The Tortured Genius of Yves Saint Laurent

His wildly successful professional life hid a deeply painful personal one.

Many designers are rewarded for their ability to self-promote, hob-nob with celebrities and build empires. But Yves Saint Laurent was the real deal – a true genius who viewed fashion as an art form, and who designed clothes that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. But, like many artists, his successful professional life covered up a tortured private one muddled by substance abuse and personal unhappiness.

Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent was born in 1936 to a close-knit French family in Oran, Algeria. He was a shy, sickly child who was bullied in school. He found solace by creating intricate paper dolls and designing dresses for his mother and sister. At 17, he won a fashion contest which led to a meeting with Christian Dior who, sensing a design kinship, immediately hired him. By 21, Saint Laurent was the lead designer of the most successful fashion house in France.

But, difficulties ensued. After his 1960 Dior collection failed, Saint Laurent was conscripted by the French Army – an excuse Dior used to dismiss him. Furthermore, he was deemed unfit for war, placed in a mental hospital and diagnosed with manic depression. After recovering, he sued the house of Dior for wrongful termination, took the money and – along with his lover and business partner – Pierre Berge – he started YSL.

Yves Saint Laurent with his muses - Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise - wearing safari suits circa 1970.

Yves Saint Laurent with his muses – Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise – wearing safari suits circa 1970.

YSL quickly became a household name. But, Saint Laurent’s rapid sucess was peppered with mental instability, addiction to drugs and a wildly unstable personal life (his relationship with Berge resulted in a break-up, though the two remained business partners). He buried his shyness and anxiety in substance abuse. He was an excessive partier, constantly surrounded by his entourage of models, lovers and hanger-ons. He often got so drunk at fashion shows that he had to be carried out by models.

It is possible that Saint Laurent’s demons made him very sensitive to the social trends around him which, in turn, helped him create some of the biggest disrupters in fashion history: the Mondrian collection of cocktail dresses in 1965; the safari suit and jacket (as seen above) of the 1970’s; and, of course, the glorious female tuxedo Le Smoking in 1966. Le Smoking was radical: a suit for women that was meant to emulate the clothing worn by men of influence and power. It paved the way for the female power suit and it is still worn by celebrities today.

Three versions of the legendary Le Smoking female tuxedo. 1966, 2002, 2006.

Three versions of the legendary Le Smoking female tuxedo. 1966, 2002, 2006.

Today, led by Hedi Slimane¬†and known simply as Saint Laurent, the house still embodies old-world glamour and natural elegance that, somehow, stays modern and relevant to changing social trends. Maybe it was because YSL himself made clothes that were so rooted in his own turmoil, sensitivity and sharp observations of his environment. His New York Times obituary put it the best by saying that Saint Laurent “pointed the way to the future by consistently reviving the past.”

YSL died in Paris in 2008 and is buried in Marrakech, Morocco in the Jardinelles, a house and botanical garden that Saint Laurent bought in the 1980’s and used as a place of refuge.

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