Yves Saint Laurent: inside the Atelier

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The Fondation Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent holds an unrivalled archive at 5 Avenue Marceau, YSL’s former couture atelier: 5,000 couture pieces; 15,000 accessories; 35,000 sketches.  It is likely to become a museum in the next couple of years and I can’t wait to see the delights it will have to offer us.  Today, you can see the former couture sales suite with its green brocade walls, mirrored surfaces and pendulous chandeliers, and gain some sense of how special those clients were made to feel. It is in the studio itself though, that you really feel YSL’s presence.  The furniture has not been moved, even the famous glasses rest on the desk as if awaiting the next fitting.

It is a rectangular room with one wall of mirrors, one of windows and the others lined in shelves of books and files.  In contrast to the salon below, this room is clinical and functional: white walls and cupboards maximise light and the desk is a simple tabletop set on trestles.  Accessories sit in perspex trolleys like instruments in an operating theatre. Sitting on the desk is Christian Dior’s own measuring staff and the cane he used to indicate changes to toiles.  Behind the desk a moodboard bears pictures of muses, inspirations and the 4 re-generations of Moujik, YSL’s french bulldog.

The books lining the shelves are a mixture of art and travel tomes, though it was interesting to see Howard Gutner’s Gowns by Adrian on the desk while the exhibition of YSL’s 1940s-inspired “scandal” collection was on display in the same building. Looks from YSL’s Spring-Summer 1971 Couture collection – artfully draped evening gowns and the sharp-shouldered double breasted jackets – were strongly reminiscent of Adrian’s designs for Joan Crawford, crafted to balance out her powerful shoulders with sinuous tailoring. The primary inspiration for the collection, though was Paloma Picasso and her love for vintage clothes bought at Paris fleamarkets. She influenced him profoundly but moreover, she presented exactly the kind of young, artistic and stylish client that he wanted to attract, following the introduction of his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line in 1966. The resulting collection paid homage to her eclectic style and shocked the fashion press and his existing couture clients.  This was precisely his intention. Where the horrified audience saw ugly, mismatched, kitsch clothes that seemed to glamourize life in the Occupied Paris of the Second World War, YSL and his circle saw a style revolution, recalling a more feminine, romantic style after the beatnik and futuristic 60s.  Unsurprisingly, in the short-term it was a commercial failure. In the longer term, it set the stage for the romantic and exotic style of the 70s, established YSL’s credentials as a fashion revolutionary and set the foundation for the huge future success of the brand.

Walking around the exibition of that historic collection, it was striking to see how each look was styled.   Whilst Christian Dior had written about the importance of choosing the precise hat for a look, this YSL collection was styled precisely to look haphazard: tea dresses topped with masculine suit jackets or flower corsages on a shoestrap.  It made me wonder whether this collection also marked the birth of styling as we have come to know it: the art of the interesting and unexpected pairing, rather than carefully-crafted matching.

Today with a new designer, Saint Laurent is again recalling the past – this time the 1970s themselves – to appeal to a young and artistic clientele and this time with commercial success and media praise. The business team will be pleased; the communications team will be happy but the old revolutionary spirit should not be forgotten. YSL dedicated his work to a new type of client and as women attracted more professional power and confidence, his clothes – masculine styles, softly feminised – were the perfect backdrop for the transmission of “soft” power.

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