly dressed in a charcoal-gray tailored suit with a colorful silk square pouring out of his upper pocket. He had a slight tan, most likely from his majestic riad in Marrakech. And as my 7-year-old daughter played with his French bulldog Moujik-the sixth or seventh Moujik by now-he smiled a crooked smile and chatted sweetly with her. I didn't think it would be the last time I'd see him.

But it was. Yesterday, Yves Saint Laurent, the man who changed the way women dressed, died in his home on the rue de Babylone in Paris. He was 71. There were no official reports of what he died from, but for me, it was obvious: 50 years of fame.

Born to a French lawyer and his stylist wife in Oran, Algeria, in 1932, Saint Laurent had dreamed of becoming a fashion designer since childhood.

At the age of 17, he moved to Paris and studied at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture fashion school. In 1954, he shared the first prize of the prestigious International Wool Secretariat award; his co-winner was Karl Lagerfeld.

Saint Laurent was then hired to work as an assistant to another titan of fashion, Christian Dior, and his profound talent was quickly recognized. When Dior dropped dead of a heart attack in 1957 at the age of 52, Saint Laurent was named successor. He was a mere 21 years old. His first collection the following year was such a smashing success that American fashion journalist Marylou Luther wrote, "The king is dead. Long live the king!"

But Saint Laurent's shyness, reticence, and fragility was greater, evidenced by the famed photo of him leaning out the window of Dior after a show as his fans cheered in the street. "He was already grave, distant, full of poetry, and mystery," Pierre Bergé, his longtime business partner and companion, told me.


Two years later, the French government informed Saint Laurent that he had to fulfill his military-service duties. The night before he left, he confessed to his friends who had gathered at a villa in the South of France for a farewell weekend that he couldn't face it. He was the world's most famous fashion designer and a homosexual: He would never survive in the military, he feared. After 19 days of boot camp, Saint Laurent suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to the mental ward at the Val-de-Gr�ce military hospital in Paris.

For six weeks, Saint Laurent was subjected to drug and shock therapy, and he dropped to 80 pounds. Finally, Berg� managed to get him released.

But it was too late: Executives at Dior replaced Saint Laurent with couturier Marc Bohan. Berg� decided that Saint Laurent should open his own house and raised the money to do so from a wealthy American from Atlanta. On January 29, 1962, Saint Laurent showed his first eponymous collection, and a brand and legend were born.

More importantly, Saint Laurent created a new vocabulary for fashion, one that is constantly referenced today. How many designers have told me during my 20 years of covering fashion that the inspiration for their collection was the strong, sexy wardrobe Saint Laurent created for Catherine Deneuve's character as a bourgeois housewife turned prostitute in Luis Bu�uel's masterpiece Belle de jour? Or that they based their designs on Helmut Newton's photos of women done up like men, dressed in sharp Saint Laurent pantsuits, lurking in the dark cobblestone streets of Paris?

Sadly, while his clothes revolutionized fashion, with each success, Saint Laurent died a little bit more. He took drugs. He drank a lot. He continued to suffer emotional collapses so often that Berg� famously remarked that Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown. Things grew so fraught for Saint Laurent that in the late 1980s, he was unable to complete a collection, and the show was cancelled at the last minute-an unheard of occurrence in fashion.

During the last 10 years of his career, the fashion community would gather twice a year at the Hotel Inter-Continental to watch yet another collection of what seemed like retreads of former glories on the runway, and at the end, Saint Laurent would come teetering out, bloated, with stringy hair dyed a strange hue of orange. We feared he might tumble off the catwalk. He'd slur his words as he accepted kudos from his admirers backstage. Was he drugged? Had he suffered a stroke? We kept wondering: Is this the last time we'll see him?

In 1999, Berg� pulled off the ultimate business coup, selling the Saint Laurent ready-to-wear brand Rive Gauche to financier Fran�ois Pinault for $1 billion. Rive Gauche became the cornerstone for the newly formed Gucci Group, Tom Ford took over designing, Berg� shuttered the couture arm of the company, and in January 2002, Saint Laurent took his last bow at a runway show at the Centre Pompidou.

I found it apt that Saint Laurent's farewell was staged in Paris' contemporary art museum: Saint Laurent himself was a great collector and a friend of contemporary artists, and he introduced contemporary art into fashion, like when he commissioned Claude Lalanne to create sculpted gold busts for gowns. I saw the gems themselves, not drably hanging on plastic mannequins in dimly lit museum cases, but alive, walking, moving, twirling. The geometric Mondrian dress. The Pop Art dresses. The African wooden-bead dresses. The tuxedos for women. Those Lalanne gowns. None of them looked dated. It was like attending a master class on fashion.

Two years ago, I went to Saint Laurent's office to interview him about Berg�'s latest project, the Fondation Pierre Berg�-Yves Saint Laurent, a private gallery space in the remodeled Saint Laurent headquarters on the avenue Marceau. I waited in the room next to Saint Laurent's office as he wrapped up a meeting with a couple who wanted to do a doll version of Saint Laurent cartoon character La Vilaine Lulu (or the Mean Lulu), a wicked little girl in a proper suit that Saint Laurent used to doodle and eventually turned into a book.

When the couple left, Saint Laurent's assistant went in to announce I was waiting. He was gone. He'd put on his coat and went out the back door. He still couldn't face the press, the publicity, the fame.

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