Beauty, reappraised

Two looks at the serious pleasures of "Yves Saint Laurent: 40 Years of Fashion"
Yves sees all

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First look by Matt Sussman:

The deYoung Museum's retrospective of the late, great Yves Saint Laurent's 40-year career designing haute couture comes at an awkward moment for fashion and its fans. With the country facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, "recessionista" is the buzzword du jour and Vogue and its ilk are trading their trend watches for old bromides such as "investment pieces" and "necessary luxuries."

This strange timing is certainly no fault of the de Young, which had the foresight to begin planning this massive retrospective (and to ensure that SF was its only US stop) in 2002, well before the designer's untimely passing last June. Amid the profligate bailouts, "Yves Saint Laurent: 40 Years of Fashion" not only offers up a snappy lesson in fashion history, it provides a necessary helping of that luxury so often promised, but debatably afforded, by public art institutions: beauty, reappraised.

Saint Laurent collected beautiful things — his homes in Paris and Marrakech were exquisitely appointed with Louis XVI furniture and paintings by Picasso and Goya — and he made the creation of beautiful things his life's work. One can walk through the exhibit and simply appreciate this — the jackets that flawlessly capture Van Gogh's brushwork through sequins; the evening cape that's a cataract of autumnal feathers. But Saint Laurent is a master because he consistently made all the paillettes and feathers and evening gowns and safari suits telegraph what Tim Gunn likes to call "a point of view."

Saint Laurent's point of view was that beauty is a form of power and nothing is sexier than confidence. "The body of a woman is not an abstract idea," he once said, "[A dress] is not made to be contemplated but to be lived in, and the woman who lives in it must feel herself beautiful and right in it." Even on unobtrusive mannequins, you can see how Saint Laurent's silhouettes were always conscious of — and gracious toward — a woman's body. Many garments would be as flattering on a 20-something gamine as on a woman in the fullness of middle age. Perhaps this is why Catherine Deneuve has continuously worn YSL since 1967.

This is immediately apparent in the two rows of garments, backlit in soft blue, that form the entryway to the rest of the exhibit. Here are all the Saint Laurent hallmarks: transparency, androgynous tailoring, the perfected detail — all executed with a sly playfulness and flair for drama. A 1968 evening gown of sheer black silk chiffon, with a ring of ostrich feathers discreetly placed just below the navel, shocks first with all that it leaves exposed, and then with its elegance. A more modest 1991 two-piece evening ensemble dedicated to ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire (to whom Joseph Cornell also paid homage), evokes the casual ease of a dancer's cool-down outfit — save for the exquisite bugle bead embellished hems. Several examples of Saint Laurent's signature Le Smoking ensembles — his feminine remake of the tuxedo — are also on display, each one a master class in fit and proportion.

The "Yves Saint Laurent revolution" was not merely a matter of taking cues from street style and changing social mores and gender roles. Like Coco Chanel before him, Saint Laurent's prerogative was to make clothes for women who wanted to dress for themselves, and not for the Social Registry circuit that still dictated the shopping habits of couture clients when he took over Dior, at the tender age of 21, in 1957.

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