Yves Saint Laurent takes Paris — again

PARIS, France — The iconic French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who died almost two years ago, is all over Paris this spring.

A first-time retrospective exhibition of Saint Laurent's entire body of work spanning 40 years opens today at the Petit Palais museum. A flurry of books and new editions of biographies are just out, such as Laurence Benaim’s emotional chronicle "Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent." A re-edition of "La Vilaine Lulu," an adult comic Saint Laurent had published in 1967 about a mischievous girl called Lulu is due out this month. Saint Laurent is also the subject of an album of 16 songs by Alain Chamfort that will be made into a musical next year.

“He was the absolute embodiment of the French couturier,” said Benaim, editor of the fashion magazine Stiletto, who met Saint Laurent while covering fashion for the French daily Le Monde. “He was a symbol of elegance, in a sense the heir of both Chanel and Dior.”

But one shouldn’t give him a nationalist image, she added. “He proved that beauty had no borders.” Besides, she said, “The burning sun of the Mediterranean was within him.”

Yves Mathieu-Saint-Laurent was born in 1936 in Oran, Algeria, which at the time was a French colony. As a child he made costumes for paper dolls and later designed dresses for his mother and sisters, which his mother had made by a dressmaker. Saint Laurent moved to Paris in 1954 after winning top prizes in the dress category of a design competition. The editor of French Vogue introduced him to Christian Dior and history was made. Dior took him on as an assistant in 1955 and two years later, at 21, Saint Laurent became the house’s top designer after Dior suffered an unexpected heart attack.

The exhibit at the Petit Palais opens with the first room dedicated to Saint Laurent’s creations for the house of Dior and includes his famous A-line Trapeze collection.

It was during his time at Dior that Saint Laurent met Pierre Berge, who was to become his astute business partner, and his partner for life. It was Berge who nursed Saint Laurent back to health after the first of many nervous breakdowns following a stint in the army in 1960. A year later Saint Laurent and Berge, with the help of an American backer, opened the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house.

A long corridor in the show catalogues Saint Laurent’s early work during which he provoked a “gender revolution.”

“Yves Saint Laurent understood that power lay with men. So he used men’s clothes to dress women, it was a transfer of power," said Berge at the press opening.

Saint Laurent’s pantsuits, jumpsuits and safari jacket were men’s clothes but they were sensual, seductive and feminine. “Saint Laurent spent his life thinking about women and their bodies," Berge said.

An entire wall of the show is devoted to variations of Saint Laurent’s “Smoking” suit, inspired by the tuxedo.

In 1971, Saint Laurent's controversial 1940s retro look was called “the ugliest show in town." Now Olivier Saillard, curator of an exhibition opening in April on the most beautiful contemporary runway fashion shows at the Arts Decoratifs, uses Saint Laurent’s 1971 collection as a marker for the beginning of contemporary fashion.

1971 was also the year Saint Laurent posed naked for photographer Jeanloup Sieff for an advertisement for his first perfume for men. For the Petit Palais show, 14 other pictures from the shoot are exhibited for the first time.

The designer’s “imaginary journeys” took him to Africa, Spain, Russia and China for his collections, when in fact Morocco was the only country Saint Laurent visited regularly. He also took inspiration from classical masters such as Vermeer, Goya and Velasquez, as well as artists including Picasso, Mondrian and Jean Cocteau. The exhibit includes costumes Saint Laurent designed for theater as well as for Catherine Deneuve in Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film "Belle du Jour."

The curators have succeeded here in synthesizing an enormous body of work in order to show the harmony in Saint Laurent’s creations. “He was neither a minimalist nor an extravagant baroque type. He achieved a balance,” said Florence Mueller, one of the curators, describing what makes Yves Saint Laurent so quintessentially French.

Saint Laurent’s ubiquitous presence in the French capital will continue into 2011 with a film due out next fall about the designer and Pierre Berge called "L’Amour Fou" ("Crazy Love"). In February 2011 a major exhibition of Yves Saint Laurent’s creations for his pret-a-porter line, Rive Gauche, will open at the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation.