What makes a frock rock? Taffeta and tulle will take you only so far, say organizers of a new exhibit celebrating the work of visionary designer Yves Saint Laurent.
“If you want the dress to be not only a dress ... you need an artist,” said Pierre Berge, Laurent's longtime partner and one of the people behind the retrospective which opened exclusively at San Francisco's de Young museum this month.
Saint Laurent, who died earlier this year at age 71, was known in the design world as a revolutionary who knew what women needed as well as what they wanted. He famously shook up style rules in the '60s by making pants fashionable for evening with his famous "le smoking" — a sleek, black tuxedo.
But he was much more than a clever couturier, say exhibit organizers.
“We think that he is the great modern master and that his voice was unique and singular among many,” said John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which include the de Young. “We're also particularly interested in the influence of art and artists on his work and that, as filtered through his own unique vision, has given us something that is different and unusual and sets him apart.”
The collection references Saint Laurent's knack for drawing inspiration — from artists to the animal world with stops at Russia, Africa and China in between.
Bathed in soft light, the clothes are displayed on mannequins grouped together in a manner evocative of people at a very well-dressed party.
Strongly cut suits and elegant dresses underscore the designer's staying power.
“Almost every one of these outfits could walk right out of these galleries today,” said Dede Wilsey, president of the board of the Fine Arts Museums, which include the de Young. “I think that is a great tribute to Saint Laurent, to be able to produce something in 1960 that is as timely as 2008.”
The exhibit came about through the friendship between Buchanan and Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen, former directrice of the YSL haute couture salon.
The baroness introduced Buchanan to Berge, (Ber-ZHAY), chairman of the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris, where thousands of the designer's outfits are stored. The result, a collaboration between the foundation, the San Francisco museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is the first major retrospective of Saint Laurent's work in 25 years.
In addition to 130 outfits, the show includes sketches by the designer, accessories, audio recordings and video of Saint Laurent's last show in Paris in 2002.
YSL muse Betty Catroux was among those on hand for opening festivities in San Francisco, offering a uniquely personal slant on the designer's work.
“I met him in a nightclub in Paris one night,” said Catroux, still striking with a mane of white-blonde hair, dark sunglasses and skinny, skinny jeans. “He just picked me up with his eyes and he wanted to meet me. He's very shy, so he invited me to his table through somebody and we never left each other.”
Catroux sees her influence in the exhibit's sharply tailored jackets and pants.
“I was always the same. When he met me I was in jeans with a man's jacket or a T-shirt,” she said. “I've always been like that, but of course he made it more sophisticated and more beautiful.”
The exhibit shows other sides of the designer with elaborately beaded and embroidered gowns and a dress comprised of primary colored squares based on the work of artist Piet Mondrian.
“To achieve something creative, an altogether beautiful costume that is wearable and together very inventive, it's a kind of art,” said guest curator Florence Muller, fashion historian and professor at the Institut Francais de la Mode in Paris.
To Berge, Saint Laurent was someone who did more than change fashion. “He has changed the life of women,” he said. "He gave women confidence in themselves.