With his first retrospective currently on exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, it’s clear that fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent adroitly merged fashion, art and pop culture in one of the most prolific and culturally transformative careers in fashion history.
The last 100 years have seen an unprecedented cultural embrace of the avant-garde and variances in artistic expression. While this particular century saw multiple revolutions in self-expression during its five scores, it is arguable that none were so defined – nor so widely received and perpetuated – as the Pop movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Challenging traditional notions of visual systemics in everything ranging from furniture design to painting, from media advertisements to film, from music to social reformation, the Pop sensibility far exceeded the boundaries of visual art. During this period, the fashion industry likewise experienced its own notable transition – led prominently by French couturier Yves Saint Laurent, whose innovative designs and instinctive cultural sensibility embraced Pop art’s most infectious and universal proclivities, transforming relationships between the individual, culture and clothing.
Within the whole of the art world, the beginning of the century was marked by an appeal to the bourgeoisie. High art was placed on a hovering pedestal, dutifully representative of an attitude unintended for, and purposefully unavailable to, mass appeal. During this time, the fashion world had built its own “high art” regime, founding itself on the sacrosanct industry of couture – where the houses of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Balenciaga reigned supreme with their hyper-elegance and network of private clientele.
When a twenty-one year old Saint Laurent took over the House of Dior in 1958 after working only as an apprentice, the Pop movement was burgeoning on the horizon, and – led by visual innovators such as Warhol, Lichstenstein, Johns and Rauschenberg – primed for change. Seeking to appeal to those who had lost faith in the House of Dior, Saint Laurent inaugurated his position as head designer with the showing of his famous “Trapeze” line, which opened up and freed the feminine silhouette, featuring dresses with narrow shoulders and skirts that flared out from the bodice. Subtly playful, and antithetical to the constricted forms of yore, St. Laurent’s transformative “Trapeze” collection invoked the creative quest for change sweeping the international arts scene – as well as challenging the conventional predilections of the typical Dior customer, encased in high society and elite aristocracy.
After leaving the House of Dior, Saint Laurent created his own line, thus beginning la maison de Yves Saint Laurent. Embracing the sweeping Pop mentality, his Mondrian collection for Fall/Winter Couture in 1965 appropriated the iconic prints of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose color-blocked canvases evoked the busy-ness of French and New York urbanity.
After the success of his Mondrian prints, Saint Laurent followed this collection with his Pop Art collection of 1966. Producing novelty dresses featuring Warhol prints, and other Pop art imagery – red lips and silhouette appliques – this collection made the direct statement that fashion and art were intertwined, and that Pop was just as vital a force in the fashion world as it was in the art world.
With this collection, Saint Laurent had tapped into a shift in cultural mentality thus far unexplored by his contemporaries. As he continued producing collections, his interest in couture wained, a partial result of his increasing enchantment with the fashion industry’s most viable equivalent of Warhol’s mass consumerist ideals – prÃªt-Ã -porter. In September of 1966, Saint Laurent embraced his interest in Pop art happenings and transferred it in an unprecedented venue for fashion – his ready-to-wear boutique, Rive Gauche. By opening Rive Gauche, Saint Laurent created a forum for fashion in which consumers could experience and purchase clothing that was still of the high fashion tier, but more attainable in both price point and availability.
Beyond embracing the Pop movement through his appropriation of popular Pop imagery, Saint Laurent went one step further with his le smoking tuxedo – a design that not only changed the world of fashion, but the way femininity was interpreted. Although previous collections of Saint Laurent’s had included trouser suits, it wasn’t until his couture collection for Spring 1967 that he decided to make his smokings the main event. Hailed as the event of the season, Saint Laurent’s smokings incited one of the most positive and negative critical explosions in the fashion world to date.
Until this point, fashion had never experienced such a grand transformation, especially not one that set itself out to appeal to mass culture, or sanctioned gender roles. Saint Laurent’s insistence on prÃªt-Ã -porter, while challenging the traditions of couture and the expected shapes of women’s wear, was the birth of fashion as a mass-produced, worldwide affair, and one of the most influential periods in fashion history.
“It pains me physically to see a woman victimized, rendered pathetic, by fashion,” Saint Laurent once said. For with him, as with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Coco Chanel, James Rosenquist, Azzedine Alaia, and many other seminal Pop artists and designers, one of the primary components of their art and fashion was that it was built and structured to be readily consumed and enjoyed by those seeking to appreciate fashion and art. The constraints of designing and creating for those who could only appreciate it on a heightened level was unappealing for those of the Pop sensibility. Their choice to risk criticism for the sake of experimenting with and engaging their creative endeavors in an exploration of the avant-garde thrust art and fashion into a cultural spotlight unlike any other. Despite the outspoken critics of their time, it is with deep fondness and reverential gratitude that those in fashion and art today look back on their courageous contemporaries. For Saint Laurent, the fame, although welcome, was merely a byproduct. Pleasure and acceptance from the masses was the greatest reward of all.
1. Yves Saint Laurent at Rive Gauche
2. YSL Spring 1967 Smoking Tuxedo
3. Yves Saint Laurent’s House of Dior Trapeze Collection
4. Naomi Campbell Models YSL
5. YSL Mondrian collection for Fall/Winter 1965 Couture
6. YSL Picasso Influence
7. YSL Matisse Influence
Image Layout: Tiffany Carlin