‘If Chanel gave women their freedom, it was Saint Laurent who empowered them’ – Pierre Berge


London’s Institute Francais has just reminded us what made YSL the fashion genius he was.  The Institute held a panel discussion to celebrate the opening of The Bowes Museum’s new exhibition: Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal which offers us the rare prospect of a view of 50 items from the extensive archive collection held by La Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent.  We heard three contrasting perspectives on the genius of YSL that has left me mad keen to visit.

The show’s Curator, Joanna Hashagen, has brought out recurring themes from the designer’s 40 year career, from his appointment to head up Dior Haute Couture at 21 right up to his retirement in 2002.  Feminising masculine dress codes, modern art, transparence, exotic cultures, history were frequently referenced ideas that seem to have fed a constantly replenished flow of inspiration.  Hashagen has also included some of the designer’s background materials in the show and the accompanying catalogue.  Tidier than a moodboard, they show the sketch, fabric swatch, serial number, and catwalk model and order – an example of the very orderly organisation behind the inspiration.

Luke Leitch, the fashion writer, brought us up-to-date with a fascinating perspective on YSL’s legacy in fashion today. Could we see another YSL? Young designers today struggle to get their voice heard – partly as a result of the democratising power of social media and street fashion and partly from the struggle the compete for backing. But what made YSL great is as valid today as it ever was. He was motivated by the conviction that his clothes actively helped women to fulfil their potential. Anyone who has seen Helmut Newton’s iconic picture of the YSL Le Smoking trouser suit under Paris lamplight will identify with the empowering nature of these clothes. Similarly the vibrancy of clashing colour has helped countless female executives stand out with confidence in a sea of grey suits.

It was left to Meredith Etherington-Smith to convey the emotion of a YSL show. She attended the historic and controversial 1971 show, scorned by the contemporary press for supposedly glamourizing the horrors and collaborators of the war. Despite this, she emerged desperate to own a lilac chubby and ginger hair, overwhelmed by a collection that was “bang on the button”.

You can see that 1971 show celebrated in an exhibition at the Fondation’s Paris HQ until 19 July. On the strength of this fascinating insight, I’ve already booked my ticket. I’ll lay in my lilac chubby in advance.


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