Monday, June 2, 2008

Yves Saint Laurent Dies

It is a sad event, but the death of a famous designer makes headlines and provides a teaching moment to help make people more aware of the role of design in the world.

Yves Saint Laurent, 71, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century died June 1, 2008 at his Paris home after a yearlong battle with brain cancer.

Saint Laurent was considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel who made Paris the fashion capital of the world, with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, as its headquarters. Saint Laurent raised the stature of fashion while making it more accessible.

From the first YSL tuxedo and his trim pantsuits to see-through blouses, safari jackets and glamorous gowns, Saint Laurent created instant classics that remain stylish decades later.

Saint Laurent was born Aug. 1, 1936, in Oran, Algeria, where his father worked as a shipping executive. He first emerged as a promising designer at age 17, winning first prize in a contest sponsored by the International Wool Secretariat for a cocktail dress design.

A year later, in 1954, he enrolled at the Chambre Syndicale school of haute couture, but student life lasted only three months. He was introduced to Christian Dior, then regarded as the greatest creator of his day, and Dior was so impressed with Saint Laurent's talent that he hired him on the spot.

When Dior died suddenly in 1957, Saint Laurent was named head of the House of Dior at age 21.

He opened his own haute couture fashion house with Berge in 1962. The pair later started a chain of Rive Gauche ready-to-wear boutiques.

Saint Laurent's simple navy blue pea coat over white pants, which the designer first showed in 1962, was one of his hallmarks. His "smoking," or tuxedo jacket, of 1966 remade the tux as a high fashion statement for both sexes. It remained the designer's trademark item and was updated yearly until he retired.

Also from the 60s came Beatnik chic — a black leather jacket and knit turtleneck with high boots — and sleek pantsuits that underlined Saint Laurent's statement on equality of the sexes. He showed that women could wear "men's clothes," which when tailored to the female form became an emblem of elegant femininity.

Some of his revolutionary style was met with resistance. There are famous stories of women wearing Saint Laurent pantsuits who were turned away from hotels and restaurants in London and New York.

Saint Laurent's rising star was eternalized in 1983, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a show to his work, the first ever to a living designer. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1985.

But bouts of depression marked his career. Berge, who lived with the designer for years, was quoted as saying that Saint Laurent was born with a nervous breakdown.

When Saint Laurent announced his retirement in 2002 at age 65 and the closure of the Paris-based haute couture house, it was mourned in the fashion world as the end of an era. His ready-to-wear label, Rive Gauche, which was sold to Gucci in 1999 for $70 million cash and royalties, still has boutiques around the world.

Saint Laurent had long been rumored to be ill, and he had been afflicted with brain cancer for the past year.

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