Two looks at the serious pleasures of "Yves Saint Laurent: 40 Years of Fashion"
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.
Granted, many of Saint Laurent's repeat customers — those names printed on the bottom of the exhibit's explanatory cards like cartouches in an Egyptian temple — still went to charity luncheons, galas, and season openings. But clad in YSL, they could cause tongues to wag, cluck disapprovingly, or flutter with lust. Saint Laurent's 1971 '40s-inspired collection initially struck a sour note with fashion critics, who turned up their noses at what they saw as tasteless "Vichy chic." But looking at that collection's signature piece now — a sumptuous, acid green fox fur jacket with shoulder padding befitting a linebacker, or Joan Crawford — one sees a kind of social armor. It says, "don't fuck with me," in the classiest way possible. No wonder Naomi Campbell wore the jacket (with just a pair of tights and heels) in Saint Laurent's farewell retrospective.
"I'm the last couturier," Saint Laurent intones in a voiceover near the beginning of David Teboul's intimate 2002 documentary Yves Saint Laurent 5 avenue Marceau 75116 Paris. It's hard to scan how serious the gently self-deprecating Saint Laurent is being — although his visible physical frailty belies the sharpness of his instincts and his eye as he designs his final spring/summer collection.
Since Saint Laurent's death, fashion has become yet more rapaciously capitalistic and pragmatically democratic: houses have become branches in multi-brand luxury conglomerates, designers sell to both Target and Barney's, and haute couture has largely become an accessory to advertising. Saint Laurent's "last couturier" statement comes off as a declaration of purity in the face of such seismic shifts. A palliative for these sour times, "Yves Saint Laurent: 40 Years of Fashion" grants us unprecedented access to the beautiful world he crafted, whose dignity he sought to protect until the end.
YVES SAINT LAURENT: 40 YEARS OF FASHION
Through April 5, 2009
De Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden, SF
Second look by Kimberly Chun:
Menage A Trois: Looking And Longing And "Yves Saint Laurent"
TAKE ONE The flat, pop, almost banal brilliance of Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967) hinges not on tragically trite dungeon-mistress corsets but on the critical tension between the silently exploding, sexually exploratory interior life of Severine (Catherine Denueve) and her frigid-to-frozen good-bourgeois exterior, impeccably framed by Yves Saint Laurent's prim-chic uniform-esque daywear. These costumes continue to inspire imitators' collections today — who can forget the jingle-all-the-way opening scene, where Severine rebuffs her handsome surgeon husband during a carriage ride? Her suave Prince Charming abruptly orders their coachman to roughly drag his resistant, now-struggling bride into the fairytale forest — the brass buttons on the men's coats perfectly rhyme with those on Severine's five-alarm scarlet wool suit — where they tie her up, tear off that perfectly tailored jacket, whip, and molest her. Bien sur, this is just Severine's idle before-bed rape and violation fantasy, made all the more pungent by the perverse spoiling of Saint Laurent's exquisite getups.
At this point in his career, the designer was fully occupied, dreaming up four full collections a year — two for ready-for-wear and two for haute couture — composed of as many as 100 ensembles. Yet he still loved to design for stage and screen. This job led to a lifelong friendship with Deneuve. One iconic frock from Belle de Jour — the sublimely austere, black wool barathea A-line with proper white satin collar and cuffs — is on display at "Yves Saint Laurent," the exhaustive YSL retrospective at the de Young. An ever-so-slightly-hip-slung black patent belt nearly disappears beneath an invisible front placket closure: black on black. There may be more memorable outfits in the film — particularly the buttoned-up Severine's protective-shell outerwear — but this piece, redolent of maids, nuns, schoolteachers, and other archetypal images of traditional female service — throws the distance between Severine's desire for debasement and her icy, blue-eye-shadow-frosted hauteur into stark relief. It's a study in contrasts: puritanical, yet in its girlish, unconstrained, almost innocent lines — also found in the gray trapeze dress Saint Laurent dreamed up for Christian Dior in 1958 — it eschews the predictable sexuality of the previous era's "New Look," with its nipped waists and full womanly skirts.
TAKE TWO Saint Laurent never shied from fantasy, and the Orientalist/colonialist dreams of the designer, who was born in Algiers and spent much of his later life in Morocco, are in full effect at the de Young — Jean Paul Gaultier dined out on the hyper-exaggerated cone breasts that Saint Laurent first conjured in his 1967 African collection. But equally fantastic, if pegged to more utilitarian, workday pursuits, are the examples of women's wear influenced by salty Mediterranean seafarers, pin-striped swells, and animal-skin-clad hunters. Saint Laurent takes the functional and elevates it until it is almost painfully, acutely sensuous: witness 1968's suede thigh-high boots accentuating an all-legs Amazon, accompanied by a figure-masking suede tunic and visor-ed hood. Nearby is his first safari jacket from 1968, laces descending from the neckline above a hip-riding ring belt, shorts, and tall boots. Tom Ford borrowed such insouciant lacing to revive moribund Gucci in the '90s. Veruschka famously struck a pose in this outfit for the fashion press, but I can't help but imagine longtime Saint Laurent muse and his femme counterpart Betty Catroux as its genuine inspiration.
Less lioness than angular blonde whippet, perpetually booted, putf8um blonde, and a permanent member of her and Yves' imaginary band Les Saints (Catroux's maiden name is Saint), the androgynous Catroux — who haunted the exhibition's media preview at the de Young — was a mannequin for the house of Chanel when Saint Laurent spied her at a nightclub and insisted she work for him instead. A year after their meeting, Saint Laurent designed his first smoking jacket or tuxedo for women: "It was his first step in the exploration of masculine dress within a feminine framework," writes Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris (Back Bay, 2006). "The idea of girls dressing like boys and the tensions and attraction that could evoke was a daring new concept in fashion after a decade characterized by graphic, doll-like dresses, white tights, and bouncing hair." This huntress is the flip of Belle de Jour's anti-heroine — aggressive, sexually liberated, and ready to loosen those lacings.
TAKE THREE Bridal gowns inevitably close couture shows, and while some fabulist fashionistas might prefer Saint Laurent's opulent 1980 tribute to The Merchant of Venice-style Shakespeare or his outrageous but borderline gimmicky 1999 bridal Eve in a pink silk rose bikini, flower ankle bracelet, and train, I prefer the laugh-aloud audaciousness of his "queen baby" infanta/infantile 1965 bridal sock. Call it a divine bride-in-a-sack. Wittily foregrounding the untouchable yet phallic purity of bride-as-fantasy-virgin, Saint Laurent wraps his imaginary maiden in an intricately hand-knit, fisherman-style, ivory wool swaddling. The knobby knit encapsulates her head. Her arms disappear behind poncho-like slits. The designer's beloved ribbons and bows punctuate her face, waist, and ankles, and pilgrim-buckled shoes poke out beneath. This is bride as a baby bottle cozy, ready to pop — evoking some creamy, dreamy, organic future, as well as some alien yet recognizable, marriage-as-Iron Maiden past.