“Tradition” and “heritage” are two words virtually nonexistent in the vocabulary of the late, French fashion-designer Yves Saint Laurent. Unsatisfied with simply imposing his style on staple looks, Saint Laurent dared to construct his designs based on the radical ideology of being different. With a focus on suiting contemporary women to reflect newfound status and freedom in post-1950s society, his bold designs rocked the fashion industry and liberated women’s wear forever.
The Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” pays homage to the designer’s accomplishments, displaying over 100 of his pieces, design books and personal effects. Walking through such an expansive exhibit, attendees witness Laurent’s brilliant 40-year career and the hand he had in establishing modern women’s fashion. The exhibit runs through January 8, 2017.
His vision for the importance of a garment’s cut, opposed to its embellishments, which was a standard convention of the time, made even the simplest of designs elegant and individualistic.
“He can make something that’s so simple look really extraordinary,” said Andrew Firman, a patron at the exhibit.
In 1957, when the 21-year-old designer took over House of Dior, his vision was put to the test. His inaugural fall collection met critical acclaim, and featured his piece dubbed the “Trapeze Dress,” which introduced a simplistic silhouette featuring a loosened waist, an early influence of the A-line cut.
Focusing on beatnik-inspired designs, and straying further from traditionalist ideals of women’s fashion, Saint Laurent was released from Dior in 1960. He then opened his own couture house in 1961, where he further developed his unique style, eventually becoming one of the biggest names in women’s fashion. His career culminated with one of the biggest innovations of the century: the women’s tuxedo.
Pairing high-waisted trousers with an organdy blouse and soft bow, Saint Laurent introduced “Le Smoking” in 1966, and blew the conventions of women’s evening wear out of the water. Smearing the line between masculine and feminine gender representation, he created something entirely different from the low-cut evening gowns that were customary at the time.
Further developing this gender-bending vision, the designer borrowed many menswear pieces for his future women’s lines and runways: motorcycle jackets, film-noir inspired gangster pantsuits, World War I British Army trench coats and aviator jumpsuits.
“I think it was this mind that was way before the times that are now,” said Bjork Del Riego, another patron at the exhibit. “He just drove it. The pants suits are everything.”
In 1966 Saint Laurent launched his self-named ready-to-wear brand, called Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, where he further challenged the norms of women’s couture. Rather than offering intentionally matched outfits, he proposed personal voice in the garments, and left women to create their own style. The construction of an individual look resonated with younger generations who turned their backs on haute couture, a symbol of inequality, in favor of jeans and t-shirts. Creating a more affordable and easier-to-wear style, Saint Laurent successfully built his brand on self-expression.
Saint Laurent’s deconstruction of ‘fashion’ and rise of individual ‘style’ is a motif that endures today, and 50 years from the launch of his ready-to-wear brand, it’s easy to see his influences. Not only did Saint Laurent expertly mix and match pieces to create a style, he found influence from artists like Andy Warhol to perfect his revolutionary women’s fashion movement. Women finally had more control over how they wanted to look.
“I’m really inspired by the bright colors and flatness of his pieces,” said Amy Elliott, winner of the Yves Saint Laurent student-fashion-design contest for the exhibit. “I love angularity and geometry, and really clean lines.”
Questioning the very fabric of women’s fashion, Saint Laurent reimagined what it was to “dress like a lady,” and forever changed the landscape of the industry as he redefined the use of clothing as a vehicle for personal expression.
“Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” is on display until Jan. 8, 2017, at the Seattle Art Museum, costing $15 with a student ID. Showcasing everything from the “Trapeze Dress” to the iconic, pop-inspired “Mondrain Dress,” the exhibit truly encapsulates Saint Laurent’s essence as not only a designer but a cultural visionary. His legacy is perfectly summarized in his simple quote, written on a white wall surrounded by some of his greatest works: “Fashion fades, style is eternal.”