Yves Saint Laurent was one of the most influential designers to ever live. The Algerian-born fashion icon got his first training as a young teenager, when he fled to Paris and enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. His impeccable designs got him noticed and he was quickly introduced to Christian Dior, where he then spent years learning under Dior’s eye and rapidly gained a reputation for his dress designs. It was in 1957, just one month after the sudden death of Christian Dior, that Yves Saint Laurent was announced design head of the house. He was only 21 years old.
While at Dior, Saint Laurent managed to shock the clientele with youth-oriented collections and hemlines that hit above the knee. He was warned to tone down, but didn’t. In 1960, three years after he got hired at Dior, Saint Laurent was called to military service and dispatched back to Algeria. Needless to say, his time at Dior was over.
It was in 1962 when Saint Laurent decided to venture out on his own, showing his first couture show. While that one garnered mixed emotions, his second show in the same year had the press praising his designs, which was just the beginning for the rising fashion designer. Throughout his career he created iconic designs, such as his ‘Le Smoking suit’ and his ‘Mondrian dress’, which all propelled fashion to what it is today. Click through to discover five of Yves Saint Laurent’s most notable contributions to fashion.
Diversity on the Runway
While it’s not always the case, many modern-day runway shows feature the beauty of models from varying ethnicities. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, it is Yves Saint Laurent who is credited with putting women of color on the runway, as he was the first to do so. Supermodel Naomi Campbell owes a major career break to him, saying “’My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man. When I said to him ‘Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover’ he was like, ‘I’ll take care of that’ – and he did.” Not only did he broaden the scope of talent that hit the runway, Saint Laurent was often inspired by the ethnicity of the girls he cast, using them as muses in his collections. Take model Mounia, for example, who was the first ever black model to walk in a Saint Laurent show. Of Saint Laurent, she said, “I was his first black muse… He helped open the door for black models. Sometimes I was his confidante, and I would sometimes inspire his creativity.” Needless to say, it was none other than YSL who made waves in the fashion world by casting models of color and now thanks to him supermodels such as Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Alek Wek are able to shine on the runway.
The Mondrian Dress – 1965
Yves Saint Laurent brought art to fashion, quite literally, with his Mondrian dress designs in 1965. As homage to the work of artist Piet Mondrian (he also owned his paintings), Saint Laurent set out to make a set of color-blocked shift dresses made of wool-jersey. The three dresses, all identical in silhouette but differing in color placement, were dubbed the “Mondrian Look,” with their intersecting black lines and blocks of primary colors. The runway show in which he debuted these designs received a standing ovation, with one of the dresses making it to the cover of French Vogue in 1965. Its popularity was astounding and led to many mass manufacturers creating copycat versions of the sought after design, which quickly became the look of the sixties. But this wasn’t just your average shift dress; Saint Laurent constructed it with a true artist’s touch. Trying to achieve the flatness of a canvas, he set in each piece of jersey separately to perfectly reflect the order of the original Mondrian paintings, as well as hiding all the shaping in the grid of the dress seams, making it fall perfectly on the body. The Mondrian Look dresses are notably some of his most famous designs and demonstrate Saint Laurent’s ability to bring another form of art to the runway. Not a fan of the Mondrian dresses? Saint Laurent also designed eccentric pieces inspired by American pop-artist Tom Wesselmann in 1966, as well as Pablo Picasso in 1979, Henri Matisse in 1980 and Vincent Van Gogh in 1988.
Le Smoking Suit – 1967
In the mid-sixties, women’s wardrobes consisted of skirts, skirts and more skirts. Chanel introduced women to trousers in the twenties, but her famous tweed jacket that emerged in the fifties didn’t get paired with a pair of pants, it got matched with skirts. And stayed that way until Saint Laurent broke the mold and introduced Le Smoking, a tuxedo suit –and the first-ever of its kind made for women. Like Chanel, he borrowed a little from the boys. His design wasn’t all masculine, though, as it was paired with a frilly white shirt and satin accents. The strong lines of a tuxedo on a woman didn’t please everyone; in fact it was met with mixed emotions. Still, Le Smoking was revolutionary and many stylish women caught on, wearing Le Smoking or version of it in risqué ways, putting them on par with men, at least sartorially. It was chic, sexy, luxurious and classic, as Le Smoking lives on today in the form of a fitted pantsuit or blazer and trousers; even Angelina Jolie has been known to sport a women’s tux, right next her beau Brad, and look good while doing it.
The Safari Jacket -1968
Saint Laurent’s 1968 collection is credited with many firsts, including the first-ever women’s safari jacket. It made its debut just one year after he debuted his “Africa” collection, which featured shift dressed made of shells, raffia and wooden beads. His couture version of the safari jacket was once again inspired by the men’s version of the piece, as popularized by Ernest Hemingway on his 1933 voyage to Africa. In the fifties and sixties the pocketed jacket was worn by Clark Gable and Charlton Heston, amongst others –until Saint Laurent blew it out of the water. He took the jacket, whose history can be first found in the military, and re-invented it for women by creating a fitted, slim, belted version. And the rest is history. The re-invention of the safari jacket for women became just another example of the designer’s ability to blur masculine and feminine lines with huge success. Today, versions of a safari jacket can be seen on countless runways, from Balmain to Balenciaga.
Sheer Fabrics – 1968
What is now a fixture on the catwalk, once never existed pre-Saint Laurent. Another first in his 1968 collection was the use of sheer materials in his clothing and on the runway. Today, it’s not uncommon for a design to bear a little –or a lot– of skin, but Saint Laurent was certainly the first to do it. Saint Laurent envisioned clothing that was freeing, and he created that freedom with a sheer blouse, the first to hit the runway in 1968. It was such a scandal, as the model was bare-chested underneath, that magazines refused to publish photos of the design. The look starkly contrasted the earlier designs of the decade, which were more buttoned-up, and led women’s fashion into a new era. Today, sheer-anything regularly hits the runway without so much as a blink of an eye.
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