From Exquisite to Tears
Well-designed clothing can be a work of art with lines so true and embellishments so exquisite they cause grown women and men to weep. I hope everyone has, at least once, the grand experience of being so moved by a couture gown or suit that they’re overcome with emotion, as though witnessing at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece.
Even people like me who have no sense of style and never learn what cut and shape best fits their physique can be drawn to the art of fashion like they’re drawn to study a Matisse or Van Gogh. Particularly when the designer is Hubert Givenchy, Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), a few of my favorites.
YSL (1936 – 2008) ran his own haute couture design house for 40 years, after being head designer at Dior in his early 20s. He was known for adapting tuxedoes to the female form and designing comfortable clothing for women. He also changed the fashion world when he used models from African countries.
My daughter Jaime and I recently visited Musee Yves Saint Laurent Paris, housed in his former couture salon at 5 Avenue Marceau in the 11th arrondissement. Lucky for fashion fans, beginning in 1964 YSL began setting aside specific designs after each show, with an eye toward eventually building a museum. The actual garments and all documents related to their creation were stored away.
The museum officially opened in 2016.
The interior of the museum is gorgeous, and how exciting to be in the unchanged salons where Yves held his fashions shows until 1976, and where patrons, including famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, were fitted for their couture pieces.
YSL’s design sketches are works of art. He could draw beautifully and was pulled toward theatre stage design and costumes, in addition to fashion. While young, he even created 11 paper dolls and more than 500 designs for them, including accessories, for two full fashion collections. He mocked up a program for each collection that listed names of the models, each piece, the location of the haute couture house and various suppliers.
Most of YSL’s designs were sketched in his Moroccan home and their prototypes were crafted by his team working in collaboration with artisanal houses back in Paris.
Haute Couture has strict rules that could drain dry any creative person. Two collections are required each year; the spring-summer season presented in January and the autumn-winter season shown in July. Each collection contains about 100 designs, including accessories.
His designs were inspired by African, Russian, Spanish and Asian cultures. He often drew upon the history of fashion and yet was adept at reflecting societal changes in his designs, such as the feminist movement in the 70s.
YSL’s design house employed 200 people and, like most haute couture designers, he collaborated with skilled craftspeople at French artisanal houses who used their own techniques and style to create various aspects of the clothing, including weavers, dyers, printers, embroiderers, plumassiers (deal with ornamental plumes or feathers), goldsmiths and silversmiths. One garment could take hundreds of hours to embellish. Ateliers producing high-quality commissioned work for YSL using skills handed down generation after generation included:
- Jewelry: Goossens
- Featherwork: Lemarie
- Textiles & Embroidered appliqués: Brossin de Mere
- Printed Textiles: Abraham
- Embroidery: Rebe, Mesrine, Lesage and Lanel
YSL said, “I like a dress to be simple and an accessory to be crazy.” Designing costume jewelry, rather than working with gemstones and precious metals, gave him more freedom in putting together wood, metal, rhinestones, beads, feathers, ceramics and passementerie (tassels, braids, fringing) in “crazy” necklaces, earrings and bracelets.
My favorite part of the museum was YSL’s studio on the top floor with windows to the ceiling, a wall of mirrors, Yves’ simple desk and work tables strewn with bobbles, sketches, embroidered pieces, Polaroid photos, feathers, etc.
Different from the fancy salons downstairs, YSL’s studio was bright and quiet and the perfect place to view models in prototype garments. He found that looking at the models and garments in the mirrored wall gave him the distance needed to evaluate each piece.
Oh, and shelves of books! Fashion, art books of other topics inspired Yves. “The most beautiful trips I took were through books,” YSL said.
There are six short films showing the entire couture process from sketch to purchase. Another film shows YSL’s long-term business and personal partnership with Pierre Berge, a relationship that lasted until YSL’s death from brain cancer in 2008.
The museum rotates the pieces on display, so it’s possible to visit the Musee again and again and not see the same things.
Sounds like a plan!