The history of the house of Saint Laurent is one of the most intriguing of the fashion universe. First of all, it’s the story of its founder Yves Saint Laurent, but it also depicts with love, business affairs, relaunch operations and great successes. Do you want to hear everything about one of the most iconic maison ever? Take a seat: The Blonde Salad is going to tell you everything about Saint Laurent!
The Fifties: the debut, Dior and the creation of the YSL brand
Yves Saint Laurent, of course, is the main character in this story. Born in 1936 in Oran, in French Algeria, he gained the spotlight at only 17 years old, winning the International Woolmark Prize. He shared this award with another rising star of the fashion industry, with whom he will share fame, friendship and even lovers: Karl Lagerfeld. Michel de Brunhoff, at that time editor in chief of Vogue Paris, sent some of his sketches to Christian Dior, that decided to immediately hire him as his assistant.
The French couturier recognized his protegé’s great talent. In August 1957, Dior told Saint Laurent’s mother that he had chosen Yves to succeed him: in October, when the designer died during a holiday in Italy, the only 21 years old Yves became the creative director of the house of Dior.
The first collection designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Dior in 1958 is a huge success: his Trapèze dresses are welcome both by press and clients. But the next collections didn’t gain the same appreciation as the first. When Saint Laurent found himself conscripted to serve in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence, the board of the brand decided to fire him. The news arrived at Yves’ ears while he was hospitalized after a serious mental breakdown, and it only exacerbated his conditions. He was given large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy, that Saint Laurent himself traced as the origin of both his mental problems and his drug addiction.
Back in Paris, Saint Laurent decided to sue Dior for breach of contract and won. After a period of convalescence, he and his partner, industrialist Pierre Bergé, founded their own fashion thanks to the financial backing of American millionaire J. Mack Robinson. This is the beginning of the history of YSL, the brand with this iconic logo designed by artist Adolphe Mouron Cassandre.
From the Sixties to the Eighties: success and excess
After only a year from his foundation, the house of Saint Laurent was warmly welcomed by fashion experts. Life magazine defined the first collection as the best suits’ collection after Chanel. Yves Saint Laurent understood it was the right time to work even harder, building a new closet for women and clothes with a more modern and empowering attitude. In 1966, he designed his famous tuxedo, that it’s still one of the most iconic pieces of the brand.
Yves Saint Laurent dressed his women in blazers, masculine suits, saharienne jackets. He’s also inspired by art, a passion he shared with Bergé (they split amicably in 1976, but kept on working together). One of the most iconic collections of that time was, for example, the Mondrian collection, inspired by the paintings of the famous artist. In the middle of the Sixties, Yves Saint Laurent decided to launch the ready to wear collection Rive Gauche. In that time, he also met one of his favourite muse, Catherine Deneuve: he would create for her all the costumes for Belle de jour movie in 1967. Other muses were Loulou De La Falaise and Betty Catroux.
In the Seventies, Yves Saint Laurent is the designer of the jet-set. He loved to spend his free time in New York, where he was often caught by paparazzi at Studio 54 or together with Andy Warhol, but also in Marrakech or Deauville, where he purchased with Bergé Jardins Majorelle and Chateau Gabrielle. In this decade, his drugs and alcohol addiction became even stronger. At the end of the Seventies, the maison launched his first beauty collection. Opium is its first iconic fragrance.
In 1983, Yves Saint Laurent became the first living fashion designer to be honoured by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with a solo exhibition. But this only the beginning of the first troubles for the brand. Yves Saint Laurent, whose health is in critical conditions, started to delegate the creative direction of the ready to wear collections to his design team, and he focused only on the haute couture ones. After the first financial troubles, the brand went public in 1989 on Paris’ Stock Exchange.
From the Nineties to the 2000s: the Gucci Group’s acquisition and Saint Laurent’s retirement
In 1993, Saint Laurent and Bergé decided to sell the brand to pharmaceuticals company Sanofi. The designer completely stopped to design ready to wear, and he named two designers at the helm of womenswear and menswear collections: Alber Elbaz and Hedi Slimane.
In 1999 the maison was acquired by Gucci Group, at that time lead by Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole. After the sell, the Texan designer, that turned Gucci into a global success, was named the creative director of the YSL ready to wear collections, while Yves Saint Laurent kept his role for the haute couture lines. The cohabitation became tense in a very short time. The French couturier didn’t like the sexy makeover of the American designer. Tormented by illness, the past abuses and a fashion system more oriented to revenues than creativity, Yves Saint Laurent retired in 2002 with a monumental haute couture fashion show at Centre Georges Pompidou, where he was surrounded by his muses and his favourite top models, such as Catherine Deneuve, Laetitia Casta, Jerry Hall, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, all dressed in his iconic tuxedos. The designer would pass away in 2008.
In 2004, Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole left the Gucci Group, after a not so amicably split with the new owner PPR (today Kering). Gucci’s throne was vacant, and so was YSL’s. Stefano Pilati is the one who took the baton from the American designer. Before working closely with Ford, Pilati spent some time at Prada. Since the first collection, Pilati brought back the archive in the collection, revisiting some of his most iconic pieces. Under his creative direction, the brand focused on accessories, launching cult items like the Muse bag and Tribute sandals.
After weak performances and the closures of important flagship store like the one in Madison Avenue in New York, Kering decided for a change. After the divorce with Pilati, the group called back Hedi Slimane. Former Yves Saint Laurent’s right hand and Pierre Bergé protegé, he came back to the maison after his great tenure at Dior Homme and a sabbatical period in which he focused on photography.
The 2010s: Hedi Slimane’s relaunch and Anthony Vaccarello’s new path
Hedi Slimane’s arrival at the maison was a big change. His decision to bring the creative studio in Los Angeles was crucial for the creation of the brand’s new style. He even decided to change the maison’s name, from YSL to Saint Laurent Paris. For the press, it was the first step of Slimane’s strategy to cancel the past, but it was actually the designer’s tribute to his late master: the new logo, in fact, was very close to Saint Laurent Rive Gauche’s one. The grunge attitude and the focus on younger customers divided the fashion system, but it was positively welcomed by clients. During Slimane’s tenure, Saint Laurent’s turnover passed from 350 million euros in 2011 to 1 billion in 2016.
Saint Laurent in 2018
With Vaccarello at his helm, Saint Laurent is one of the most successful brands of the fashion industry. The designer built its new aesthetics on sophisticated but contemporary imagery, also with the help of ambassadors and muses like Zoe Kravitz, Kaia Gerber and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Saint Laurent’s clients are crazy about cool and luxury fashion pieces. Do you remember the Swarovski crystal-studded cuissards Kendall Jenner wore? They went sold out in only a few days!
Our dearest Chiara Ferragni loves Saint Laurent. We saw her is Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello outfits in many occasions, for example at her 30° birthday party and at the launch of her advertising campaign for Pomellato.
The visionary creativity of Yves Saint Laurent is still a core element of the fame of the brand. If you want to know more about his personal story, you need to watch three movies: L’amour fou, a documentary dedicated to the love relationship between Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and the latest biopics Yves Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent, that in very different ways depict with the life of this great designer. Today his heritage is preserved to the younger generations by two museums in Paris and Marrakech, both promoted by Fondation Bergé-Saint Laurent. Pierre Bergé, who passed away in 2017, dedicated his last years to these projects.
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