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Fashion world bids farewell to Yves Saint Laurent

Model-turned-first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, actress Catherine Deneuve and the Shah of Iran's widow were among mourners Thursday at the funeral of legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Green bunches of Yves Saint Laurent's beloved wheat dressed the yellow cloth covering his casket, which stood like a ray of light amid a sea of mourning luminaries clothed in funereal black, his favorite color.

Most women, his other passion, wore trousers at the final tribute Thursday to the designer who revolutionized femininity by making it glamorous to wear pants and lifted fashion to the realm of art.

Like apprentices paying homage to their master, celebrities clothed by the couturier and designers inspired by him joined in the funeral ceremony at Saint-Roch church, dear to the Paris artistic community since the 17th century. Actress Catherine Deneuve, her face drawn, her chin tucked into a black trench coat, bore a stalk of green wheat as she entered. She read a poem by Walt Whitman during the service.

Saint Laurent died Sunday night after a yearlong battle with brain cancer, at the age of 71. President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former fashion model who showed off Saint Laurent's collections on the runway, were among those present — Bruni-Sarkozy clad in black jacket, tee-shirt and pants. "This style, we find it everywhere, maybe not on the podiums but in the streets," said Pierre Berge, his companion and business partner of some 40 years, in a moving homage that recalled Saint Laurent's fashion debut and his extraordinary rise to fame.

Some of the world's top designers were among the hundreds who filed into the church for the invitation-only ceremony in central Paris: Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo Tekada, John Galliano and Valentino.

Among others bidding farewell were Farah Diba Pahlavi, the exiled widow of the Shah of Iran, models Claudia Schiffer and Laetitia Casta, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and former French first lady Bernadette Chirac. Hundreds more watched the ceremony from a giant screen outside.

Saint Laurent was born in the Algerian coastal city of Oran. His ashes will rest in neighboring Morocco, at the Majorelle botanical garden beside a villa in Marrakech that he and Berge bought years ago.

Saint Laurent was widely considered the last of a generation that included Christian Dior and Coco Chanel and made Paris the fashion capital of the world, with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, as its elegant headquarters.

He got his first break at the tender age of 21, named to head the House of Dior when the master died suddenly in 1957. 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.

Part of the designer's genius was empowering women without forsaking femininity and in the process changing the way women dress.

"It was truly a love story with fashion and, I would say ... a true love story with women," Jean-Paul Gaultier said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. His clothes "were the incarnation of the modern woman. ... His death won't change his work."

Saint Laurent's navy blue pea coat over white pants, which the designer first showed in 1962, was another 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.

"He changed couture through his art," said the Rev. Roland Letteron, considered a priest of artists, during the service. Saint Laurent used the art of fashion, Letteron said, "to expose the grandeur of life. ... It is more than brocade he prints on silk. It is light."

Applause rose from the guests as Saint Laurent's casket was taken into the flower-bedecked church near the Louvre Museum and Tuileries Gardens and placed before the altar, then draped in the silk cloth.

Saint Laurent was a national treasure and a French flag was laid over his casket at the close of the service. Fittingly, it was carried to the street, where thousands of fans unable to enter the church gathered ahead of a brief military ceremony.

"The street and me is a love story ...," Saint Laurent notably said in 1971 — the year, he said, that fashion finally "took to the street."

In his homage, Berge, the designer's closest friend, reiterated Saint Laurent's contribution to fashion, art and life.

"I don't know how to leave you," Berge said in his oration.

Such was the case for hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands more who never knew Saint Laurent personally.

The Rev. Thierry de l'Epine, pastor of Sait-Roch, said that he has received hundreds of phone calls from around the world. Some asked if they could stay at the church and many were there at 5 a.m. — more than 10 hours before the service.